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EPWS 2014 Report from WINGS

Is the gender-agenda the hero or enemy of equal opportunity in science?

The gender-agenda is still-going-strong and in the news….all over the news. Sweden has a political party dedicated to gender equality and a couple of weeks ago the Nordic Forum 2014 was held in Malmö. Recently, and more locally the faculties (at least the faculty of medicine) have seen the gender-agenda  in the news and up for discussion. The reason for this was the new report from the Swedish Council for Higher Education where it was concluded that discrimination due to gender still exists under the surface in academia.

The same week as the Nordic Forum 2014 was held in Malmö a much smaller meeting was held in Paris, the annual meeting of the European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS), with the focus of “New perspectives on women scientist careers in Europe”. We, Linnéa Taylor and and Ulrikke Voss, were there to represent Women in Great Sciences (WINGS). The program was short but good: how are gender perspectives woven into Horizon2020, how are different countries working to get more female researchers to apply for EU grants and how are universities across the EU changing structures to improve sustainable equality at all levels.

Horizon2020 is the name of EU framework or budget for research and innovation, running from 2014 to 2020, with a budget of 80 billion euro. Horizon2020 spans all disciplines and calls can be found and applied to via the participant portal that is the joint entry point into all the EU funding. The European commission has worked hard to get the gender perspective to be a more integrated part of the calls and rankings of various funded projects. Looking at the ranking side of the funding calls, the advisory groups have to be divided 50:50 between sexes, as well as in specialty- and expert groups where 40% of members have to be of the underrepresented sex. In all the evaluation boards a gender expert has to be included. To be a gender expert there are several points set by the commission which you have to: 1. have a degree or published papers in gender studies, 2. have done research within gender studies, 3. be a member of a board working with gender equality, 4. teach gender studies and 5. be a member of a network. The hope is that this will bring gender awareness into the ranking of applications. On the other side of the coin, applicants, the gender perspective has to be addressed in all parts of the call. The idea behind these rule changes is to bring about a cultural change, where numerical goals are strengthened by reflection and self-awareness. The effects of this can be seen for example in Germany, where a specific group called “contact point women into EU research” under the ministry of education works specifically to get more women into EU funded research and onto boards as EU experts. Their focus is outreach and workshops like the “fit for Horizon2020”, a workshop given at universities and research institutes throughout Germany. They function as a contact and information point for women in all areas of research, disseminating key information about the EU-commission’s work on research and innovation, ensuring women are empowered through access to information. They also act as a stepping stone between the national contact points and the female researcher. National contact points are the main national structures providing guidance, practical information and assistance in all aspects of participation in Horizon2020. In Sweden the main contact points are VINNOVA and at the Swedish Research Council (VR), but with secondary contact points at several other funding agencies (see all here). National contact point services are available to everyone, however much can be improved in the way these services are utilized by both researchers and universities. The German approach with a contact and information point directed towards women is an idea that could easily be implemented in Sweden. However, speaking to participants from other parts of Europe, we realized that even in parts of Europe  that are often compared to Sweden, such as Germany and the Netherlands, Sweden and Lund is ahead in many areas. Here, it is very much taken for granted that a gender policy is in place, and that progress, based on the bench marks set by the University and government, is measured and evaluated in regular intervals. These structures are still lacking in many EU countries. However, although we to a high degree have structures intended to promote gender equality already implemented, we are still far from equal opportunity and equal representation in science. 

The last part of the program was aimed at answering the question: Women in science, what’s the problem? Because although knowledge of structures, culture, bias and norms is widespread and these problems are actively being targeted women represent 50% of students but only 20% of faculty, and women’s CV’s are scored lower, women are less likely to be invited to write reviews and in collaborations women are seen as relying on the help and support from strong (male) leaders. Various reasons for these problems are reported, and are being targeted differently across various countries and universities. So what is the real problem for women in science? The EPWS discussions pointed towards various ways of looking at the question, and how the viewpoint could change the perceived solutions. The hypothetic problem definition was discussed as follows: One could suggest that it is women and their biology or socialization that makes them less able to meet the criteria of academic excellence. Thus providing special mentoring, networking and training would help women achieve the academic excellence needed to compete with men. Or maybe it is the gender regimes and traditional gender roles i.e. care duties that hold women back from achieving academic excellence? In that case, would social and academic structures like flexible child care and mommy-career-tracks provide women with the help they need to become successful in academia? Or is it the academic institutions that discriminate women? Then the solution is structural changes and policies enabling women to be seen as excellent. Although the arguments and solutions presented were taken to their extreme for the purpose of the discussion, they definitely left room for thought. On one hand, it is clear that there should be mentoring and networks available as well as structures supporting a healthy work-life balance, for both men and women. However, on the other hand, when do the scale tip and the structures meant to support and help become an acceptance of the “problem with women”? Although we feel we are pro-equality and for equal opportunities, it has been shown that we all harbor prejudices that in some degree cause bias. These prejudices may be versions of the above mentioned arguments, or denial that gender inequality exists “here”, a mindset that has been described as modern sexism. The report from the Swedish Council for Higher Education pointed towards this type of subtle discrimination. However, knowing we are wearing biased goggles, how do we address the gender issue in Lund and Sweden - is it structural or cultural changes that are needed to attain equal opportunity for all? What was clear from the meeting was that the challenges that face women can’t be measured by one standard, but are individual and dependent on multiple factors. We believe that networks like WINGS will be part of the empowerment of women and drive the bottom-up cultural change required for sustainable equality, and stand against the modern sexism lurking under the politically correct academic surface.

We hope everyone will have a great summer with lots of R&R to gear up for the next term, where we are aiming to go punch a tiger, because it is the manly thing to do.

//LInnéa Taylor & Ulrikke Voss