12/14/23 · Culture

"The biggest threat to equality is the attitude of the some ideologies against gender studies"

Rachel Palmén, researcher at the Gender and ICT group (GenTIC) of the UOC's IN3

Rachel Palmen

Rachel Palmén (photo: Aurea Cristina Mota de Araujo)

Gathering knowledge about how gender discrimination relates to other main areas of discrimination like race, disability, socio-economic status, gender identity and sexual orientation (Intersectionality). Encouraging the shift towards a more inclusive private sector (Innovation). Increasing the participation of all actors in the implementation of equality plans in research institutions (Widening participation). And ensuring that the change continues and goes beyond ad hoc actions in favour of gender equality (Sustaining Change).

These are the four main themes of the European project INSPIRE: Centre of Excellence on Inclusive Gender Equality in Research & Innovation, which was created just over a year ago with the aim of improving research on equality and providing practical support to institutions that are implementing equality plans and actions. The ultimate goal is to help reduce the gender gap in the world of research and innovation.

The INSPIRE project, which will last four years and in which 14 European universities and research centres are participating, is coordinated by the UOC (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). It is led by Rachel Palmén, who is a senior researcher at the Gender and ICT group (GenTIC) of the UOC's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and has already had an extensive research career in the field of gender equality and inclusion.


Are we closing the gender gap in the world of research?

According to 2019 data from the She Figures 2021 report, the proportion of PhD graduates is almost balanced in terms of gender. However, women only account for 41.3% of employed scientists and engineers. Women are significantly underrepresented in technology-oriented fields, where they make up less than a quarter of self-employed professionals in science and engineering and the information and communication technology (ICT) sector.

Over the last decade, the EU has made progress towards achieving gender equality among professionals who complete a doctoral degree. Even so, according to data from the same report, women accounted for around a third of all researchers in Europe. The higher you go up the academic ladder, the lower this percentage.

The data show that women account for more than 40% of academic staff, but there are considerable differences depending on grade and level. While they make up almost half of all Grade C and D staff, they only account for around a quarter of Grade A staff, which is equivalent to full professor.


What can be done to address these inequalities and build a more inclusive and equitable research system?

A lot. For example, the European Commission has invested €72 million to enable research organizations to implement gender equality plans. Governments can also promote gender equality in research and innovation policies through nationwide laws and policies. For example, under Spanish law all universities are required to have a gender equality plan and a gender equality unit.

In addition, research organizations themselves can ensure that internal recruitment, retention and professional development policies and procedures, as well as assessment processes, are free from gender biases. One of the most important aspects is to ensure that the budget, staff and training are sufficient to carry out all appropriate actions.

It is also important to go beyond gender – to see what other axes of discrimination/ privilege interact with gender inequalities in order to paint a more accurate picture and develop relevant interventions to tackle these. 


And what challenges are there?

The greatest current threat to gender equality is the attitude of right-wing ideologies against gender studies and equal rights. The progress achieved in recent years is now being questioned. For example, Canada has removed equality, diversity and inclusion provisions from research funding policies, while the United States has passed a bill banning diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices and initiatives throughout higher education.

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to change is institutional resistance. This can be more explicit, as in the case of individuals who clearly defend themselves in order to protect their gender privileges, or less explicit, as in the case of individuals or organizations that support equality “in theory” but then do not take clear measures in practice. This last form is much more difficult to identify.


How does the INSPIRE project fit into this context?

INSPIRE seeks to build an evidence-based foundation for gender equality policies and plans. These must take an intersectional approach, but there is a general lack of knowledge and experience on how to do this properly.

In addition to developing scientific evidence, INSPIRE seeks to provide practical support to the research organizations and companies that participate in the change process. This involves supporting 12 communities of practice with eight organizations each who work together to achieve change in a specific area related to one of the main themes of the project: sustaining change, widening participation, intersectionality and innovation.


What does this support for communities of practice consist of?

Each community of practice has access to support packages that combine tailored support with more generic tools. For example, if a community of practice linked to an area for widening participation wanted to use the Gender Equality Audit and Monitoring (GEAM) tool to generate relevant data from its organizations, it could obtain the assistance of an expert in statistical analysis. If the community of practice wanted to work on more inclusive recruitment processes, it could invite an expert in this field to participate. The INSPIRE approach to communities of practice is based on our experience in the ACT project – from which we documented the CoP experiences in the ACT book.


INSPIRE was launched a year ago. How has its development been so far?

The project is going very well. We have held two face-to-face meetings: the initial one in Barcelona in October 2022, and the second one in Ljubljana in June of this year. We have also held two policy workshops: one in Berlin, where we sought to reimagine a more inclusive future for research and innovation, and another in Budapest, where we shared success stories and the latest indicators. In addition, we have written 17 reports for the European Commission, including six reviews of the scientific literature published in this field. All are available online in Zenodo.


The first conference of the project was held last month, also in Budapest. What lessons can be drawn from this event?

We invited top experts on subjects such as European policy on gender equality and inclusion, national policies and legislation on equality, research and innovation or intersectionality; and we learned about a real-life case of implementation of an intersectional gender equality approach carried out at the University of Bradford, United Kingdom, among other things. In addition, each Knowledge and Support Hub (there is one for each of the four main subject areas) held a creative session with representatives of the organizations of the potential communities of practice. Finally, we held a joint workshop in which a Policy Advisor of the European Parliament spoke about how to effectively tackle the right wing backlash.


The main aim of INSPIRE is to create a Centre of Excellence on Inclusive Gender Equality in Research and Innovation. How may this help close the gender gap?

It can help build a more inclusive research and innovation system by developing a foundation of scientific evidence on how to develop inclusive gender equality plans and policies, as well as through effective support mechanisms for the organizations involved. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive approach to transformation by becoming a kind of one-stop shop covering all credible research in this field. We'll develop a database of structural change experts that institutions can resort to when they need concrete practical support.


What are the next steps for INSPIRE?

In the next few days we'll hold a meeting with the European Commission to review the work done so far. This is only the beginning of an ambitious research programme that includes developing monitoring indicators for the prevalence, implementation and impact of equality plans. We're also going to carry out a European-wide survey and nearly 50 case studies of successful equality plans, equality, equity and diversity policies and intersectional and regional policies for inclusive innovation with a gender perspective. In addition, the communities of practice will start to meet from March 2024.


Besides coordinating INSPIRE, what are you working on right now?

I'm starting to work on how to include the gender dimension in business and technological innovation programmes. There are a wide variety of programmes to help academics and scientists transfer their results and findings to the market. Bearing in mind the extremely low number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and in business, we're talking about an area that needs to include the gender dimension, both in terms of women's participation and to ensure that innovations reflect diversity.

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