By Ester Cois and Luigi Raffo, University of Cagliari. Interview by Paola Carboni

In the meetings of June 29th and 30th, 2020 the Academic Senate and the Board of the University of Cagliari approved the Gender Equality Plan designed in the framework of SUPERA. Now the GEP is available as an open access book at this link. Here’s the main highlights of the process that led to such an important milestone.

The process of design of the UNICA gender equality plan started with a baseline assessment of gender equality within the institution, in early 2019. Can you give us some details of the situation at the time of the assessment?

Since the beginning of the process aimed at involving the University of Cagliari as a whole in the development of its Gender Equality Plan, the UNICA core team has been able to contact all the types of stakeholders at the various levels of the organisation: from the top positions of the administrative structure, up to the teaching and research staff, the technical staff and the wide community of students. Every kind of interaction with the different categories of employees and students at UNICA has provided an opportunity to register many forms of resistance, with respect to the issue of improving gender equality within the organisation, but in general their frequency and tenor have been lower than we initially expected, probably due, above all, to the institutional support formally offered by the University’s governing bodies, on which the SUPERA project has always been able to count, starting from the endorsement expressed by the Rector in all the phases of the work carried on so far. It is therefore important to distinguish between the institutional level and the individual and occasional level: while in the first case there have been no explicit or implicit obstacles to the efficient development of the work conducted by the UNICA Core Team, some resistances have been instead expressed at the level of the single individuals involved in various forms in these early stages of the project.

Specifically, there have been three main relevant touch-points with regard to resistances: the documentary analysis related to the current rules and policies on gender equality in the University of Cagliari (when the administrative and executive officers did not express any form of resistance, rather being fully collaborative and effective in transmitting the requested documents); the collection of quali-quantitative administrative data related to the four thematic key-areas of the baseline assessment (when the staff of the various Departments contacted didn’t expressed as well any kind of resistance, neither explicit nor implicit, showing an excellent collaboration and an enthusiastic attitude to make themselves useful for the completion of the required task); the completion of the qualitative questionnaire on gender equality by the teaching and administrative-technical staff and by the students’ body, which was the only event in which several types of resistances emerged, on the individual level, although we can consider the response rate to the Survey quite satisfactory: respectively 29% of the teaching and administrative staff and 9% of the students.

We do not have enough information to infer that the asymmetry between females and males in the completion of the questionnaire among the students’ body (72% vs 28%) can necessarily identify a gender bias with respect to the interest in this matter. In the same way, it is not possible to surely assume that the distrust towards the anonymity guaranteed by the tool may have played a role in retaining a part of the population contacted to complete the survey (especially in the teaching and technical-administrative staff). From this point of view, we were in fact prepared to distinguish a gender-related resistance to other types of resistance, which in this case could simply be due to the fear of being identified after expressing opinions or declaring personal experiences on sensitive issues. In any case, detecting the resistances has been a useful starting point to understand where and how to focus the actions and strategies necessary to develop an approach as participatory as possible in the co-creation of the GEP, on different levels: in the first instance, starting with the involvement of the Hub as a support, advice and expertise channel within the various areas of UNICA as an institution; secondly, it has been important to correctly identify all types of resistances with respect to the issues related to gender equality, because failing in recognizing these critical nodes could have also blocked the subsequent implementation of the GEP throughout UNICA as an organisation.

So, beside its main goal, the baseline assessment was an interesting moment to understand if and how our institution was able to collect important gender related data, cross information from different database that usually don’t talk to each other. It was not a straightforward procedure, but we obtained the data and now we know how to automate such process.

The GEP design has not been a top-down process, but rather a participative one. Which parts of the university community were involved? Was this a positive experience from your point of view?

The SUPERA core team of UNICA has a quite large size: fifteen people with different background and responsibility. This aspect gave us the opportunity for starting the process internally, but we obtained important inputs from several working groups on specific topics, in the form of four fab labs:  two of them involved administrative staff to discuss the issues related to work-life balance,  the third involved Ph.D. students to discuss about career progression, and the last one was with assistant professors and dealt with sexual harassment. We preferred fab labs to online platforms as tools to guarantee inclusiveness and maximize the participation of representatives of the whole research and academic community in the decision-making process. We also organised several meetings with the SUPERA Hub, a structure foreseen by the project which, in our case, is composed by 12 people with roles at the top of UNICA organigram. The people we involved represent the complete community of UNICA, though for the next activities we want to enlarge the participation of students, that we involved so far only during the preliminary survey and through their Senate/Board representatives.

Gender-disaggregated data collection and management have the first place among the GEP actions. Can you provide us some examples of what can be achieved if data about staff, students and research products are collected using this method?

The disaggregation of data by gender is a first step to detect, both in terms of snapshot of the current situation and in terms of trends to be monitored for the near future, the persistent asymmetries with respect to career mechanisms in the university, or even with respect to the perception of the perspectives opened by their degree courses by male and female students. Mechanisms that cannot be explained by aggregate numbers.
For example, with regard to the enhancement of the skills acquired in their degree course and the perceived encouragement to undertake a future congruent profession, slight but significant differences persist between male and female students, given that less than 30% of the former declared having perceived a differentiated treatment in this sense compared to 40% of the girls.

What is the purpose of the mentoring activities and why are they important in a GEP?

Mentoring activities by senior colleagues are useful to ensure that junior academics’ personal goals are consistent with the institution’s expectations. Many studies have shown that female researchers are less productive than their male counterparts. For example, for Italy, we suggest to read the article by Marianna Filandri and Silvia Pasqua “Being good isn’t good enough: gender discrimination in Italian academia” (2019).

Quoting their words, “gender differences in publication output could explain the lower percentage of women among associate and full professors in Italian universities. If this were the case, there would be no gender discrimination and policies should be promoted to sustain women’s research activity. A second possible explanation of the gender gap in Italian academia could be women’s reluctance to apply for promotion. Previous literature has shown that women are less self-confident than men and therefore are less likely to apply for high-responsibility jobs and career advancement, and, specifically for academia. Again, if this were the case, we could not claim that gender discrimination exists and policies to sustain female researchers through mentoring should be promoted”. Therefore, the planning within our GEP aimed at supporting female researchers’ careers through mentoring activities, through the identification of peers within all structures, appears as a valid tool to reduce the asymmetry of opportunities that bind women more in reaching top positions.

Family-friendly policies always have a central role in gender-equality policies in the workplace. Which is the situation in UNICA and which further improvements can be achieved with the actions contained in the GEP?

UNICA complies with Italian legislation on compulsory maternity leave and optional leave for biological and adoptive parents (Paternity leave, parental leave, rest for breastfeeding, child sick leave). Detailed information on any type of leave is available at the university website in transparency handbooks, which clarify that after a first period of parental leave (30 days for Admin staff and 45 days for Faculty members) there is a cut in salary, which drops to 30% of the full amount. As confirmed by interviews with the Personnel office and by administrative data at hand, parental leave is not used by Faculty members. In the period under our first review for the baseline assessment report, only 3 women have ever opted for parental leave, and in the same period 29 women (about 7.8% of the total) were absent due to compulsory maternity leave. Among technical and administrative staff there is a higher use of parental leave: about 4% of men and 13% of women used it, and in the same period 27 women (5% of the total) were absent due to compulsory maternity leave.

Since 2015, UNICA is committed to pursuing family-friendly policies, whose direct beneficiaries are students and personnel. We can mention, for example, the Baby-Card (Tessera Baby) and Pink Room (Stanza Rosa) projects that aim to promote study and work-life balance. There is evidence of a gradual but steady process of institutional learning within the domain of family-friendly policies. The ultimate goal of promoting gender equality, both in terms of quality of services offered and quantity of potential beneficiaries involved, can be achieved only through the constant monitoring of the ways in which these practices are implemented. The collection of administrative data about the number of potential beneficiaries, the actual use of the services and the dissemination of transparent information about the services to prospective and current students are essential for estimating the effect of the policy and suggesting further improvements.

During the designing of our GEP, we have explored the individual experiences of work-life balance policies and tools set out by the University for its staff and students. Nearly 70% of staff respondents share household chores and childcare duties with their partner. Among them, the large majority (nearly 70%) said there was a largely unbalanced division of those duties, a result that is in line with a well-known picture of gender asymmetry in the division of household work in Italy, where men’s contributions are among the lowest in Europe. Clearly, there are exceptions to the rule, and changes are evident among younger, better educated generations. Women’s greater family duties and responsibilities explain why female staff say they have turned down more often than their male colleagues an appointment or other professional growth opportunities (22% and 10% respectively).

Among students, 16% of respondents to our preliminary survey said they shared household or family chores with their partner (351 students, of whom 76% females and 24% males). Gender division of household work seems more balanced among these students, perhaps due to their belonging to younger population cohorts, compared with those of staff respondents, responding to social pressure to have greater symmetry in gender and family roles. Less than one out of four students stated they perceived a marked imbalance in the distribution of household chores, with a prevalence of female students (27%) compared to male students (18%). A similar finding also applies to caring for children and other family members, both with regard to the limited percentage of those saying they experience an asymmetry in their distribution on the basis of gender (17% of respondents), and to the gap in this regard between female students (20%) and male students (7%).

One of the main objectives of our GEP is obviously to contribute reducing the initial gaps as much as possible, and to enrich existing strategies to favor work-family reconciliation. Just to mention one of the actions envisaged in this direction, we included in the GEP a support to people returning to work after a leave, aimed at maintaining the career path, through the definition of an internal regulation that establishes dedicated reductions in the workload and specific evaluation criteria (in the case of personnel subject to evaluation) for workers who return to work after the birth or adoption of a child or after a period of illness.

Among the actions of the GEP, training has its place and relevance. Which are the goals of this training that will address decision makers, researchers and students?

The objectives in this area aim at mainstreaming Gender Equality at the institutional level: the inclusion of Gender Equality issues in the organisation structure and in the strategic planning and mission of the University, the implementation of gender-specific measures and practices, and the revision of existing procedures in which Gender Equality issues should be considered. From this point of view, our GEP has identified the need of offering training to the staff in leadership positions, including the training for the mentors. But also training and guidance activities addressed to academic staff and students to deconstruct gender bias and promote a gender inclusive work and study environment; or regular training sessions for research staff to add a gender perspective in their work in any disciplinary field.

Which is the role of gender-sensitive communication in a cultural change for gender equality?

Managing the communication of a research institution is a multi-faceted challenge. Universities are, at the same time, learning environments, places where scientific research takes place and workplaces for large communities of human beings. Teaching, research, outreach, public engagement, fundraising, promoting enrolments, establishing partnerships are only some of the tasks a university must manage according to its mission and values. Nevertheless, universities must act as places where knowledge can be developed and shared at the highest levels, ensuring academic freedom and visibility to all the actors involved, including the less represented within the framework of inclusion, for example because of their gender. In this sense, universities play a fundamental role in communication the importance of the principles of equity, inclusion and enhancement of differences in their messages and organisational behavior. See also the Guidelines for gender-sensitive communication in research and academia, developed within SUPERA.

Can you give us some examples of how an integration of gender contents in research can be performed? And in teaching?

Understanding that any research oriented to people needs or behaviour has a gender dimension is not easy and it is not easy to explain it to people, like researchers, that are rightly proud of their intellectual freedom. The same happens for professors about the freedom of building the syllabus of their courses. Examples can change their point of view, and there are plenty of them, for example in the unsuspected field of Artificial Intelligence. The presence of its results in daily life is pervasive, so there are many examples easy to understand. Since this field is largely dominated by male researchers, even limited changes can have a large impact and can lead to large improvements. With regard to teaching, we decided to work at voluntary level, creating discussion groups for professors interested to give space to gender related dimension in their syllabus, for example with regard to the proportion of female authors mentioned in their bibliographic references.

When can we expect to appreciate the first outcomes of the GEP actions? Which is the timeframe of the initiatives?

Our GEP is composed of 32 actions to be completed before the end of 2024. However, it is foreseen that a large number of these actions will give results already before. In particular several informative events (like courses for PhD students) will be already active from the next year.