How to consolidate a group under pandemic?
Community of Practice called Alt+G (Alternative Infrastructure for Gender Equality in Academic Institutions) unites more than 30 researchers from 17 institutions in Slovenia. The consolidation workshop of this CoP was supposed to take place on 8 April 2020 in the city of Portorož on the Slovenian coast. It was planned that all CoP members would meet in person for two days, with addition of potential CoP members from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Due to Covid-19 lockdown, the workshop was reorganised into the form of two online sessions, that were held in May 2020. The participation rate of CoP members was low, which is another consequence of the pandemic: the majority of members (all women) could not commit to any activity because their work schedule was changing so quickly on daily basis that they could not plan ahead. As all teaching and research duties went online, members expressed their fatigue with online meetings, webinars and workshops that became overwhelming. In addition, the lockdown brought about a radical change in the work-life balance as parents took over schooling duties at home. For example, two female scholars made last minute cancellations because they had to give their computers to their child, who was under school commitments at the time. All this illustrates important challenges faced by female academic staff during the period of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The main objective of the workshop was to consolidate Alt+G CoP in four areas of activity important for its development phase: rebuilding relations between CoP members, learning and developing practice(s) of institutional change, acting as a community (presumably after the Covid-19 lockdown), creating knowledge on how to initiate and effectively implement institutional change and sharing this knowledge within the CoP. The first meeting began with a presentation by the CoP facilitator of the online tools available in the ACT project: web portal GenPORT, which can be used both as a source of information and for the dissemination of own results, and functions of the closed workspace on the Alt+G website (pages Resources, Files and Forum). The workshop participants practiced writing and uploading blog posts, while the CoP facilitator guided them step by step through screen sharing. The next section of the online meeting dealt with the Gender Equality Audit and Monitoring (GEAM) questionnaire, which was developed within the ACT project and will be adapted to the Slovenian language and academic environment. The participants of the meeting analysed selected clusters of the questionnaire and provided their comments and suggestions on how they could be improved. Special attention was paid to the translation of the survey into Slovenian, as the quality of the language seems to be very important for the future use of the survey by CoP member institutions. The workshop participants also discussed the heteronormative forms of expression used in the questionnaire and debated the pros and cons of two possible solutions that could be used in the translation and are gender inclusive: use of underlining (as in "profesor_ica", "študent_ka"), OR juxtaposing male and female forms (as in "professor & profesorica", "študent & študentka"). Participants agreed that the first option, which is advocated by Slovenian feminists, could alienate rather conservative academics and could be counterproductive if the survey is to attract as many respondents as possible from the Slovenian academic environment. It was agreed that the second option, although longer and less concise, could therefore be the better solution.
The second meeting was designed as a workshop based on Structured Democratic Dialogue method and was led by Andreas Andreou from the organization Future Worlds Center, Cyprus. This workshop method starts with a triggering question, which in this case was as follows: What measures should be taken by Alt+G to act as a group in relation to the current situation of the Covid-19 pandemic? Then the workshop leader led a brainstorming session in which the participants presented their answers to the triggering questions and developed 18 ideas for possible actions. All ideas were entered into software, which then made it possible to compare the ideas, vote for them and draw up a roadmap with the measures to be taken:
The roadmap based on the mutual influence of the ideas about how to foster activities of Alt+G during and after Covid-19 pandemic, the second meeting, 13 May 2020.
As a conclusion of the consolidation workshop, the participants identified a number of future steps. It was agreed that:
- There should be more awareness of the precarious working and living conditions of CoP members at the moment of the Covid19 pandemics and the post-Covid culture. CoP members should share more experiences with each other, develop closer cooperation with other CoPs and exchange experiences in tackling the Covid-19 challenges. CoP members could also propose a joint action for self-reflection on how the Covid-19 situation has influenced the academic environment in Slovenia and/or a small joint pilot study on the Covid-19 situation from a gender perspective.
- CoP activities should be organised around current / ongoing problems / challenges. The facilitator should approach the CoP members individually and encourage them to organise events and initiate actions themselves. Joint actions should be promoted in awareness of the needs of the CoP members, but also of their capacities, bearing in mind that this is unpaid labour and that the CoP members devote their free time to this work.
- It is not necessary for all CoP members to be involved in every action, but only those who can devote more time and energy to an action at a given time. Therefore we should set up CoP subgroups or CoP working groups on specific issues, actions or initiatives.
- Raising awareness of the CoP approach and its benefits should continue, as it has taken some time for CoP members to understand what this group is and how it should work.
- An efficient communication system should be established. Regular online meetings should be held every two months. The facilitator should further promote the use of online tools to support the CoP activities.
In conclusion, two issues seemed crucial: First, we need to rethink how to drive institutional change at a time when gender equality measures in the context of a pandemic are seen as a secondary issue rather than a political priority. Secondly, we need to take into account that female academics, who are usually involved in this process, are often burdened with care work (apart from other forms of unpaid labour), which has only worsened under the lockdown. Moreover, female academics are more often in precarious employment, which is further endangered by Covid-19 related measures and the upcoming economic crisis, and may significantly affect the impact and sustainability of Alt+G CoP. It is crucial to reconsider and carefully work on the adjustments of the ACT project agenda and the life cycle of the Alt+G CoP at the moment of disruptions and upheavals, such as Covid-19 pandemics.
Text by Jovana Mihajlović Trbovc and Ana Hofman.