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A plan for achieving gender equality in the research and innovation system

Despite a long history of scientific achievements, women remain acutely under-represented in scientific research and academia. By promoting the use of Gender Equality Plans, the EU-funded SUPERA project aimed to address the inequalities, stereotypes and discrimination that contribute to this shortfall. As a result, several institutions have already started to close their gender gap.

©insta_photos #349134288, source: 2022

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Women have long contributed to scientific research and breakthroughs. Ada Lovelace developed the first computer algorithm back in the mid 1800s, and anyone who has received an X-ray has Marie Curie to thank. Then there’s mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose work on orbital mechanics for NASA’s Apollo programme was retold in the movie ‘Hidden Figures’. And many COVID-19 vaccines owe their existence to biochemist Katalin Karikó.

Yet, despite this myriad of achievements, science continues to suffer deeply rooted gender inequalities, stereotypes and discrimination. According to the recent She Figures report commissioned by the European Commission, women outnumber men as students and graduates, yet they represent only one third of researchers, and only a quarter of full professorship positions are held by women.

This discrimination affects everyone. “Only when academia and research include scholars with different backgrounds and identities will we be able to achieve results that are meaningful to everyone,” says María Bustelo, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid.

With the support of the EU-funded SUPERA project, Bustelo is leading an effort to improve the way scientific research is performed at four universities and two research funding organisations. “By increasing equality, diversity and inclusiveness, we can create better work and study places, a greater capacity to retain talent, and provide opportunities to all community members, irrespective of their gender, and enhance an institution’s potential for innovative research,” adds Bustelo.

The importance of Gender Equality Plans

For the SUPERA project, the key to long-term institutional change is the use of Gender Equality Plans, or GEPs. These set out for instance how to conduct audits of procedures and practices to identify gender bias, how to identify and implement strategies to correct any bias, and how to set targets and monitor progress.

This helps institutions obtain better results. Discriminatory hiring and promotion practices result in academia losing over half of its potential talent, and gender-blind research produces poorer science that does not reach a level of excellence. “GEPs are an important tool for implementing the structural change that is needed to achieve gender equality in recruitment, selection, career advancement and decision-making, as well as to produce more inclusive and less androcentric science and research,” explains Bustelo.

The project used GEPs to integrate gender into research and educational content. They were also an important tool for fighting gender biases and stereotypes across the research and innovation value chain, including creating safe research organisations free of gender-based violence and sexual and sexist harassment. GEPs are now an eligibility criterion for EU funding.

“Our approach emphasises the importance of using participatory techniques and the active involvement of stakeholders in the process,” notes Bustelo. “These increase everyone’s support for the project and the implementation process and helps reduce resistances to change.”

Driving change

SUPERA’s GEPs have already had a major impact at several academic and research institutions. For example, the project’s guidelines for gender-sensitive communication have been adopted as best practices by the European Institute for Gender Equality and included in the Gender Equality in Academia and Research tool, which is often referred to as a source of guidance with good practices for setting up and implementing Gender Equality Plans.

The project’s work is having an impact at the national level too. For instance, in Sardinia, a regional research funding body adopted SUPERA’s GEPs to ensure gender equality in both its research funding calls and its structural funds. In Portugal, SUPERA has been a driving force in establishing the University of Coimbra as a pioneer in sharing best practices and knowledge on the application of parity laws with national gender equality policy stakeholders.

“Our GEPs help articulate a deeper understanding of gender inequalities, stereotypes and biases in research,” concludes Bustelo. “By reframing research excellence from a gender perspective and challenging gender gaps and power imbalances, the SUPERA project has proven itself as an important driver of change.”

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Project details

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€ 2 029 981
EU Contribution
€ 2 029 981
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