Throughout the EU, not enough women are attracted to careers in information, science and technology. While women are better represented at university level – more than 25 % of graduates are female – as careers progress, the proportion of women in the information science technology (IST) and digital workforce drops to just 13 %.
Looking to develop the sustainable, long-term inclusion of women in the IST sector, the EU-funded project EQUAL-IST explored why there are such high levels of gender imbalance in the IST research sector, and what can be done to improve this, starting at the university level.
‘Women are still the minority, especially among academic leaders, and the lack of women in IST careers has negative consequences on the potential for innovation and the mobilisation of human capital. We need to foster permanent inclusion,’ says Vasiliki Moumtzi, co-founder of ViLabs and EQUAL-IST project coordinator.
Finding a better balance
Starting out in 2016, EQUAL-IST worked with universities in Italy, Finland, Germany, Ukraine, Lithuania and Portugal. With the help of Maria Sangiuliano, a gender equality expert from the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice, the project identified the hurdles to achieving a better male-to-female balance in each of the partner universities.
Problems identified across the universities included a lack of women in decision-making positions on university governance boards and inadequate childcare facilities for lecturers with children. Another barrier was inflexible working schedules for lecturers preventing them from fitting work around their parenting duties.
A further challenge identified in Ukraine was a lack of awareness about how to solve the gender imbalance problem. Although students and lecturers were aware of gender inequality, they did not know that actions could be taken to improve the gender balance.
EQUAL-IST developed a toolkit designed to enable a greater number of female researchers, lecturers and students to be included in the university environment. The tools include boosting female participation on university boards and in decision-making positions, and the implementation of flexible lecture schedules – for example, allowing lecturers to choose whether they hold lectures in the mornings, afternoons or evenings to suit their work-life needs.
The toolkit also says periods of part-time work should be encouraged, childcare facilities should be available on-site, possibilities to postpone exams according to the individual’s needs should exist, and job sharing should be promoted. A gender equality committee should also be appointed to outline the steps to improve the gender balance as well as monitor progress in the university. According to EQUAL-IST, all these measures should be accompanied by a campaign to raise awareness of the new initiatives.
During its research, EQUAL-IST found that the University of Bern in Switzerland has excellent work-life balance policies and could be considered as a good example to follow. Its policies include covering childcare costs so that researchers can attend meetings and conferences; breastfeeding and relaxation rooms; changing tables in toilets; high chairs in the cafeteria; and easy access to buildings for pushchairs and wheelchairs. Moreover, the university has signed a ‘family at the university’ charter to enshrine its work-life balance principles.
The project also developed a new online platform that allows both men and women in the digital and IST research field to communicate on issues they face and discuss gender equality in their institutions in an inclusive community.
‘Our work has prepared the ground for a future rise in female participation in IST careers. Gender equality will arrive gradually if the right structures are in place,’ Moumtzi concludes.