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Shared problems, shared solutions: Six recommendations for gender equality in higher education
October 2, 2011 - 9:45pm

I have been travelling quite a bit in recent months; I attended several conferences and met many new and interesting people. While many of the discussions in the presentation halls have been on the official topics of the conferences; the “unconferences,” the meetings during the coffee breaks and official receptions, have brought up other topics, and more often than not the question of being a women and an academic came up in the discussion.

From Austria to Sweden, from Poland to the UK, from Australia to the US; it emerged from my conversations that women working in higher education face many of the same kind of problems. Examples are plenty: at one institute there are a majority of women researchers but their boss is a man and, in face of the threat of funding cuts, he is the only one who has the security of further employment. At another university, the female professors are “known” to have a special social competence, so whenever a difficult case with a student comes up, their male colleagues delegate the difficult conversations to the women, because “they are so much better at it.” In yet another case women administrators working at the university complaints bureau have received comments from the male students that they are not trusted to be competent enough to deal with the students’ problems – since the administrators are women “they won’ t be able to understand.”

I don’t know how many of you, dear readers, both male and female, can identify similar cases at your own workplace, but from my sample of stories it appears that these instances are not unique. On the contrary, they are encountered, with local variations, across several continents and institution types. These are all shared problems, common occurrences. So, shouldn’t there be some shared solutions, good examples that we can borrow from each other? Are there some that we can highlight as best practices and pressure our institutions to adopt?

In Europe, such an attempt at finding joint solutions to similar problems has been drafted by the research group “Gender in Science,” among others. Their focus is to combine gender equality with research excellence, and to that purpose, they organize several conferences and meetings (There are two coming up now: one in Belfast on Women in Leadership , the other, the European Gender Summit, in Brussels). Moreover, they have published a report about the situation of women in research in Europe that included thirteen recommendations, some of which are reproduced in brief below. My point is that these concrete recommendations can be examples of such common measures that can be adapted to fit many institutions and that address the same gender imbalance that we observe everywhere.

  • In all assessments – paper selection for journals, appointments and promotions of individuals, grant reviews, etc. – the use and knowledge of methods for sex and gender analysis in research must be an explicit topic for consideration. Granting agencies, journal editors, policy makers at all levels, leaders of scientific institutions, and agencies responsible for curricula accreditation, should be among those responsible for incorporating these methods into their assessment procedure.
  • Research teams should be gender diverse. Institutions should promote gender diversity of research teams through a variety of incentives (e.g. quality recognition and allocation of resources) and through transparency in hiring. Key decision-making committees should also be gender diverse.
  • Institutions should seek to improve the quality of their leadership by creating awareness, understanding, and appreciation of different management styles. This can be achieved through training, self-reflection, and various feedback mechanisms. Diversity training, specifically, is essential in this process.
  • Assessment procedures must be redefined to focus on the quality, rather than quantity, of an individual’s publications and research output. This must be consistently applied in individual, departmental, and other levels of assessment.
  • Persons with disproportionate committee and administrative duties should be provided with additional support staff or reduced teaching assignments to ensure that their research does not suffer.
  • Explicit targets to improve gender balance and action plans to reach them must be included in the overarching gender strategy of scientific institutions. Gender issues must be an integral part of internal and external evaluation of institutions.

Do you know of positive cases where recommendations in the same spirit as the ones above have actually been implemented? Are there success stories you want to share? Do you think that these recommendations could work if implemented? Having a dialogue about our common problems gives us the hope of finding common solutions.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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