About a research council: ‘Hierarchies hinder fair assessments’

2017-02-09 14:41

Men who apply for research grants are more often than women granted funding for long-term projects. This is something the Swedish Research Council Formas wants to change when they are gender mainstreaming their operations. Genus. se interviews Lissa Nordin, analyst at Formas, in a new article series about the funding agencies’ gender equality work.

– There is no simple answer to why men have or have had a tendency to receive research grants for longer projects than women. Rather, I think there’s a combination of several reasons. But at the end of the day, it’s a matter of power positions produced by structural factors and that concerns career development in academia, says Lissa Nordin.

It is a well-documented fact that majority of the older, established researchers and scientists in Sweden are men. They have access to larger networks than their younger colleagues and are more often granted funding for larger and more long-term programmes or so-called ‘strong environments’.

– Those types of projects and initiatives tend to favour the already established researchers and subsequently, the type of research they are involved in. The whole system becomes self-reinforcing – if you’re already an established researcher, it is much easier to attract attention and resources to your research,’ she says.

Formas is a state-funded research council that sorts under the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation. It allocates funding in the areas of the environment, agricultural sciences, and spatial planning with a focus on sustainable development. The projects that receive funding may concern agricultural issues, climate change, or community planning.

– It is important to point out that the projects that Formas funds within the framework of the annual open call are distributed fairly equally between women and men, says Lissa Nordin. However, we need to look closer at the larger programmes, since it has turned out that men are more likely than women to receive funding for big, long-term projects across the board.

The research councils need to become better at reviewing the calls for grant applications and how they are targeted, she says, and this should preferably be done in dialogue with the academic institutions to ensure a more gender equal effect.

If we instead target postdocs in a certain research field, the grants for the more long-term projects would be distributed more equally between women and men.

– For example, if we instead target postdocs in a certain research field, the grants for the more long-term projects would be distributed more equally between women and men, she says.

Gender-segregated research areas

There is also gender segregation within different research areas as some areas and issues are dominated by men and others by women, says Lissa Nordin.

The gender segregation among different research areas is due to factors beyond the control of Formas and other funding agencies, such as gendered educational choices. But the research councils still have a big responsibility, according to Lissa Nordin.

– We must be aware of the gender segregation when we plan our calls for grant applications. If we announce a major call for very technical construction-related projects, it seems reasonable to believe that most applicants will be men, since that is a traditionally male-dominated field.

It is therefore important to thoroughly analyse the field in which a major call is made so that all gender equality aspects can be considered, and to ensure the greatest possible breadth in terms of research questions in order to avoid reproducing a certain type of research that only attracts men, she says.

– But such consequences shouldn’t be routinely assumed. Instead, they need to be analysed on a case-by-case basis. Not least to avoid further neglecting the women who indeed work in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Hierarchies hindering fair assessments

As one of the 60 government agencies, Formas has been instructed by the national cabinet to gender mainstream its operations. The Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research has in turn been assigned the task of supporting the government agencies within the framework of the Gender Mainstreaming in Government Agencies’ programme, GMGA.

Lissa Nordin serves as Formas’ coordinator in the area, and a number of efforts will be made in 2017–2018 to strengthen the organisation’s gender equality work. One important component of the work is to increase the awareness regarding gender and gender equality issues in the review panels, says Lissa Nordin. For example, the panel heads will receive training in how hierarchies can be spotted.

– The assessment of grant applications should have the form of a discussion where everybody is given a chance to talk. If somebody becomes more influential than others due to domination techniques or status, some perspectives may get neglected. says Lissa Nordin.

She points out that the hierarchies are not grounded in gender alone.

It is due to other power and status structures that some voices are given priority and others are silenced.

– The fact that some voices are given priority and others are silenced is due to a wide range of power and status structures and not just gender, she says. The members of Formas’ Scientific Council come from several different countries, universities and disciplines, she says.

Formas strives to achieve equal numbers of women and men in its review panels, and the GMGA project is catalysing this work. Most panels, but not all, already have an equal gender distribution.

– This is directly linked to the national gender equality objective of power and influence. Women should have the same opportunities as men to become a panel member and help decide which research projects should be granted funding, says Lissa Nordin.

Wants to test mandating a gender perspective

The Swedish government’s most recent research bill, presented in November, encourages the research councils to promote a gender perspective in research. Lissa Nordin likes the initiative.

– I have no complaints from a gender and gender equality perspective. The bill is great, she says.

Formas is strengthening its promotion of a gender perspective in research through its ongoing gender mainstreaming efforts. According to the action plan for 2017, “The research funded by Formas shall to a greater extent be characterised by a gender equality and/or a gender and intersectional perspective”.

– Formas is instructed to support research of the highest scientific and scholarly quality, research with a potential to benefit society. This means that all applications are assessed based on both scientific criteria and predicted benefits to society, says Lissa Nordin.

The gender perspective is important with respect to both scientific quality and societal relevance, she continues.
– Not everybody needs to become a gender scholar, but everybody should be able to explain which groups might be affected by their research, she says.

She mentions research on environmental pollution as an example.

– If you are a researcher and you want to study the effects of a certain environmental pollutant, it should be obvious to answer certain questions in both your research questions and your description of the project’s societal relevance, like: Who will be affected? Whose bodies? What consequences will this have?

‘We need to make it easier for the researchers’

The new national research bill instructs the research councils to jointly discuss and figure out how to promote gender and gender equality perspectives in research.

– As a research council, we need to make it easier for the applicants and the reviewers. There are several ideas about how to do this, but we must try to find the best ways together, says Lissa Nordin.

One idea emphasised in Formas’ action plan is to announce a pilot call with the requirement that the researchers must include a gender or gender equality perspective in their applications.

– We are discussing this with the other research councils, since this is something we would like to do together with them, says Lissa Nordin.

The research funders and eventually the research community have a lot to gain from a standardised way of formulating such requirements, she believes.

– All funding agencies have unique experiences they should share with each other. Trying to re-invent the wheel is a waste of time, she says.

Lissa Nordin believes that the research councils’ gender mainstreaming work has been fruitful.

– Gender and gender equality issues have become more visible on the agenda and in the dialogues between the funding agencies, for example in our various networks. It’s important to us to stress that these issues are directly related to our core operations. Things are really changing for the better, she says, but she also points to the importance of continued engagement and support from the government and society at large.

Gender mainstreaming is not for the impatient

The greatest challenge in the near future at Formas will be to accept that change takes time, Lissa Nordin believes. She sees strong internal engagement, but at this point, everybody needs to be patient, she says. Formas’ largest call for grant applications is planned one year in advance, so the effects of any changes made are never instant.

– Everybody wants immediate results. However, all changes must first be integrated into the big flow of things, and that of course takes time, she says.

Author Charlie Olofsson, translated by Debbie Axlid.
Photo Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin
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