Universities pledge to do more to secure gender equality

Top universities have committed to leading a drive to secure greater equality for female academics and researchers across Europe.

A report from the League of European Research Universities, Women, Research and Universities: Excellence without gender bias, sets out actions that it says will overcome discrimination against women that prevents them from playing a full part in Europe’s research effort.

The report was written by Katrien Maes, LERU’s chief policy officer, Jadranka Gvozdanovic, head of the gender equality commission at Heidelberg University, Simone Buitendijk, vice-rector of the University of Leiden, Ingalill Rahm Hallberg, former vice-rector of Lund University and Brigitte Mantilleri, head of the gender and equality unit at the University of Geneva.

LERU’s 21 member universities are committed to promoting gender diversity among academic staff with strong leadership ability, in conformity with institutional, national and other regulatory frameworks and in partnership with LERU universities.

They are also committed to developing or continuing to implement gender equality strategies; to sharing them and jointly monitoring their development and implementation; and to engaging with EU policy-makers, funders and other actors to promote the cause of gender equality at universities.

The report identifies the first priority for action in the area of leadership, vision and strategy.

A strong commitment from university leaders should underpin all gender-related actions, supported by a gender strategy, dedicated processes and structures to manage gender activities. It should be underpinned with funding aimed at structural change.

It says that universities need to select the right mix of measures in accordance with their institutional and regulatory situations and target these at certain career phases as needed, and to consider how to implement and ensure effective uptake of the measures.

Finally, the report makes recommendations to address the lack of a gender dimension in research, which can, it contends, result in serious flaws with potentially harmful effects – for example in medical research – thus limiting scientific excellence, creativity and benefits to society.

The context

The context for the recommendation is the recognition that academia in Europe is still losing a considerable amount of its female research capacity.

From PhD (at which point 45% of students are female) onwards, women drop out at successive turns and for various reasons, albeit with discipline- and country-specific exceptions. Only 13% of heads of higher education institutions in Europe are women.

Secondly, women progressing in an academic career may face deliberate or unconscious bias against their qualifications as excellent researchers.

“Given the excellent grades and high graduation rates of women students before and at the university, it is a huge waste not to use women’s capabilities subsequently and in a sustained fashion all the way up to top positions,” the report says.

While the effects of bias are often relatively small or less obvious in individual cases of selection or promotion, at a group level or in the course of a career the effects become more significant.

“The large body of available experimental and observational research in this area shows that women are on average considered less capable science leaders than men. Therefore, they need to perform better to be judged equally qualified to men.

“Additionally, research has shown that qualitative assessment can be heavily gender-biased. For example, recommendation letter writers tend to use stronger language of praise when describing men, rather than women.

“In other words, many molehills together may become a large mountain.”

Financial considerations such as gender pay gaps, not confined to academe, also play a part. On the whole, women tend to receive less funding through research grants.

Gap between rhetoric and action

The policy document points to a gap between the rhetoric of EU Framework Programme policy statements on gender equality and its application in some member states and within some universities and research institutes.

According to a European Commission report, the Framework Programmes have had varying success in making inroads for women in science, says the report.

“As the commission is currently developing its next funding programme (called Horizon 2020, due to start in 2014), LERU is pleased to see that in the first proposals the European Commission is planning to include specific and cross-cutting gender actions aimed at removing barriers preventing women from pursuing successful scientific careers, at rectifying imbalances between women and men and at integrating a gender dimension in research and innovation programming, content and evaluation.”

The report says that balanced gender representation contributes to excellence in research, positively influences research outcomes and impact, and promotes the acceptance of scientific insights, thereby reaffirming the credibility of universities and strengthening their societal role.

“Universities are home to the majority of aspiring and practising researchers and as such play a crucial role in ensuring that research careers are attractive to women and men.

“Taking into account what we already know about persistent gender inequalities and gender bias impacting negatively on women’s careers in research, universities have a distinct responsibility to make sure that they attract female students and scholars into their communities and that they can offer choices and support that will help women remain in an academic research career,” the authors write.

“We make a collective commitment as LERU universities to promote the cause of gender equality within our institutions, by working together within the network and by engaging as a network with other organisations, and we encourage other universities to consider our recommendations.

“We have illustrated our arguments with examples of good practice showing what LERU universities are already doing to affect change.

“Responsibility to gender equality cannot be borne by universities and research institutions alone. Research funders in the public and private domain, local and European Union governments and policy-making bodies each share an important part of the responsibility as they define frameworks and regulations.

“They must work actively, individually and collectively to ensure that Europe continues to attract, train and retain talented women (and men) into research.”

LERU was founded in 2002 as an association of research-intensive universities with a current total research budget exceeding €5 billion (US$6.1 billion).