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.

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!

Gender-sensitive communication in research and academia: the SUPERA guidelines

Paola Carboni, University of Cagliari

Great news! The SUPERA consortium has published the “Tailor-made guides for gender-sensitive communication in research and academia”. These guidelines have been developed with three main aims: raising awareness on the growing importance of communication and language in supporting the institutional change towards gender equality; increasing the awareness that gender biases and stereotypes affect communication on a daily basis and providing useful advice to support the adoption of a gender-sensitive approach in the communication of any academic institution.

These Guidelines are designed to be used by everyone in research performing and research funding organisations: while they are primarily tailored for the media specialists holding communication responsibilities, they will be useful as well for everyone involved in communication activities: administrative or technical staff, researchers, the student communities.

The concepts proposed are aligned with the framework of RRI – Responsible Research and Innovation, the H2020 “cross-cutting issue” that redefines the role of researchers in society and promotes an inclusive approach to research and innovation. More specifically, our theoretical approach is situated at the intersection among three domains: institutional communication, science communication and interpersonal communication. Each of them is relevant for the communication of a research institution and each of them can be gender-sensitive or – on the contrary – stereotyped and discriminating, even if not knowingly.

The work begins with the analysis of two main corpora: resources on gender-sensitive communication developed within the framework of the “sister” EU funded projects and guidelines on gender-sensitive communication already developed by international organizations and universities. On the one side, the sisters projects shared with us materials such as webinars, case studies, official agreements, developed in the last 10 years of EU-funded projects and covering different aspects of the communication field. On the other side, mapping the already existing guidelines has demonstrated that the need for guidance is high, among different kinds of institutions. The analysis has been hugely interesting and we have shared the complete list in the Appendix 2.

The SUPERA guidelines include also a glossary of the key terms of gender equality in research and academia, in order to allow any reader with no previous gender knowledge to access to a first set of information. Another chapter has been devoted to the analysis of the main resistances against gender-sensitive communication, that may be even very strong: everyone working in this field very soon becomes familiar with expressions such as: “Gender-sensitive communication is not a priority, you should focus on other things”!

The second part of the guidelines contains practical advice and opens with an overview of two main concepts to take into consideration when adopting a gender-sensitive communication perspective: gender stereotypes and visibility vs. omission. The majority of the mistakes regarding gender-sensitive communication could be reported to one of those two fields.

After that, the analysis developes under five main communication areas: gender-sensitive language, visual and graphics, events, digital communication and media relations. From the selection of words and images to the inclusive management of events; from the best policies to adopt in digital communication to a non-discriminatory management of the relations with the media: the SUPERA Guidelines tries to merge the advice of the most influential guidelines with our scientific knowledge and professional experience to provide the readers with a (hopefully) exhaustive set of advice.

The SUPERA Tailor-made guides on gender-sensitive communication in research and academia have been developed by the University of Cagliari team, composed by Barbara Barbieri, Paola Carboni, Ester Cois, Alessandro Lovari, Erika Sois, while the illustrations are by Giorgia Cadeddu. The document is available in our Resources section at this link.

You are welcome to translate and disseminate the guides in your institutions, under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA 4.0). A graphical template is also available as an Appendix.

Let us know what you think on Twitter or Instagram or at info@superaproject.eu!

The Region of Sardinia includes the SUPERA project in its development strategy

Simona Corongiu and Tara Marini, Autonomous Region of Sardinia

The Autonomous Region of Sardinia has included the SUPERA project in its Regional Development Programme (PRS) 2020 – 2024, giving it the highest possible political recognition at this stage.

In fact, the PRS is the regional programming document valid from 2020 to 2024 which, by defining the strategies and policies that the Region intends to implement during the legislature, makes the inclusion of SUPERA a clear political commitment on the part of the President of the Region and his Regional Government.

The document “The Identity that is built in acting to create value and sustainable development for Sardinians and Sardinia“, adopted with DGR n. 9/15 of 5 March 2020, is structured in 7 strategies. Among them a central role is assumed by Strategy 2 on research and innovation.

The PRS specifies that the priority objective of regional research and innovation policies is to ensure structural and human competitive conditions for the territory and to guarantee gender equality, in order to encourage full participation in innovation and development processes, which are now globalized and characterized by a continuous evolution due to the advancement of technological and digital knowledge.

In this context, the political decision-maker has planned to recognise and disseminate the principle of gender equality within the regional administration. In this perspective, the document also specifies that the implementation of positive actions will be guaranteed to ensure the respect of the above-mentioned principle, also thanks to the results deriving from the SUPERA project, within the regional policies in favour of scientific research and innovation.

In particular, it should be noted that the Regional Programming Centre will be required to implement a set of positive actions, identified within the Gender Equality Plan of the Region of Sardinia, which will promote gender participation within the programmes aimed at promoting research and innovation, in implementation of the SUPERA project.

The expected result is to strengthen gender awareness in the research world in Sardinia in order to achieve a real structural change and therefore a greater participation in projects and programmes by women.