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.

Gender and Science to tackle the Coronavirus crisis

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.

Postponement of the XI European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education in Madrid

The XI GEHE Conference: Advancing gender mainstreaming in Academia, Research and Innovation needs to be postponed to September 2021 due to the global health emergency

By the Local Committee of the 11th GEHE Conference

The Spanish Ministries with competences in science, innovation and universities had announced the XI European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education  in Madrid (16-18 September 2020). The Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) would host this Conference, also supported by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). The European Network on Gender Equality in Higher Education has been also assisting in this task. Other national stakeholders have been mobilized for the success of the Conference and its dissemination within the Spanish system of science, technology and innovation. For this purpose, a National Committee devoted to support this Conference has been established at the Spanish Observatory for Women, Science and Innovation.

However, after careful consideration of the situation and the uncertain prospects regarding travelling in the coming months, the Local Committee for this Conference has decided with great regret to postpone the 11th GEHE Conference to 15 – 17 September 2021.

All the organizing institutions are convinced that the 2021 edition of the GEHE Conference will enhance the discussion and exchange among gender experts and practitioners as well as will provide original insights on the topics suggested: sex/gender analysis into the research content, structural change, gender equality plans, scientific-technical vocations, among others, with two cross-cutting areas such as Gender and Intersectionality and Application to Polytechnic Universities, including special focus on STEM fields and Women in STEM, as well as on STEM-SSH interdisciplinarity.

The ultimate goal is to produce valuable knowledge that can help design better and more effective gender equality policies in Research and Innovation (R&I) systems as well as in Higher Education Institutions across Europe and beyond.

This edition has made an effort to include experts on gender, science and innovation from Southern Europe in the International Scientific Committee while maintaining the experience gained in former Conferences. This group of high-level experts is responsible for evaluating more than 200 submitted proposals for communications, posters, symposia and workshops. These numbers speak volumes on the great interest this edition has generated among the gender community from Europe and beyond.

Follow the news on the 11th GEHE Conference on the official website.

Resilience and gender structural change in COVID-19 times

María Bustelo, Complutense University of Madrid

If someone had told us last Christmas that our life was going to be so different three months later, we would just have simply not believed it. We would have never imagined the changes in our work and personal life due to the Covid-19 crisis, and we still do not know well what the future will look like, even if we all try to guess different scenarios in order to survive by planning (or just learning how not to plan). Who knows?

As our European sister projects, we aim at producing structural change through formulating and implementing sound Gender Equality Plans (GEPs). In SUPERA, we do that in 4 universities (Central European University, University of Cagliari; University of Coimbra; Complutense University of Madrid) and 2 research funding organisations (Spanish Ministry of Science and Autonomous Region of Sardegna), while the life in our institutions, as everywhere, has completely changed over the last two months.

Interestingly, in SUPERA we had started to think and talk earlier in our project about the need to adapt to broad contextual changes. Not as a routinely theoretical or conceptual exercise, but as an urgent need. Among the six implementing partners in our Consortium, since the beginning of our project in June 2018, we had already experienced changes of Rectors and rectoral teams in two universities (UC, UCM), and of the governments leading our two RFOs. In a third university, CEU, a decision of moving to another country was made. All these changes and their consequences were either not expected at all (or, at least, not as fast as they came) at the time we prepared the proposal, and neither when we started it. So, early in our project, apart from the intrinsic difficulties of gender structural change, we added to our landscape of concerns a need to be ready to revisit certain diagnoses about our institutions, and to adapt to changing targets and stakeholders among top leaders and decision makers. SUPERA partners started then to talk about resilience.

The term resilience comes from engineering and has been used for expressing the ability of materials in buildings and infrastructures to absorb assaults without complete failure. Borrowed from engineers first, nowadays it is widely used by psychologists for expressing an individual’s ability to adapt in the face of adverse conditions. But the perspective on which I would like to focus today is the one from organisational sciences, which considers the ability of a system to withstand changes in its environment and still functions.

In SUPERA, we started thinking about resilience because of the changes most of us were facing as early as in our first year of our project, which was really critical as we were in the first stages of our institutional change processes. But we found resilience was also an incredibly useful concept for dealing with the inevitable resistances we all find in our gender structural change endeavour. What can we do with those resistances? In principle we need to identify, recognise, study, even understand them; then, we must assess where and from whom they come from and whether they can be neutralised or counteracted, if we want to successfully overcome them. But very frequently, this is not going to be possible in a direct way: these resistances are not going to disappear, and as our Advisory Board member Jean-Michel Monnot showed us, it is not worth to spend time trying to convince the 10-20% people who will be immune to gender change, no matter what we do. Therefore, the ability to find and use workarounds through identifying windows of opportunity and through creative thinking and co-creation among ourselves and with our different stakeholders became crucial. An ability to adapt while still functioning because we can find diverse ways to (try to) hit our objectives. This is also resilience.

It is clear then that we will need an extra dose of resilience for this Covid-19 crisis, as the changes in environment are huge and affect all. Universities are struggling to cope with a sudden, not expected and total conversion to remote education. In parallel, institutions are fighting to work in a remote work mode for which they are not technically or cognitively prepared yet. These struggles will probably push down Gender Equality to the bottom of the list of priorities in our institutions, as urgencies come first, even if we know important things should not be relegated. How are we going to recover the attention of our communities towards Gender Equality issues?

My point here is that, although we as SUPERA partners have had an extra opportunity to deal with a great deal of uncertainty and to practise resilience, all the colleagues working in gender structural change in academia and research know well about this exercise too. We all know how to deal with resistances, explore windows of opportunities, and use workarounds that, even frequently on a trial and error basis, finally find ways to start breaking gender gaps, biases and stereotypes and open ways for structural and sustainable change.

As well as some resistances to gender, the social distance needed to overcome the pandemic, and the deep changes this situation will produce, are going to remain for a long time, even after the crisis be gladly over. We are not going to be able to do too much about it, but to adapt and find alternatives ways to attract the attention to a clearly still necessary gender structural change in our institutions. Let me insist here that I am sure we are quite used to alternative thinking and innovative exploration. A further diagnosis of the implications from a gender perspective of the lock down and its social, economic, political and institutional consequences in academic life; the study of a new work life balance scenario, which requires new measures and puts old gender issues on the radar screen; and the possibilities of online exchanges and remote education, training & capacity development, are only a few to start with. Let’s go for it!

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.

Patrick Zaky’s arrest: the solidarity of the SUPERA Consortium

By the SUPERA Consortium

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the Supera Consortium remains concerned about the conditions of Patrick George Zaky, a 27-year-old Egyptian postgratuate student enrolled in the “GEMMA” Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Bologna, Italy, who is held in custody in Egypt.

On February 7 2020 Patrick Zaki was arrested by the Egyptian authorities, apparently in connection with his activism and research in the area of human rights and gender issues. The international network Scholars at Risk has reported that after five months of studies in Italy, Zaki returned to Egypt for a family visit. Upon his arrival at Cairo Airport Zaki was reportedly detained, interrogated by members of the Egyptian National Security Agency (NSA) and then taken to an undisclosed location, where he was allegedly subjected to torture, including beatings and electric shocks.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights organization based in Cairo, Egyptian authorities are investigating a number of allegations against Zaki, but have not publicly disclosed the grounds warranting  Zaki’s arrest. Zaki has been denied family visits, and has only had limited contact with legal counsel.

As of today, Zaki has been moved several times, and court hearings have been repeatedly put back due to the Coronavirus crisis.

The University of Bologna has issued a motion, calling for “Patrick Zaky’s safe and rapid return to Bologna, so that he can resume his studies. Until then, it is our duty to make sure that the Italian Government and the European Union continue to do their utmost to ensure Patrick’s return to our community.”

Responding to this motion, several international university networks have expressed their solidarity to Patrick Zaky.

Motion of the University of Bologna

The Conference of Italian Universities Rectors

Crue Universidades Españolas

Conférence des Présidents d’Université

Magna Charta Universitatum Observatory

European University association EUA

Scholars at Risk

2020-04-23T13:41:35+02:00March 21st, 2020|Tags: , , , , |