The new ERA must do more for gender equality

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A Scientist works at the ZTP Laboratory to detect the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus causing the Covid-19 disease in Bagnolet near Paris, France, 07 May 2020. France seems to be slowly reaching the peak of the epidemic after almost two month of a strict lockdown in an attempt to stop the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. [EPA-EFE/Julien de Rosa]

As we slowly emerge from the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, one thing is clear – it has brought to the front various aspects of gender equality issues in Research and Innovation (R&I), writes Marcela Linkova.

Marcela Linkova is the chair of the Standing Working Group on Gender in Research and Innovation and head of the Centre for Gender and Science at the Institution of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Publishers are starting to notice the disparity in the publication rates of solo-authored papers by women and men, resulting from the unequal distribution of care work and homeschooling.

And while some research organisations and universities have taken measures to address the immediate impact (for examples see the policy brief on the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak of the Standing Working Group on Gender in Research and Innovation, SWG GRI), the longer-term impact must yet be analysed.

Gender dimension in research: default for the future

The pandemic has also driven home the importance of integrating the gender dimension in research, not only in health-related areas but also its socio-economic dimension and technology design.

The European Commission has included the sex/gender analysis in Horizon 2020 and now in its COVID-19 calls. In Horizon Europe it should be the default because it increases both excellence and the relevance of knowledge.

As the recent SWG GRI position paper on the future gender equality priority in ERA argues, if relevant sex/gender issues are ignored or poorly addressed, research results may potentially be biased or invalid.

Yet, as the latest She Figures 2018 and 2017 Horizon 2020 Interim Evaluation show, the integration of the gender dimension in R&I content is one of the areas where the least progress has been made. The integration of the gender dimension is particularly crucial in innovation, digitalisation, Artificial Intelligence, and climate change.

The new Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 notes that algorithms and related machine-learning, if not transparent and robust enough, risk repeating, amplifying, or contributing to gender biases that programmers may not be aware of or that are the result of specific data selection.

However, reducing gender bias will not be possible if women only represent 16% of ICT specialists.

Gender-based violence in academic life

We know it exists, and that it has severe consequences. What we do not know is how prevalent it actually is in European Higher Education and Research Areas.

The recent report on Sexual Harassment in the Research and Higher Education Sector: National Policies and Measures in EU Member States and Associated Countries and policy brief Mobilising to eradicate gender-based violence and sexual harassment: A new impetus for gender equality in the European Research Area published by the SWG GRI show that gender-based violence is an under-studied and under-recognised issue in academia in many countries.

The recommendations go from seemingly self-evident actions such as collecting sex-disaggregated statistics, recognising gender-based violence as part of research misconduct, putting policies and procedures in place and building the knowledge base.

They also call for actions where further deliberation is necessary, such as research funders imposing academic sanctions or receiving institutions being required to have policies and procedures in place.

Combatting gender-based violence must be an explicit part of Gender Equality Plans and must be integrated in the revised Charter and Code for Researchers and in the HR Excellence in Research Award.

Gender equality and research performance go hand in hand

Still unpersuaded? A recent GENDERACTION report and two briefs show that the higher a country scores on gender equality, the higher its research and innovation potential measured by the EU Innovation Scoreboard and the Adjusted Research Excellence Indicator.

The same is true for the proportion of Research Performing Organisations (RPOs) with a gender equality plan (GEP) and research and innovation performance.

As the author of the report, Angela Wroblewski, argues:

“The current headline indicator for gender equality in ERA is not working. Countries with the highest proportions of women in Grade A do not score well on the Gender Equality Index, have poor proportions of women on boards and as heads of Higher Education Institutions and do not have GEPs. Their research and innovation performance is also comparatively lower.”

The recently published EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 mentions the possibility to require a gender equality plan from applicants. GENDERACTION shows that moving ahead with gender equality actions brings advantages in terms of research performance as well as its relevance.

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