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!