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.

See you in Madrid for the SUPERA launch event

The Conference on “Structural Gender Change at Universities and Research Funding Organisations” will be held on the 16th November 2018 (9.30 h – 14.30 h) in Madrid. The venue is the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, in Paseo de la Castellana, 162.

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