Marcela Linková on GENDERACTION


An interview with Marcela Linková, the coordinator of GENDERACTION project on lessons learned, impact and legacy of the project.

For some context, could you outline the current situation in research and innovation across Europe, when it comes to access and inclusion of women?

We now have a parity in the graduate pool of doctoral graduates at 48% in the EU but of course major differences continue to exist across disciplines with women being underrepresented in Information and Communication Technologies and Engineering. The progress is also not sufficient in the STEM fields. The numbers among graduates, however, have not been translating into the pool of researchers where we are at just under 33% proportion of women in the EU-27 with country averages going from 52% in Latvia to mere 26% in the Czech Republic and Netherlands. In terms of the two largest sectors, women tend to find research employment in the higher education sector where they make just over 42% whereas they are highly under-represented in the business enterprise sector with just under 21%. When we look at the age composition in the higher education and government sectors we can see women predominate in the youngest age group under 35 and women are also well represented in the age group of 35 to 45 but this changes after 45. Women also tend to work on more precarious contracts. There has been little change in terms of women’s proportion among full professors, which is at 26% in the EU-27 and men are twice as likely to hold these positions as women. In terms of leadership positions, women make up less than 24% as heads of higher education institutions. We see positive developments but the change is slow.

Why have efforts to address gender inequality in this field not always been successful? Why are some countries lagging behind others?

One thing that needs to be said is that we are now at a time when we have a fairly strong political consensus and a very robust framework in Horizon Europe. Thirty-five countries endorsed the Ljubljana Declaration of which 23 are Member States. The Declaration calls on Member States and other countries to fully acknowledge gender mainstreaming as a horizontal principle and to jointly work in six priority areas of gender equality. Now this call must translate into concrete actions in the new European Research Area, and of course, as always with gender equality, this will not happen by itself, we will need to push for that. But the road is laid down.

Nevertheless, we are battling backlash and political populism in the EU which threatens gender equality policy. There are attacks on gender studies and gender researchers, we continue to see a lot of wilful misinterpretation of what gender equality actions mean. In some countries the word gender cannot be even used. We are gaining more insight into how and why this is happening, but it is a factor in the policy making process.

The second aspect is the institutional level. Academia can be very patriarchal, it is very hierarchical and it is difficult to admit that the noble value of meritocracy has not worked the way we imagined, that science has been historically mired with racial and gender bias and that this has tainted who can produce scientific knowledge, what is defined as a scientific problem and what is recognised as scientific knowledge. To admit this can be very threatening for researchers. But if we don’t recognise and understand this, we risk making research inefficient. For example, we can’t continue doing research in many fields without addressing the gender dimension because such knowledge runs the risk of being inefficient for 50% of the population. And yet, there will be academics who will claim that the obligation to address the gender dimension in their research is an attack on their academic freedom. That is absurd but shows just how deeply entrenched biases among researchers can be.

What was the inspiration for this project, and what did you set out to achieve?  

GENDERACTION recognises the importance of policy making in achieving progress in gender equality. It is of course one component of a highly complex process but it has a clearly defined place in that policy sets the framework; it defines the discourse whereby an issue is defined, the instruments to tackle the issue, the indicators to measure progress. This in turn translates into actions that are taken. It has a symbolic as well as practical value. Our objective was therefore to create a European network of policy makers to coordinate policy, exchange good and emerging practice and to build capacity with the overarching goal of contributing to gender equality in the European Research Area (ERA). And there is also the more personal component of having a community of colleagues with whom to share about challenges because working to advance gender equality can be challenging.

Could you outline for a non-expert audience how you went about achieving your objectives – what did the project consist of in practice?  Any approaches that made this project unique?  

Since 2017 we focused on several key activities. One was the analysis of the national policies to achieve ERA objectives, the so-called ERA National Action Plans and Strategies. This allowed us to cluster countries in terms of the complexity of their policy instruments, we gained a deeper understanding of indicators used in the EU to measure progress toward gender equality in R&I and showed why, for example, using solely the indicator of women among professors is not sufficient on its own. We also established correlations that exist between various indicators to measure innovation capacity and research excellence on the one hand and gender equality on the other.

The second area of activities was the development of policy advice for our key stakeholders in the Commission, the Parliament and at national level. This advice focused primarily on the negotiations of Horizon Europe where we published a Horizon Europe policy brief series and this was recognised by the Commission as one of the most important contributions to gender equality in Horizon 2020, which makes us very proud. But we also opened new areas such as gender aspects in Open Science and Open Innovation, gender equality in international cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation, gender aspects in SDGs and others. All this advice is available on our website and was used in important negotiations during our project.

The third area of activity was capacity building focused on two main audiences, the representatives of national authorities and National Contact Points. Of course with COVID-19 we had to move online in the last part of the project but it worked really well and we have had great exchanges that our target audiences found useful. In the last part of the project we started delivering webinars to NCPs on the new gender rules in Horizon Europe.

What have been the key approaches / lessons to emerge from this work?    

A key aspect of our activities was the focus on creating impact with all this work. To this, we developed specific instruments, the EU and national impact plans, and have worked with a range of stakeholders. We have reacted to new developments such as the Horizon Europe Missions where we developed advice on integrating the gender dimension. These are major research areas, and if gender is not addressed, we have a problem. We are particularly proud that we could present our recommendations and advice on structural change and other aspects at the Finnish Presidency conference in November 2019, and in 2021 our final event was organised together with the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU, with key stakeholders from national authorities, umbrella organisations in the ERA and others discussing emerging priorities for the future. And we were also happy to contribute to the early drafting stages of the Ljubljana Declaration which has been, in the end, endorsed by 35 countries and is a great achievement of the Slovenian Presidency which sets the priorities for gender equality in R&I for the coming years.

How will this work have a practical impact on furthering gender equality in research and innovation across Europe?

It already has. Our policy advice has been used in the negotiation of Horizon Europe and the new ERA policy agenda that has just been adopted. In our assessment of the national impact plans we have seen that there is an interest at national level to work with the Research Funder Organisations. Given the role they play in the research system, they are clearly a very important group of stakeholders for any future action.

What are the next steps to fully exploiting the project’s results?  

Our policy network will continue to use our recommendations at national level and we hope to continue in a follow-up project.

And finally, what do you hope the long term legacy of this project will be?  

Our legacy is our contribution to making gender equality such an important element of Horizon Europe. We have made concerted effort using multiple avenues, and while our voice was one of many, I think it resonated. We have also made it clear that having a policy network in Europe to advance gender equality in R&I can be a very efficient way to move forward. My colleagues and I really appreciated being able to work together, exchange and support each other, and it yielded results. The only thing now is to make sure that we can continue.