This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 788204.

e-discussion on Gender Equality in Decision-Making in R&I and HE

ACT e-discussion on Gender Equality in Decision-Making in R&I and HE

Link to e-discussion




On March 19th 2020, people from our Communities of Practice and beyond gathered for an open e-discussion on Gender Equality in Decision-Making in R&I and HE (1) on GenPort, the online portal for gender and science . This was the most active e-discussion yet on GenPort, with 146 comments and 30 participants from 20 countries (2). The e-discussion was convened by Dr Rachel Palmén, and began with contributions from invited experts Professor Pat O’Connor and Dr Anne Laure Humbert. Professor Pat O’Connor marked the ground with powerful clarity:


As I see it the ‘normal’ structure and culture of organisations, with their practices, criteria and procedures, all reflect and reinforce gender inequality. Hence these need to be disrupted [...] It is critically important if you want to change power structures to constantly ask: where is power; who has it – and to ignore attempts to waste your time getting involved in structures/boards that are remote from that power…


Combining both research and experience, the discussion explored issues such as gender competence in top positions, targets and quotas, training on unconscious bias and how to deal with resistance to institutional change. A synthesis of the discussion is shared below.


The e-discussion reflects the broader Communities of Practice approach of the ACT project. Communities of Practice recognise learning as a process of social participation, emphasising dynamic knowledge that grows with everyday practice (Hugues et al, 2007:2; Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). We are applying this strategically in order to foster sustainable relationships and learning that can live beyond the scope of the project and have lasting positive impacts on gender equality. Putting this into practice in the ACT project, we are working with collaborative learning strategies, such as knowledge mapping, collective problem solving, building arguments for institutional change, and discussions such as these (online and face-to-face). We also publicly share our learning process via our online knowledge hub (consisting of the ACT main website with individual hubs for each Community of Practice), and a range of Twitter accounts such as the core ACT Twitter account @ACTonGender.


What we discussed

Prior to the discussion, four questions had been flagged up to stimulate collective thinking:


  • What can we learn from different experiences of applying targets and quotas to create more gender fair decision-making bodies?
  • How do you address the double burden when the same few women have to participate on many different committees/ boards?
  • What are effective ways to build gender competence in decision-making bodies?
  • How can we effectively deal with ‘non-action’ and resistance to institutional change?


These questions were explored in an organic way, going into progressive amounts of detail according to where the exchange led us. The most textured discussion threads are outlined below. Gender competence was the most dominant theme, illustrating not only that simple gender numbers are not enough, but that both knowledge and skills are needed to effect successful (institutional) transformation towards gender equality. A related but different point, was that women are not the only agents for change in gender equality (nor its only beneficiaries), and in fact there are real risks in expecting women to do all the heavy lifting. Further to this, let’s touch upon two threads which ran through the discussion, although they were not developed enough to show in the summary below. First, the role that men can play in transformation towards gender equality, especially men in top positions. Second, from a range of perspectives, Professor MD Karolina Kublickiene, Pat, Nihan Duran and Chris Hotz raised issues of intersectionality, race and ethnicity alongside gender; Maria Caprile and Karolina emphasised gender diversity (discussion pages 1–2).

The following summary names some discussion participants where the content and/or interaction made it appropriate to do so. Many participants and contributions are not identified, nonetheless all were vital to the collaboration – for the full list of participants and the full discussion, please check the e-discussion link.

Targets and quotas – not enough on their own

Anne Laure noted the substantial discussion about quotas in corporate board contexts, following the success of quotas in politics. However, it appeared that quotas had not been talked about so much in higher education institutions. She invited participants to share examples of institutions or countries where quotas had been considered. Participants described approaches from Belgium, Germany, Austria and Ireland: election rules, recommendations and cascade models to ensure certain gender percentages at certain levels (university boards, professors, decision-making bodies, academic-hierarchy-wide). Other participants reported resistance to quotas being introduced at all (Poland, Cyprus, Sweden). Experiences were mixed. For example, Dr Angela Worblewski explained that Austrian universities are obliged by law to follow a quota for all decision making bodies (at least 50% of members have to be female):


This led to a significant increase in the share of women in decision making within a couple of years. Now almost all rectorates, senates, university councils fulfil the quota. The quota made those who nominate candidates think about women, they looked for them and they found them. However, this does not necessarily mean that decisions are more women friendly or gender fair ... Some of the women refuse to be seen as advocates for women. This has been worsened during our right wing government 2018–19 which nominated very conservative persons for university councils ...


A discussion emerged around the cascade model. The cascade model debunks the argument that it’s difficult to increase the number of women in higher positions as the pool from which they are selected is too small. Dr Claartje Vinkenburg explained the cascade model used in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany: it is a statistical tool to decide on a ‘qualified’ quota where the % at the next higher hierarchical level reflects the % at the level below. Pat shared that in Ireland, the cascade model was recommended by the HEA (2016, 2018) but ‘it emerged that HEIs had implemented it EXCEPT at senior lecturer level – a critical gateway... showing bad faith by the HEIs and resistance’.


Overall, discussion participants were clear that targets and quotas were important, but absolutely not enough on their own. There was a thorough exchange on what else needed to happen, clustering around the following areas outlined in more detail below:

  • Changing micropolitical practices, unconscious bias, gender beliefs and stereotypes
  • Gender competence rather than gender numbers
  • Strategic implementation of quotas

Changing micropolitical practices and gender beliefs

Both invited experts flagged this up in their opening remarks, highlighting the importance of micropolitical practices (the informal exercise of power) as well as a more gender equal culture overall. In terms of how practices and beliefs can be changed, unconscious bias training was discussed and participants shared research on its effectiveness. The research shows mixed and even detrimental results. However, research on more effective interventions does exist (Bohnet, 2016; Vinkenburg, 2017). For the best results, we learnt from Anne Laure that training should be ‘embedded within wider and sustained structural change actions led and implemented by gender experts’, which fits with individualised training appearing to be a weakness (O’Connor, 2018).


In a later thread, gender beliefs held by men and women were discussed and the stereotype of the Queen Bee emerged. Pat commented that we should ‘bear in mind that getting women to distrust and fear other women is a key element in fostering patriarchy – since if women cannot rely on other women they must rely on men.’ Claartje also helpfully unpacked the connection to gender competence:


Part of being gender sensitive (or competent) means we have to realize men and women in decision making positions are held to very strong injunctive or prescriptive norms and stereotypes of how to behave. Especially being in a token position (only woman on an all-male board or hierarchical level) we are expected NOT to show solidarity to other women because that would be nepotism. Classic double bind!



Gender competence not gender numbers

Gender competence was a theme throughout the whole discussion. Participants reiterated repeatedly that numeric targets and quotas were not enough to achieve gender equality, and that ‘gender competence’ was more meaningful and effective. Dr Angela's Worblewski's distinction between gender-balance and gender competence (Wroblewski, 2019) had been a building block in the planning stages of the discussion, and Angela was also a participant in the discussion. In response to Pat’s opening remarks, Angela commented:

I agree that it is not enough to have gender balance in top positions. It would be necessary to have gender competent people there or – in an ideal world – gender experts. The question is how to bring gender competence in as a compulsory part of the job profile of such a position. And, as a second step, how to deal with this criterion in appointment procedures …

Angela also fleshed out how a gender competence moderator can operationalise gender competence:

I would see a gender fair decision-making body as a body which includes gender competent men and women who are willing to reflect on a gender bias in their decisions. As this is quite difficult to achieve it is necessary to have someone in the body who moderates this reflection. [...] In Austria we have an equal opportunities working party at each university (defined by law) which participates in all appointment procedures (without a right to vote). Their job in fact is exactly to point out potential biases in the assessment of candidates. The working party has quite a strong position because if they raise an objection the appointment procedure is stopped.


Later on in the discussion, gender competent recruitment procedures were examined in more detail (see page 2 of the e-discussion) plus there was a broader debate summarised in section below ‘How do we build gender competence in decision-making in our organisations?’.


Strategic implementation of quotas

Tips on how to implement quotas successfully were shared:

  • There is often an automatic negative response to the use of the word ‘quotas’. Sometimes it is not useful to use the word – just say that such a percentage needs to be achieved – and if possible tie the achievement of that to state funding.
  • Focusing on quotas in one or two key areas – particularly I suggest related to resources – money or people (i.e. recruitment/promotion). Otherwise the small number of senior women will be overwhelmed and no real change will occur.
  • In UK corporate boards, the threat of quotas alone has been quite successful in increasing women's board representation! Maybe that could ‘work in HEIs too, and mitigate negative perceptions of those appointed under quotas?
  • Start with quotas for gender equality at board level, where boards can be a breeding ground for further improvement. Women board members should also be proactive to support other women.

Framing strategies were also discussed as the conversation evolved - see next point coming up.



How do we build gender competence in decision-making in our organisations?

An interesting exchange about framing was stimulated by Prof. Dr. Gulsun Saglamer, who was the first female rector of her university and is currently President of the European Women Rectors Association (EWORA). She shared a Twitter message that she had sent to her colleagues:


“Half of the population deserves to contribute to the development of humankind with equal rights, equal opportunities and equal responsibilities”
The main question is “how to achieve this?”

Should we put certain targets or should we use certain quotas to achieve the desired situation in a defined time period?

Who are the ones who feel that they will benefit and who are the ones who might feel that there will be risk of losing their positions?


Following on from there, participants explored the framing of initiatives, particularly in terms of who will benefit: women are not the only ones who benefit from gender equality, rather the organisation as a whole benefits, including gender diverse people and men. In Ireland, the number of women professors has been boosted very successfully through the Senior Leadership Initiative (SALI) and the lack of negative feedback was attributed to: first, a shift in discourse whereby the idea of women having a lesser 'chance' than men is seen as unfair; and second, the HEA did a lot of work in getting HEIs to think they could gain from SALI.


As discussed in the earlier thread on Targets and Quotas, participants agreed on the importance of gender competent recruitment procedures. Please refer to page 2 of the e-discussion for the full debate on challenges and solutions.


From a funder’s perspective, Community of Practice facilitator Dr Rochelle Fritch shared:


This is a key issue in the FORGEN Community of Practice, as research funders we are looking at our own practices in decision-making for funding in the CoP. We are working on mapping the evaluation process and measures that have been implemented in each of the steps in the process. Additionally, as research funders, we are thinking of the best ways to promote decision-making in the research bodies we fund.


The subsequent exchange revealed shared concerns about an over reliance on Athena Swan. Rochelle explained that Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board will require HEIs to have Athena SWAN Gender Equality Accreditation in order to be eligible for research funding. However, Pat pointed out recent research which suggests Athena SWAN UK has had little effect.


Finally, there was a detailed examination of data we should use to understand gender equality in organisations, including dimensions of power, inclusion and sustainability. In particular, participants argued strongly that the simple statistic of women in grade A does not mirror equality or access to power. Gulsun illustrated the complexity of the problem with some statistics:


The ratio of women professors does not guarantee the similar ratio at the top management level.
If we look at the last SHE Figures we can observe that there are 3 main groups of countries:
1. Group has high percentage of women professors but very low number of rectors (Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey..)
2. Group has low percentage of women professors but high number of rectors ( Sweden..
3. Group has almost comparable representation at professorial level and top management (UK..

Interestingly, one of the Community of Practice members participating in the e-discussion was Anna Knapińska who was joining a She Figures Steering Group meeting later that day. As such, she was able to take relevant information from the e-discussion to the She Figures meeting. Anna also made the connection with the ACT on Gender surveys (Gender Equality Audit and Monitoring, GEAM) – perhaps the ACT survey could look into more sophisticated indicators, such as a ‘sense of equity’.


Dealing with the double burden

Regarding the question ‘How do you address the double burden when the same few women have to participate on many different committees/ boards?’, Dr Marta Warat confirmed they face this problem in Poland:

where the same women are involved in all committees and initiate various programmes or mechanisms to address gender inequality. This also raises a question about sustainability [...] The participation in committees/bodies sometimes means that your teaching obligation is lower. However, many initiatives are done in addition to your regular working load.

A number of concrete suggestions were shared on how to problem-solve the double burden, such as:

  • Given the scarcity of women in senior positions, invitations to women to participate in ALL  housekeeping committees have to be turned down. Then in making up the board, the women have to be invited FIRST and the men's expertise slotted around them, and if necessary international people invited…
  • Filling boards by democratic election, rather than ‘being asked by the dean’ or ‘an obligatory chore’.
  • Use the double burden as an argument to increase women in higher education positions.


Resistance to change and ‘non action’

Participants shared experiences as well as research expertise in this area. Anne Laure commented, ‘Some people with privilege are often afraid of losing this, and cannot see the benefit for everybody of having inclusive HEIs!’. Examples of resistance were shared: foot-dragging; rhetorical change; exhausting women and wasting their time (getting them to sit on housekeeping boards/those that lack power); the argument that there aren’t enough women to fill the quotas. Looking forward, Rachel laid out the challenge clearly:

I think resistance is so difficult due to links with 'inactivity' - blocking something is active but sometimes resistance can be manifested as 'inaction' - not doing something...
How do you then a) recognise it? b) measure it? and c) deal with it?

Participants exchanged strategies to deal with resistance throughout the e-discussion. Some key thoughts:

  • Engage leadership and make alliances from the beginning. Sharing ownership of the problem can lead to shared ownership of solutions. This also counteracts non-action in the form of leadership refusing to take responsibility for structural change (‘it’s up to women to seize opportunities’).
  • Focus on long-term goals and take step-by-step actions in that direction, counteracting everyday resistance, and achieving concrete results.
  • Change micropolitical practices – the informal exercise of power – that facilitates men and undermines women. Some suggestions on how to do this when entering a powerful meeting: see where power is – not only official power but where eyes turn to, who is listened to; make eye contact and shake hands with everyone and introduce yourself (assuming Covid-19 gone); speak before too long – it gets more difficult the longer you are silent.
  • Framing. For example, instead of justifying why gender equality is important in a particular project, ask why gender equality and gender issues are not relevant. 
  • Money talks. For example, when funders require projects to have a gender dimension, everyone is more or less interested.
  • Quotas (with sanctions) can be a stick waiting behind the door in case targets do not work, noting that at some point the stick has to appear, otherwise it is an empty threat.
  • Data to support your case.





The e-discussion left an impression of huge collective commitment and effort (past, present and future). Two discussion threads come to mind when reflecting on the discussion itself. We had talked about the double burden of women having to participate in many different committees and initiatives, alongside their core workload. Along those lines, the discussion was a concrete reminder of just how hard women (and allies) have to work, in a bid for women to have the time, space and resources to simply do their job. From a collective strengthening point of view, Maria’s words on resistance resonate:


Change agents cannot be isolated people. They have to work in a team. Making resistance explicit in the team opens space to discuss how resistance can be counteracted effectively.


Our Communities of Practice precisely aim to provide that team support so that our individual and collective work becomes more powerful and effective. Building from there, we hope to scale our communities up and develop our network of CoPs (‘MetaCoP’) at the European level, all towards lasting institutional change and gender equality. Watch this space.




(1) R&I – Research and Innovation; HE – Higher Education.

(2) Compared with previous GenPort e-discussions over the last two years alone, this e-discussion had more than two times the number of average participants, and more than three times the average number of comments.





Humbert, Anne Laure, Elisabeth Kelan and Marieke van den Brink (2019) “The Perils of Gender Beliefs for Men Leaders as Change Agents for Gender Equality”, European Management Review.


Humbert, Anne Laure, Elisabeth K Kelan and Kate Clayton-Hathway (2019) “A rights-based approach to board quotas and how hard sanctions work for gender equality”, European Journal of Women's Studies.


Bohnet, I. (2016) What Works: Gender Equality by Design. Harvard University Press.

Hughes, J., N. Jewson, and L. Unwin (2007) ‘Communities of Practice: A Contested Concept in Flux’. In Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, edited by J. Hughes, N. Jewson, and L. Unwin, 1–16. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.


Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press.


O’Connor, P. (2018) Gender imbalance in senior positions in higher education: what is the problem? What can be done? Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 3 (1): 28-50. 


Vinkenburg, C.J. (2017) Engaging gatekeepers, optimizing decision making, and mitigating bias: design specifications for systemic diversity interventions. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 53(2), 212–234.

Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.










She Figures (2018 Report)