Europe expected to tie research funding to gender equality action

Participation in Athena SWAN-style initiative mooted as probable requirement for Horizon Europe grants

October 5, 2020
A group of women are holding a feminist placard while holding red umbrellas, during the National demonstration for better social security, in Brussels
Source: Getty

The European Commission’s plan to establish an Athena SWAN-style initiative to address gender inequality in academia has been welcomed by sector leaders, who predicted that taking action to improve diversity will become a requirement for obtaining research funding from Brussels.

As part of wide-ranging proposals for developing the European Research Area (ERA) and the new European Education Area (EEA), the European Commission said it will, in 2021, “propose…the development of inclusive gender equality plans with member states and stakeholders in order to promote EU gender equality in R&I [research and innovation]”.

The commission’s communication on ERA notes that “women remain significantly under-represented” within Europe’s research community, making up just 33.4 per cent of researchers, 24 per cent of professors and 26 per cent of university leaders.

“Despite evidence that balanced teams perform better, gender inequalities persist in Europe’s R&I systems,” the communication notes, adding that “coordinated action with education policies and research funders will promote a gender-inclusive culture.”

That statement, alongside the EEA’s reference to a “new agenda for higher education transformation [to] promote gender balance in academic careers”, was a clear signal that European research funding was likely to become dependent on obtaining an EU-accredited gender award, said Kurt Deketelaere, president of the League of European Research Universities, which represents 23 leading research-intensive universities.

“If you apply for European research funding your institution will soon need to have a detailed gender action plan,” explained Professor Deketelaere, who said that the system resembled recent efforts to encourage open science, in which, under Plan S, research funding will be denied to those who do not sign up to commitments on how research outputs will be made freely available.

“I am quite happy with this approach as long as it does not lead to an excess of red tape,” added Professor Deketelaere, who contrasted the commission’s direction of travel to the UK’s recent decision to “water down” its commitment to Athena SWAN by severing the link between diversity awards and research funding.

Marcela Linkova, coordinator of Gender Action, a group of national policy experts appointed by EU member states and associated countries, said she “welcomed the plan…that gender equality plans are likely to be a requirement for applicants for Horizon Europe”.

“The message must be clear that public funding for research and education cannot go to supporting institutions that discriminate, promulgate stereotypes or who are unable to make full use of the talents they employ,” said Dr Linkova, who chairs the ERA committee’s working group on gender.

“The time has come to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, because inequality continues, including the gender pay gap and gender-based violence in academia,” added Dr Linkova.

Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, commented that the proposals on diversity would bring the EU closer into line with the UK.

“At EU level, we have not had Athena SWAN and there are no other countries where there is a link between research funding and gender equality so, in some sense, the EU is catching up on the UK,” said Professor Palmowski, despite the Westminster government’s recent decision to end such a link.

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, also praised the commission’s commitment to tackle gender diversity, but said he was concerned that the delivery of the “highly ambitious” policies outlined by the commission would be undermined by a lack of funding, particularly from Horizon Europe, the next seven-year research and innovation framework that begins in January.

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Reader's comments (1)

Once again, can you spot the trend? Females > Ethnic Minorities