Return to “normalcy”? Gender-sensitive policies for institutional change after the Covid-19 crisis

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.

Daily work during the COVID-19 crisis: the experience of UCM SUPERA team

Paula de Dios Ruiz, Complutense University of Madrid

In Madrid, in-person classes at universities and all educational levels were cancelled last 11th of March. Just three days after, the Spanish government declared the Alarm state and a set a range of measures to ensure social distance, limit people movements and thus try to contain the epidemic. Today, after 5 weeks of lockdown, the situation is not only unexpected but also very critical and frightful. In Madrid, there are more than 50.000 people infected by the Covid-19 and 7.200 people deceased since the beginning of the crisis.

During the first days, it was not easy to work or to be concentrated in any activity rather than listening, reading news or discussing about the situation. After a week, we were starting to understand that the situation was going to take longer than just a few days and we decided to start thinking on how to move forward. Firstly, we had a virtual meeting with the UCM Core Team, having an enriching brainstorming session on how to continue working in these conditions. We decided to move ahead with SUPERA activities adapting them to a virtual space and see how it worked.

Just a week after, we conducted three virtual workshops aimed at students, continuing with our participatory diagnosis. All of them with a high participation level and showing that virtual sessions have limitations due to the lack of face to face contact, but also have a lot of potentialities. After conducting virtual and in-person workshops about sexual and sexist harassment, my personal opinion is that students seem to feel more confident to give their opinion, to participate and to share their personal experiences on virtual discussions than in presence sessions, besides I’ve personally found it easier to pass the ice-breaking moment than I usually do in face to face workshops.

On April 2nd, we convened an online meeting with the Gender Equality Nodes Network. It was the meeting with the major number of participants (26 in total) since the beginning of the SUPERA project. The Core Team exposed and described their experiences with the online workshops conducted and invited the Nodes to continue with foreseen workshops through online sessions. The GE Nodes were enthusiastic with the proposal of virtual workshops.

However, I would like to tell you the real significant story about this online meeting. During the meeting and afterwards several Nodes highlighted and appreciated the importance for them of having this online meeting because they enjoyed the exchange and it made them feel good during these difficult days.

When we sent the email to convene the meeting, we received several responses explaining that due to care responsibilities some of them could have problems to follow it. Our answer was that we completely understood these situations and If they wanted they could just be connected to listen, without feeling the pressure to answer or actively participate. When the meeting started several cameras were off, however during the meeting we started to switch on our cameras. Suddenly, we realised that there were a lot of children around us, with care demands and willing to see the screens. Despite children around, it was a very fruitful, effective, professional and motivating meeting, with interesting exchanges and a very warm tone. In my personal opinion, this process of turning on our cameras was possible because the GE Nodes Network is based upon feminist principles and we all understand that care responsibilities must be a priority of our societies. However, we must discuss and analyse in how many meetings we are allowed or we feel secure sharing that we are in charge of babies, without feeling the fear of being negatively judged, discriminated or not convened for the next meeting or the next promotion.

In Spain, these situations of participating in virtual work meetings having your children around are raising a lot of discussions about difficulties for balancing work and family responsibilities. Assuming that we are not teleworking in an ideal situation and we are only trying to do it, because we are living a very exceptional health emergency, with care responsibilities twenty-four/seven at home and remotely with our elderly family members, plus dealing with the psychological effects of this crisis. Despite this exceptional situation, this crisis is showing the potentialities of teleworking in our country, where we have only a 4,3% of workers that “usually” work from home, which is a very low percentage, compared with the 14% of The Netherlands or the 13,3% of Finland (Eurostat).

Without doubts, at the UCM this crisis is unveiling a lot of tasks that can be done remotely and the possibilities of flexible working schedules, therefore we can expect discussions about these topics after the crisis. However, we also must ensure that a gender perspective analysis is included among those new opportunities and we must analyse as well the hidden potential risks of teleworking or flexible schedules for women in our university’s community. For instance, the lack of visibility of women efforts, low professional recognition for women, doubles or triple work shifts, the mental workload, and other factors that can affect negatively women career paths…

Those will not be the only challenges emerging after this crisis. In Madrid, we cannot even imagine what will happen after the lockdown. However, we all know that after the crisis someone will state that “now” gender is not a priority because there are more relevant issues to address. Therefore, the only sure prediction I can do for the day after the crisis is that the SUPERA Team will continue working to ensure that gender perspective is on the table and providing our analytical, innovative, creative and feminist solutions to overcome the post-Covid challenges.

Central European University’s progress with SUPERA

Ana Belen Amil, Central European University. Ph: Zoltan Tuba

In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, the CEU SUPERA team is working hard to ensure that gender equality goals continue to be a priority for the institution in its transition to Vienna. What is currently in our agenda?

. The SUPERA team together with the Senate Equal Opportunity Committee is in the laborious process of amending the CEU Policy on Harassment to address the problems that were identified during our Baseline Gender Equality Assessment conducted in 2018-2019. The main modifications are: 1. to create a Network of Ombudspersons who will receive intensive training to informally deal with harassment and sexual harassment complaints, with a survivor-centred approach; 2. to build an online platform that will streamline the complaint mechanism to make it more accessible to survivors; 3. to incorporate the option of  submitting anonymous disclosures; 4. to create a reliable, centralised record-keeping system that will allow for monitoring; and 5. to develop appropriate training plans and awareness-raising sessions for the entire community.

. Together with the Institutional Research Office, the SUPERA team is putting together a comprehensive Handbook of Gender Sensitive Data Collection and Monitoring. Its main goal is to ensure that the necessary data for high-quality gender analysis is collected regularly by all relevant units, so regular monitoring exercises can be performed and evidence-based policies and actions to tackle inequalities can be developed. This Handbook is being developed with an intersectional lens, and uses a non-binary approach to gender.

. The move of most academic staff to the Vienna campus, and the concomitant need for new contracts, provides an excellent opportunity for the SUPERA team to run an in-depth analysis of Equal Pay for Equal Work at the faculty level within and across academic departments. This will guarantee that any gender imbalances found in the salaries of faculty are corrected and the University can have a fair start in Austria in this regard.

. Last but not least, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface deep rooted inequalities in our society, and this is also true for gender. With the whole family staying at home, and most children under home-schooling, the household chores became much heavier. All this unpaid reproductive labour falls mostly on the shoulders of women, not only because of social norms and expectations on gender roles but also due to the existing structure of the workforce. The SUPERA team, once again in collaboration with CEU’s Senate Equal Opportunity Committee, has redacted a memo asking the Senior Leadership Team to raise the attention of supervisors on this matter, together with some suggestions on how to navigate this situation, such as:

1. Prioritize tasks and distribute them taking caring responsibilities into consideration,
2. Make sure that team members with care responsibilities can work from home;
3. Allow for flexible worktimes so employees can better harmonize work with caring responsibilities at their best convenience,
4. Avoid allocating ad hoc tasks,
5. Develop clear timetables so employees know exactly what tasks are expected from them and for when,
6. For particularly overburdened colleagues, lower the workload (e.g. single parents, household with 3 or more children etc.).

The suggestion was very well received by the leadership and circulated immediately.