By Francisco Rodrigues, Center for Social Studies – University of Coimbra
The escalation of the COVID-19 crisis into a global pandemic brought about unique set(s) of circumstances and resulted into a period of uncertainty and inconvenience, as the paradigm of social and professional relations quickly shifted.
Much has been written and discussed about the possibilities of accelerating progress on various fronts, by capitalizing on the adaptations and solutions brought about by this new reality. The same logic can be applied to the higher education context and gender equality, by recognizing and understanding the many issues, both new and old, that the current crisis brings (see, for example, Malisch et al, 2020), in order to identify any windows of opportunity that may exist.
Uncertainty, by its essence, raises questions. Combined with inconvenience in the form of loss, harm, or drawbacks, it may become the incentive for the development of answers: solutions towards effectiveness, comfort, productivity and the overall betterment of the situation.
Communication technologies in general, and the Internet in particular, have been instrumental in the development of the current workplace, as their ever-growing ability to communicate instantly, more effectively, and providing tools to solve more complex problems is the defining feature of the present moment in almost every sector of activity. However, there is an inescapable lag between technological development and its widespread use.
Many higher education institutions are clear examples of this, integrating newer technologies at slower paces due to a variety of factors, such as scale – large numbers of staff and students; internal variability – multiple campuses, units, types of staff and areas of activity; non-profit purpose – making funding and liquidity dependent on external sources; and traditional organizational structures – bureaucratic and hierarchical, with multiple governing bodies and levels of autonomy.
E-learning is an interesting example, an area that has been in development and that became mandatory during the pandemic. Since it has not been a priority in many institutions, responses were varied in terms of quickness, quality and sustainability. In general, there seem to be two main takeaways: one negative, as the immediate surge of demand presented issues of inequality and inclusivity beyond the inter-institutional. Within institutions, systems and procedures had to support a much greater variety of student and teacher contexts (gendered family structures and responsibilities, disparate internet access and digital competencies, disabilities and impairments…) at the risk of deepening existing inequalities. One positive, as it highlighted that physical proximity is not a requirement for quality education, as long as teaching and assessment solutions are aptly adapted. Information technologies have been organically gaining ground and have proven to be a powerful tool that can be used strategically to improve the quality, inclusivity and sustainability of the higher education sector.
In tandem, work-life balance provisions, a cornerstone of feminist approaches to gender equality in higher education (and the workplace in general) became a topic of public concern and debate. On one hand, the viability of telework and flexible work schedules for many roles was demonstrated when people were forced to work from home. On the other hand, this was far from an idyllic scenario, as it gave way to generalized negative tendencies (EC, 2020 ; Rodier, 2020) and specific problems, such as the steep decline in the submission of scientific papers by female authors (and sometimes an increase in male authorship), suggesting that the domestic workload became an even greater burden for women, leaving less time for research activities (Vicent-Lamarre, Sugimoto, Larivière, 2020). Once again, this double-edged sword may be positively thrusted, as the discussion on ways to move forward unravels and gains institutional and political traction, with efforts towards swift and effective solutions (Vargas Llave, Weber, 2020).
As a final remark, specifically towards the development of post-COVID gender sensitive policies, it should also be noted that in a return to “normalcy”, the gendered dynamic will not be the same in regards to multiple variables, such as the constant presence of children at home, homeschooling, mental health, free time use. This means measures and strategies developed to take into account the COVID confinement are likely suitable for future scenarios that are not as extreme. Therefore, if upcoming policy changes are done taking into account this experience and gender equality aspects, they may be transformed into opportunities to advance gender mainstreaming, both in the particular effects of the COVID pandemic and transversal issues, making institutions more resilient to future social crises.
In the last face-to-face event many of us attended before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation hosted a workshop on “Fostering institutional change through Gender Equality Plans (GEPs) and the way forward towards Horizon Europe” on 4thMarch in Brussels. The workshop was attended by a range of participants involved in structural change projects across the EU, including project coordinators, evaluators and team members, with the aim of strengthening gender equality provisions in the future EU funding programme Horizon Europe, building on a series of co-creation and outcomes of consultation with stakeholders. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge our Italian colleagues who were unable to join in person, and connected from home, in a way that we would all come to know as normal in the months that followed. This article highlights some of the main discussions and recommendations. A full workshop report will also be published by the European Commission later this year, along with an in-depth analytical review of structural change for gender equality in research and innovation.
Opening the workshop, Jean-Eric Paquet, Director-General, DG Research and Innovation, European Commission highlighted that all public institutions will be required to design and implement a gender equality plan in order to be eligible for funding under the Horizon Europe Framework Programme. Mina Stareva, Head of Sector Gender, E5-Democracy & European values, DG Research and Innovation outlined the key pillars of Horizon Europe and how provisions for gender equality have been strengthened at the level of implementation and targeted support, and invited participants to be “bold, frank, direct and ambitious” in their contributions. Invited speaker Marcela Linkova, Coordinator of the GENDERACTION project, noted that this is a very exciting time for people working on structural change, particularly for countries that are less advanced in gender equality in research and innovation.
Following in-depth discussions of key questions, recommendations were developed in three areas. In terms of implementing gender equality plans and good practices, recommendations included: embed a focus on the process in structural change projects – participation, ownership and reflexivity; spread responsibility for GEP implementation across the whole institution in order to increase accountability for successes and failures; and develop support structures for core teams in the form of time and resources, as well as make such work visible within the overall academic culture. Recommendations to further gender equality plans included: develop synergies between the Research and Innovation Framework Programme and Structural Funds; engage civil society more substantively in structural change in research and innovation, in particular in relation to SDG 5; and consider how to strategically engage the private sector in funding aspects of GEP implementation. Finally, the participants discussed how to support gender equality plans, such as: establish a Competency Centre on Gender with an integrated Helpdesk and capacity development component; and set up a Gender Equality Taskforce to facilitate regular contact between relevant actors and stakeholders.
Three over-arching take-away messages were drawn from the workshop discussions. First, the need to focus on process, not outcomes. Second, the importance of a reflexive approach. Third, the value of participation in building consensus and ownership for gender equality across an institution. Fourth, the need to explicitly acknowledge the highly political and politicised nature of structural change.
In conclusion, participants agreed that ongoing mutual learning and critical reflection – both within research and innovation and more broadly in other fields – are the key to ensuring that structural change for gender equality in Horizon Europe is transformative and sustainable.
The UC SUPERA team has been in direct connection with the rectorate from the beginning of the project, and more so since the transition from the baseline assessment to GEP design and subsequent implementation strategies.
Although central support and a reliable working relation are fundamental for the success of the project, this is not the most streamlined approach in the initial stages of implementation. The formal approval process is complex, requiring input from a myriad of relevant stakeholders and decision-making bodies.
For that reason, but primarily to create a decentralized platform that enables the development of specific solutions within the diverse contexts in UC, we adopted a sort of centrifugal approach. This means securing institutional backing at the highest level and leveraging it to capitalize on the various levels of autonomy within the University’s structures. The cornerstone of this approach are Focal Points for the main Research and Education Units, as they were nominated by the respective unit Directors following a direct request at a Senate session. Through capacity-building for gender mainstreaming, providing its members with adequate competencies and data on the institution’s state-of-play, such a network enables the detection and maximization of windows of opportunity for institutional change, not only at the Unit level.
As these Units enjoy scientific and pedagogical autonomy, the integration of agender dimension benefits from this platform. Directly, it has so far led to the proposal of a seminar for final-year medicine students on gender biases in medicine (teaching, research and practice), as the Focal Point for the Faculty of Medicine identified a window of opportunity in the restructuring of that curriculum. Even though the current public health crisis postponed this process for a year, we are confident that the seminar will be integrated and work in tandem with ongoing parallel efforts in other contexts, while inspiring similar initiatives throughout the University.
Although that is encouraging, more tangible achievements have come from a different source within that decentralized approach. Shortly after confinement was imposed, we were contacted by the recently created Strategic Areas Unit, which sought to encourage female academics to apply for ERC grants. This team had come to us through the Focal Point of the larger Unit it is lodged in, the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research.
Due to the nature of the Institute and the Strategic Areas Unit, they work directly under the supervision of the Vice-Rector for Research. This allowed for that initial contact to blossom into a fully-fledged for the integration of the gender dimension in the UC’s scientific outputs and subsequent betterment of its scientific production.
This initiative entails a number of activities: a EEA grant application for combatting gender-based discrimination; the gender-sensitive revision of research-funding applications produced in the UC; the construction of a repository of relevant resources and inspiring practices with regards to the integration of a gender dimension in research; a communication campaign for the encouragement of academic excellence of researchers of the underrepresented sex in various fields and the development of a training course on the integration of the gender dimension in research, directed to researchers on all levels and fields, designed to take advantage of existing gender competencies throughout the fields and enlarging the group of gender-sensitive researchers (first edition scheduled for mid-September). This cooperative relation is promising for sustainable gender mainstreaming in the University’s scientific activities, as it is grounded on top-level strategic commitment, as well as the devotion of the supervising research structure’s resources.
The instances described are illustrations on the benefits of a decentralized approach, particularly in topic as varied and difficult to implement as integrating the gender dimension in research. For the UC SUPERA team, the most relevant takeaway from this experience is that investing in the embracement of a large and diverse number of stakeholders is complicated, time-consuming, and therefore often frustrating, but gratifying when it is time for returns, as they signify impactful and structural change.
Zulema Altamirano, Women and Science Unit, MICINN Lydia González, FECYT
The world health crisis due to the Covid-19 and the consequent confinement in many countries revealed different structural deficiencies and imbalances of the Research & Innovation (R&I) systems. One of the most evident was gender inequality in the current research career model. Since the first weeks of the confinement, different voices from the research community stressed the fact that people with children and dependents at home could not keep pace with pre-pandemic scientific productivity. The situation within this group is not gender neutral, since there is a gender care gap at home, which had been identified by the literature as one of the most important obstacles for women’s careers in the R&I field. This has led to a great concern among the gender community about the consequences, in terms of scientific evaluation and women’s leadership in science and innovation in the coming years.
Less attention has been paid, however, to the different effects of the pandemic in men’s and women’s health as well as to the necessary sex/gender analysis for new medical treatments and potential vaccines. Lessons learned from natural disasters also indicate that sex-disaggregated data are crucial to manage the different impacts of these crises at the short, medium and long term, especially in social and economic areas.
The Women and Science Unit have echoed both the need to have interdisciplinary research on the sex/gender effects of the pandemic and the gender impact on scientific productivity to produce a position paper supported by the Cabinet of the Minister on Science and Innovation.
Why position papers are important? Through the publication of policy briefs, public organisations highlight a social problem and define strategic lines of action that aim at influencing other institutions and governments. Position papers from very influential organisations have the capacity to legitimate demands, ideas and policy actions. Several international organisations related to gender equality published “policy statements” to remark the negative gender impact of the pandemic in different social domains. The best example for gender equality in the R&I field is the position paper issued by the Standing Working Group on Gender in Research and Innovation (SWG GRI), which inspires the Spanish one “Gender and science to tackle the coronavirus crisis”.
The Women and Science Unit aims to play an active role in the debates on gender equality policies in the R&I field in Spain and also to listen carefully the problems and obstacles that women researchers and technologists bring up. With this position paper, the Women and Science Unit sends a clear message to the scientific community and research organisations in Spain: we are concerned with the issue, we are willing to read scientific analysis on it, moreover we want to anticipate to the negative gender impact of the confinement in the research career. This is one of the raisons d’être of gender equality structures: being there, ready to interact with the research community in order to learn from their experiences and try to address problems by proposing the best solutions according to the experience in gender equality policies and the literature on gender and science.
What are the recommendations? The Women and Science Unit, after conducting a literature review on the topic, has made recommendations to different agents of the Spanish system of science, technology and innovation:
Research funding organisations should conduct gender impact evaluations of all the research calls and their evaluation criteria. The aim is to identify gender gaps in research productivity due to the confinement and to design mitigation measures. This would require sex-disaggregated data on the different indicators of research productivity.
Research performing organisations have a unique opportunity to make changes in the organisational cultures, hierarchical structures and informal power networks in order to eradicate structural inequalities in the science and innovation work. Human resources policies will need to consider the positive and negative impacts of the confinement in the working conditions of women and men and take into account their experiences in order to promote new labour agreements towards co-responsibility, horizontality, collaborative leadership and workers’ autonomy.
Both coordinated policies from research performing and funding organisations will be directed to achieve the following objectives in the Spanish R&I system:
Balanced representation of women and men as principal investigators of research projects
Fair distribution of tasks, roles and benefits within research teams – especially considering the most precarious researchers such as young women – as a criterion of quality in the management of research projects
Eradication of the “maternal wall” in the research career through temporary special measures in research calls and human resources calls
Promotion of a reasonable and sustainable mobility that can be compatible with care work
Tailored gender equality plans, sexual harassment protocols and teleworking agreements in research institutions
All research projects funded with public resources must consider sex/gender analysis in their proposals and research funding organisations must develop systematic procedures to evaluate and monitor the gender dimension in research projects granted. To improve the gender performance of research proposals, gender and science needs to be part of the methodological training of PhD students in every field.
Research funding organisations should dedicate funds for interdisciplinary research projects on the covid-19 crisis and its diverse and complex consequences from a gender perspective.
The gender perspective and gender knowledge need to be mainstreamed in every analysis and policy-design to tackle the coronavirus crisis in order not to produce bias and to have a better knowledge of the phenomenon as well as to guarantee that women’s views and needs are considered in the decision-making process in the R&I field. This is particularly relevant in the health sector where a traditional feminisation of health professions have coexisted with an underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions.
Investment in R&I must guarantee that research and innovation serve the needs of a democratic society – that is, integrate the gender dimension – and that research career is stable and attractive for researchers, especially for women young researchers.
Gender equality policies in the R&I field should promote participation and coordination with different public institutions, stakeholders and civil society in order to promote the best policies and facilitate accountability.
Finally, one of the most important contributions of all the articles, papers, policy briefs and social media comments on doing research during the confinement has been to place care work at the centre of the debate regarding research career and scientific evaluation. The gender community, along with gender and science structures, must take advantage of this momentum to achieve career models compatible with care work and women’s own time.
By Central European University Communications Office
A key priority for CEU is to be an exemplary institution not only with respect to the academic quality of its gender research and teaching, but also in terms of its practices.
In accordance with this aim, the CEU Senate approved the university’s first Gender Equality Plan (GEP) in May, establishing a framework for promoting gender equality in employment, study and research relations. The GEP covers the three-year period from 2019-2022 and builds on the findings of CEU’s first comprehensive gender equality institutional assessment report.
In recognition of the priorities identified by the report, the GEP covers gender equality in hiring, recruitment and promotion; leadership and decision making; and research content and curricula. It also addresses work-life balance, sexism and stereotypes; and sexual harassment. Crucially the GEP establishes the institutionalization of gender equality within CEU.
Andrea Krizsan, research fellow at CEU’s Center for Policy Studies and Ana Belen Amil, gender equality officer at CEU spoke to us about the significance of the report’s key findings, areas that the new GEP has targeted for improvement, and intervention and actions to make CEU a more gender-equal environment.
What was the background for this initiative?
Andrea Krizsan: The Plan was developed with the support of the SUPERA project (funded by the European Commission), along with substantial contributions from a wide range of people from the CEU community (administrators, academic staff, students and leadership). Consequently, the Plan is a step forward in the institutional development of CEU, as opposed to being an externally driven initiative.
Ana Belen Amil: What research shows, and practice confirms, is that there are two key factors regarding the successful implementation of a GEP: community involvement and support from leadership. The pursuit of gender equality is not a top-down, centralized task in the hands of one or two experts, but rather is a process that requires the commitment and active participation of all stakeholders involved. At CEU we are very fortunate to have both components. The highest ranks of the university have provided clear support and allowed this project to move forward. And we have a community which is generally interested and committed to participating and contributing toward the creation of a more gender-equal work, study, and research environment at CEU. We look forward to continuing this effort within the framework of the newly adopted Gender Equality Plan and Workplan.
What methods can be used to mainstream gender in decision-making processes?
Andrea Krizsan: Our assessment found both strengths and weaknesses in this field at CEU. The numbers showed that while the university’s senior leadership still has far to go, in terms of gender balance, the middle management level features many key decisionmakers who are women. A serious problem was identified in CEU’s main democratic body: the Senate. After some years of relative balance between women and men, the current Senate has very few women (only 21%), which necessitates a proactive intervention.
As a solution, the GEP suggests considering a gender-neutral quota for the different constituencies. Another issue that the report identifies is the vagueness of references to gender equality in CEU’s mission and strategic documents, symbolically extremely important particularly in a country that devotes attention to gender equality such as Austria. Mainstreaming and communicating the idea that CEU cares about gender equality is key and is one of the priorities under the GEP.
How can we make CEU more family-friendly?
Ana Belen Amil and Andrea Krizsan: Research shows that women do the lion’s share in providing care for children and relatives. Therefore making CEU a more family-friendly institution will have a direct positive impact on gender equality. Care responsibilities affect people across CEU’s three constituencies – students, staff and faculty – and each of them requires a different approach, since they are affected in different ways and are governed by different policies. Our analysis shows the need for a comprehensive policy for students with children, covering both parental leave and family benefits. CEU has undertaken many efforts on these topics, and we need to gather them in a coherent manner. Thanks to the amazing work of the CEU PhD Working Group’s Student Family Sub-Committee and its chair, PhD candidate Ruth Candlish, six months of maternity leave for students has just been approved by the Senate, and the Student Family Support Scheme is under revision. We expect a comprehensive policy to be presented at the first Academic Forum of AY2020/21.
Our assessment also revealed that during the previous 10 years, very few male employees took parental leave compared to female employees (at approximately a 1:4 ratio). This creates significant gender imbalance in the division of reproductive (unpaid) labor, career progression, and eventually retirement income. At a sociocultural level, it reinforces gender stereotypes. We are envisioning awareness-raising campaigns on this topic and thinking of possible measures to incentivize men to take parental leave as well.
Disadvantages deriving from disproportionate care duties also weigh more heavily on female academic staff in their career paths. Additional analysis is needed to clearly understand how care impacts promotion. Actions under the GEP work first towards having a clear assessment of this impact and second, will work towards ameliorating the impact of such disadvantages in promotion paths and ensuring that due attention is paid to balancing care-related disadvantage in timelines and criteria for reappointment and promotion.
Are you hopeful that the new job grading process will help ensure that gender imbalances are eliminated among employees and faculty?
Ana Belen Amil: Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet that can guarantee the complete elimination of gender imbalances in the workforce. Since gender equality is a multifaceted problem, different interventions are needed to address it from multiple angles. Nevertheless, we cannot stress enough the importance of a transparent, systematic and meaningful job grading process in the assessment and advancement of gender equality, and equal opportunity in general. The lack of ranks and corresponding salary scales in the administrative sector at CEU – a sector that is predominantly female (68% female composition as of November 2018) has made it impossible to measure Equal Pay for Equal Work, let alone design interventions. It is also a major obstacle for the development of career advancement plans for employees. This has been a long-standing problem at CEU, and the new process of job grading, scheduled to start very soon with representatives from all job families, will be a major breakthrough for Gender Equality in our institution.
How can communication help in eradicating gender biases and stereotypes?
Ana Belen Amil: Gender-sensitive communication can do a lot for cultural change in institutions. Our assessment has shown that CEU is doing quite well in that respect, thanks to the conscious effort by our Communications Office. Of course, there is always room for improvement. An important step is the use of gender-sensitive language. English does not present as many challenges as Latin languages in this respect – where the culture of using the masculine plural to address groups of people regardless of their gender is hard to eradicate. Nevertheless, we must pay attention to the use of pronouns when referring to trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people and respect their choices in this regard. We should also pay attention to the activities we associate women and men with: are women mostly portrayed in administrative low-rank roles, or in reproductive, care-giving roles, while men are depicted as successful scientists and scholars? Are we using full names and honorifics when writing about men, and only first names when writing about women, or referring to them as somebody’s sister, mother or wife? How much space are we giving to people of different genders on our homepage? This is important not only in text, but also in the use of visuals: we should use photographs that represent the diversity of CEU’s community – which is in fact very rich — and avoid gender, race and class homogeneity. Since we are a higher education institution, the visibility of a diverse pool of role models for students is extremely important. We have the social responsibility of creating and portraying an academic environment where you don’t need to be an upper-middle class white man to feel welcome and reach your full potential.
What types of training does the GEP recommend for the community?
Ana Belen Amil: Training in gender equality-related topics for the CEU community is mostly lacking except for a couple of unsystematic efforts in the past, which is to some extent paradoxical given the cutting-edge gender expertise present at our university. In the Hungarian context, we are a very progressive institution. Now we are moving to Austria, a country that has quite strict legislation and practices in terms of gender equality, we need to make sure we don’t fall behind other higher education institutions in this regard. We took a conscious decision while designing the GEP to postpone majority of training initiatives to the upcoming two academic years. Training requires plenty of time and commitment from the community, and the transition to Vienna was exhausting all of our employees’ capacities.
Andrea Krizsan: An initiative that was in place and that has evolved during the last couple of years is introducing the concept of gender equality and equal opportunities – and related CEU policies – to all incoming CEU students. While numbers have improved (last year we had over 100 students attending these Zero Week sessions) there is more to do both in terms of coverage and in terms of depth and efficiency. Our analysis found continuing high levels of ignorance among students around CEU policies, despite attendance of the info sessions. The GEP aims to improve this, for example, by introducing new formats and different timing to these sessions.
Ana Belen Amil: Another priority under this GEP is to provide training against sexual harassment for the entire community, including bystander training – that is, training for those who witness a harassment incident on how to take an active role in deterring it. We also want to provide the Human Resources Office with training on gender-sensitive HR management. In the academic sphere, training topics will cover how to improve the gender dimension in curricula and research, and gender-sensitive pedagogical practices.
Higher education institutions have a duty to ensure that students have a safe environment in which to live and work. How can CEU’s sexual harassment reporting procedure be improved?
Ana Belen Amil and Andrea Krizsan: Improving the reporting procedures in CEU’s Harassment Policy is one of the top priorities we’ve already embarked on during this academic year. A working group consisting of staff, faculty and students worked throughout the year to develop amendments to the CEU Policy on Harassment with regards to issues identified during the initial assessment. Following several other universities’ best practices in this matter, we are proposing a new complaint procedure with two major innovations: the possibility for victims to report anonymously through an online platform, and setting up a network of ombudspersons that will take and manage complaints at an informal level. Of course, this will not be sufficient in itself: training and awareness-raising efforts are a key component of a solid and trustworthy harassment policy, and there is a lot to do at CEU in that respect as well. The amended policy is expected to be presented at the first Academic Forum in the next academic year (1 October 2020).
To measure the GEP’s success in collecting reliable data is vital. Is there a proven blueprint for collecting gender-sensitive data?
Ana Belen Amil: Gender-sensitive data collection is certainly vital for both diagnosing the state of gender equality in any institution and for monitoring progress in the implementation of the GEP. We encountered several problems in this respect during the assessment phase: some relevant data is currently not being collected at CEU, while some other data is collected by hand, so that its analysis turns out to be very laborious, and still other data are indeed collected but GDPR restrictions made access and analysis almost impossible. Despite this, significant progress has been made in this direction: a clearance system for accessing data for institutional research purposes has been put in place, and we are currently designing a Handbook of Gender-Sensitive Data Collection and Monitoring, with support from Anna Galacz at the Institutional Research Office. This handbook will list all data collection requirements by unit and assign responsibilities. It will include most of the statistical indicators currently in use by the European Commission in its well-known publication She Figures, but this is not the only “blueprint” that serves as inspiration. Other indicators have been developed by higher education institutions through several EU-funded “sister” projects. Our work is to collect all developed indicators that are relevant for CEU and adapt them to better respond to the specificities of our university’s structure, functioning, context and needs. For a more detailed summary of the GEP’s key findings and suggestions, see the “Executive Summary” uploaded to our SharePoint.