Overheads is dedicated to current issues in research funding and policies from the perspective of research support.
The European Commission has acknowledged that there are still many structural barriers to gender equality in research and innovation. It now seeks to address them through its main research funding instrument Horizon Europe (HE), the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2021-2027).
The strive for gender equality becomes visible when looking at the evaluation criteria of HE proposals. The evaluation guidelines state, that to be eligible to apply, organisation must have a Gender Equality Plan (GEP). If several applications receive the same evaluation score, the gender balance in the consortium is a ranking criterion. Finally, to be awarded funding, gender dimension must be integrated in research if applicable. In other words, it used to be enough to state that the consortium is gender balanced, but now gender dimension and intersectionality should be considered in the project design, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the call text.
To find out what this all means, we interviewed Dr. Mervi Heikkinen who has extensive experience in research on gender, equality and intersectionality and works also on these topics in the H2020 project “Redesigning Equality and Scientific Excellence Together” (RESET) in which UOULU is a partner.
What does gender dimension in research content mean?
Gender dimension, as defined by the European Commission (EC), refers to sex and gender analysis. In addition to gender and sex, EC includes intersectionality in the analysis. The idea is, that human beings can be categorised in different ways and based on different social categories. As a researcher you should consider all categories that might be relevant for your study, which may become clear during the research. For example, age, ethnic background and physical abilities can result in differences among research participants. The wheel of power privilege is an informative illustration how various social categorisations may intersect.
Why is gender more emphasized in Horizon Europe than in its predecessor H2020?
Integrating sex and gender analysis into research and innovation links directly to research excellence. We need to pay attention to sex and gender to increase the quality of research processes and results and ensure their societal relevance. If you generalise too much, research results are compromised and will not apply to anyone. The European Commission wants to fund research which is excellent in terms of research content as well as the team composition and research processes. Sex and gender analysis also affects data collection; if the data is biased, it causes the results to be biased too. Take medical research, for example. If a drug is only tested on white middle-aged men, can you say that it helps everyone and what is an appropriate dosage? It is necessary to define how innovations have been tested, for whom they are safe and suitable, and what kind of generalisations are actually ethically appropriate.
What is the difference between sex and gender?
Differentiating the terms is easier in English than for example in Finnish which has only one word “sukupuoli” referring at the same time to both sex and gender. Sex is biological and can be analysed based on hormones, physical features etc. Gender is a social and cultural construction and includes a wider range of diversity. Neither sex nor gender are binary concepts - there is variation. The fact that societies maintain these binary definitions can cause a lot of ill-being. If you want to get familiar with the terminology EC Gendered Innovations publication includes good examples. In addition, I can recommend Sukupuolten tasa-arvo ja yhdenvertaisuus online open access course (currently available only in Finnish) produced by Finnish Institute for Health and Well-being and Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.
What has changed in relation to gender from H2020 to Horizon Europe proposals?
The analysis of sex and gender dimension is now required also as research content. Also, the Gender Equality Plan is mandatory for all universities and research organisations participating in the HE programme starting from 2022.
Does University of Oulu have a gender equality plan? What does it say?
Yes, the plan has just been updated and the new one will be published at the beginning of next year. More detailed information about the contents will be available at the launch event.
Gender equality and diversity plan aims to improve gender equality and non-discrimination. In addition to the GEP, EC requires HEIs and research organisations to offer training, have dedicated resources and include arrangements for data collection, monitoring and reporting based on indicators. There are 5 thematic areas recommended for content of the GEP: 1) work-life balance and organisational culture; 2) gender balance in leadership and decision-making; 3) gender equality in recruitment and career progression; 4) integration of the gender dimension into research and teaching content; and 5) measures against gender-based violence including sexual harassment.
What help is there available for making sure that the sex and gender analysis is adequately executed?
RESET project has developed guidelines for institutions to establish research support services to assist researchers with this matter. We have for example prepared a Gender Impact Assesment checklist to help you think about how sex and gender can play a role in a research project and what sort of issues you should consider when writing the different parts of your proposal: excellence, impact and implementation. RESET team has started to work together with UOULU’s research and project services to develop services for researchers. There will be training, consultation and information available soon.
What advantages can the analysis bring?
It can improve the quality of research in many ways. For example, a more diverse research team can locate new knowledge gaps, new expertise, new collaborators, new methodologies and new data. Taking gender properly into consideration also improves chances to get funding. It is, after all, the name of the game in the European Research Area.
Can you tell us an example of how to bring in the gender dimension in engineering fields?
Probably one of the most famous examples is that of the crash test dummy. The medium-sized male body (175 cm; 75.5 kg), has been taken as the norm in engineering design. When crash data is analyzed by sex, age, height, and weight, injury rates are higher among people who don’t fit the mid-sized male norm. Elderly, obese drivers risk death and serious injury, women are more likely than men to be injured in crashes and for a fetus the seatbelt is life-threatening. Conventional seatbelts do not fit pregnant women properly, and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma. Thus, designing products, you have to pay careful attention to ALL users of the products and not assume one general human being. You can find numerous similar examples from different fields of science here.
Tell us about the RESET project and its aims. How can UOULU researchers benefit from the project?
RESET is a Coordination and support action (CSA) funded by the European Commission under the Horizon2020 programme. RESET involves seven large multidisciplinary universities from all over Europe and aims to address the challenge of gender equality in research institutions from a diversity perspective, with the objective to design and implement a user-centered, impact-driven and inclusive vision of scientific excellence. As the first tangible result RESET has produced a gender impact assessment tool. The aim in general is to support universities who do not yet have GEPs to draft one. UOulu’s role is to mentor these universities. UOulu is also developing training and education on the topic. The key question is: How to change the institutional culture and climate to be more supportive and sensitive in relation to gender diversity?
How is Finland doing in equality?
Finland has long been lacking ambition in equality issues. Ministry of Health and Social Affair’s release on EU gender equality index claims that progress in Finland is slow. Since women are in large parts participating the labor market, the common idea might be that gender equality has been achieved. Yet, there is plenty to improve if you look at academic positions for example, 30% of professors are female with variations from field to field. Finland could be a leader in gender equality and use the expertise on gender equality and knowledge we have gained through e.g., long experience in gender studies.
Let’s develop better science together!