TRIGGER Mid-Term Workshop: Transforming Research Institutions, Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality: a Half-Way Reflection

The TRIGGER consortium mid-term workshop was held at Birkbeck on 14 April 2016 with participants from across Europe and the USA attending the event.  Trigger is a five country an FP7-funded European project (2014-17). It aims at promoting systemic interventions designed to have deep, long lasting and widespread impacts at all the different levels in 5 research organisations. The project, coordinated and co-funded by the Italian Government, assisted by an institute specialised in gender and science, involves as co-funders five universities from different EU countries (Czech Republic, France, Italy, UK, Spain). In Birkbeck, the project involves the School of Science and the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.

The workshop was designed to present an occasion for common reflection and dialogue on the factors affecting the implementation of institutional change action plans for gender equality in science.

Opening speeches

Welcoming speeches were given on behalf of Michele Palma, Department of Equal Opportunities, Presidency of Council of Ministers of Italy, TRIGGER project coordinator and by Giovanna Declich, ASDO, technical assistance to and accompanying research on the TRIGGER Action Plans, and  Stephen Frosh, Pro-Vice Master of Birkbeck College and Chair of the Birkbeck TRIGGER Board.

Professor Frosh made a number of key points that were reflected in the later discussion groups.  He praised the excellent work being done by TRIGGER and gave the rallying call: “If you are meeting resistance then you are doing something right”.

Giovanna Declich, acknowledged the complexity of issues that were being addressed.  She discussed some of the obstacles, enablers of change together with a range of emerging issues that include new rules to support work-life balance.

The TRIGGER experience at mid-term

The first morning session, chaired by Professor Rosemary Deem, Vice Principal (Education) & Dean of the Doctoral School at Royal Holloway was devoted to a reflection by each of the TRIGGER teams on their experiences at the mid-term point.  The discussion was moderated by Alice Hogan, Independent Higher Education Consultant and inaugural Director of the ADVANCE Program of the National Science Foundation, USA. She highlighted the challenging nature of the work to achieve change, which is often not recognised and stressed that to do so takes exemplary and courageous university leadership.  It is important to understand why institutions don’t change, sometimes because they don’t think there is any need to, so it is important to take this into account and not to get discouraged.

Helen Lawton Smith discussed the TRIGGER experience at Birkbeck, where sometimes pre-existing schemes can cause conflicts.  One of the positives to emerge is the TRIGGER external board that allows engagement with other academic institutions and, most importantly, engagement with external business groups.  In order to institutionalise actions developed within TRIGGER developments, a PhD module will be developed within the college for gendered research and gender and career develop programme both of which will be sustained after the end of the TRIGGER project.

Katerina Grecova of the University of Chemistry and Technology said that in Prague individual agreements such as those relating to home-working and applying for maternity leave during research projects have been institutionalised through a collective agreement.  A competition has been established in memory of first female professor in Czechoslovakia and this has been very successful.  Also a book of interviews with female researchers in Czechia has been published, which provides role models and can serve as a motivational tool.

Ines Sanchez De Madariaga and Ines Novella from the Technical University of Madrid provided an insight into gaining the attention of leaders.  Prior to TRIGGER data was available on gender issues, but it was not internationally comparable and produced in an unsystematic and poorly designed way.  Producing an in-depth 100-page report that was well designed and graphically set out the data provided the turning point in a meeting.  The Rector of the university had read the whole report, making comments on each of the graphs and then formed an action plan.  Previously, the legislation existed, but nothing had been done about it.  The university has also worked with the United Nations to set up the UNESCO Chair of Gender, Technology and Sustainability.

Sophie L Henry and Rachida Lemmaghti from the University of Paris Diderot, France set out how their university has long tradition of gender equality work, being one of the first to institutionalise gender research.  In the 1970s the university provided very strong support for research in this area and in 1985 got assistant professor on gender.  In 2010 the university created a department devoted to gender equality.  With TRIGGER, Sophie and Rachida learned to negotiate with teachers on gender, since it was important to support what was already there.  Training is now in place for all first year university students.  In Italy, Rita Biancheri and Silvia Cervia from the University of Pisa said that thanks to previous experience women’s salaries, careers and work-life balance have been promoted.

The second session, moderated by Jeanne Le Roux,  founder of JLR People Solutions was on Negotiating institutional change with leadership in research institutions: setting the scene

Download the presentations of the session 

Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Assistant Dean for Gender Equalities in the School of Science, Birkbeck discussed some of the issues in attempting to gain Athena SWAN accreditation at Birkbeck.  In the course of three months, Belinda has put in place of actions designed to improve the environment for gender equality in the college. There have been a number of small, but incremental gains.  These include a series of talks with senior people coming in to discuss their approaches to gender and diversity and made a number of changes such as some of the language like ending the use of “non-academic staff”.    It is now clear where the holes were in the previous application.

Henry Etzkowitz, visiting Birkbeck Professor, from Stanford University put forward his view that gender equality in science was possible through self-organised work, protest, and legal action.  Professor Etzkowitz  went on to give a number of examples of how this has worked, such as gender-based conferences at Berkeley, the Ellen Pao legal case in the USA, and protests in Europe.   Henry also challenged Birkbeck to take the initiative to build the Rosalind Franklin Institute for Gender and Science.

The teams were then invited to discuss what has worked in the TRIGGER project in their institutions and what did not.

The Top 5 issues for the TRIGGER project at mid term:

  • Awareness: people in the universities are not always aware of the project
  • Priority: not being on the top leadership agenda
  • Structure of leadership: change or very wide leadership structure
  • Resistance: people are resistant to the gender issues
  • Sustainability: lacks of resource to make actions sustainable

To deal with university leadership the main messages are:

  • Use the targeted audience’s language
  • Ensure the team is recognised and has the adequate sponsor
  • Use data to make the case

The afternoon followed on from the morning and was devoted an interactive group session on how to find solutions to some of the problems of negotiating institutional change with leadership in research institutions. Groups were asked to brainstorm on the solutions for one specific key issue so that could produce quick wins and initiate actions that could be part of a longer-term action plan.

Solutions

The solutions were to:

  • Create a network of champions whose purpose is to raise the project awareness and enable the project to be on the priority list.
  • Use open language, not a confrontational style.
  • Link project to the institution strategy, core mission and agenda.
  • Involve the administration e.g. HR, External relations… to overcome resistance and make the project sustainable
  • Use data to showcase the project and impact of it.

Conclusion

Progress has been made but in every university, there is much more to do.  Negotiating change is about addressing pre-existing power relations and finding ways around them to provide better solutions to gender inequality.