Lessons Learned From TARGET and GEECCO– a First Assessment

By Angela Wroblewski (Institute for Advanced Studies, IHS), Coordinator of TARGET

On 11th March 2021, the joint conference of the two H2020 structural change projects GEECCO – Gender Equality in Engineering through Communication and Commitment – and TARGET – Taking a reflexive approach to gender equality for institutional transformation – took place. Even though the projects differ in some ways, the lessons learned are pretty similar. GEECCO and TARGET implementing partners started a reflexive structural change policy – in both projects, the capacity building took place, partners analysed the status quo regarding gender equality, defined objectives and developed a targeted gender equality plan (GEP). Furthermore, GEP implementation started and was reflected based on monitoring and evaluation results which led to an adaptation of GEPs in some institutions. Such an evidence-based, cyclical approach needs time, financial and personnel resources, top-down commitment, the support of an internal community of practice and the advice from facilitators – to varying degrees depending on the level of management support and political context. However, implementation is challenged by resistance at institutional level and changes in management as well as by the absence of a national discourse on gender equality in R&I in the countries of the implementing institutions.  for Advanced Studies, IHS), Coordinator of TARGET

GEPs are an essential but challenging instrument to pursue structural change in R&I. Experiences of both projects show that reflexivity is a crucial success factor. It is necessary to reflect on the dominant invisible norm in research, innovation and teaching – which is gendered. It is necessary to detect stereotypes and create inclusive environments for all genders and address all forms of sexual harassment. Hence, it is necessary to reflect on how we teach, learn and do research. The reflection on GEECCO and TARGET’s experiences also made clear that the adoption of strategic papers (GEPs) alone will not change anything. It is crucial to plan GEP implementation as an ongoing process that comprises initiating awareness raising, supporting capacity building, creating structures, and providing tools and guidelines. 

These experiences become especially relevant regarding the planned GEP requirement for institutions applying for funding in Horizon Europe. GEECCO’s and TARGET’s experiences showed that the orientation towards the European Union, requirements of funding organisations, and journals or publishers are the main drivers for institutional gender equality policies. Given that, the upcoming GEP requirement in Horizon Europe carries an enormous potential to support gender equality in R&I – specially the further development of policies in countries and institutions which already started their engagement regarding gender equality. However, it also entails the risk of widening the gap between more and less advanced countries or institutions regarding gender equality. One aspect that supports this assumption is that more active countries concerning gender equality began their commitment to gender equality in R&I more than 20 years ago – at the latest when gender mainstreaming became a European strategy. It is not so easy to compensate for this process and the related learnings without time and resources. 
Therefore, we are convinced that targeted support is needed for countries and institutions that start the journey. However, direct support alone will not be enough. Besides, the GEP requirement should be embedded in a policy discourse between EU and member states and associated countries which aims at 

  • establishing a shared understanding of gender equality that goes beyond women’s representation, 
  • providing arguments to engage in gender equality, and 
  • establishing quality criteria for GEPs. 

Besides this policy discourse, further precautions are necessary to utilise the potential of the GEP requirement in Horizon Europe. First of all, GEPs should be mandatory. If a GEP is a precondition for applications in Horizon Europe, GEPs become mandatory for applying institutions. In an ideal world, GEPs would become also mandatory in other funding contexts (e.g. for public universities). If GEPs become a must, sanctions for non-compliance must be discussed in the not too distant future. Secondly, GEPs should be comprehensively defined and based on a shared and substantive understanding of gender equality and concrete objectives of structural change. Currently, there is room for divergent interpretations of gender equality and structural change, which hampers a gender equality discourse. Thirdly, concrete objectives formulated in GEPs call for meaningful monitoring of GEP implementation. As mentioned above, GEPs should be based on an evidence-based and reflexive process that starts with an empirical analysis of the status quo. Monitoring of GEP implementation not only allows insight in developments regarding gender equality at the institutional level – it also opens up room for reflexivity (e.g. through internal discussions about gender equality based on monitoring reports). Last but not least, sufficient resources must be provided for GEP development and implementation. They include financial resources, personnel responsible for GEP development, and expertise available to support the process and capacity building.

However, GEECCO’s and TARGET’s experiences also show that for implementing institutions it is difficult to compensate for the lack of a national policy discourse about gender equality and counteract explicit anti-gender state policies. This issue stresses the already mentioned need for embedding GEP implementation in a national or European gender equality policy discourse in R&I. European and national possibilities for mutual learning and exchange of experiences could support both the development of GEPs at the institutional level and policy discourse. 
Still, the biggest challenge in this context is the need for a simultaneous and coordinated approach of relevant stakeholders at the European, national and institutional level. A common understanding of gender equality and the development of a joint gender equality strategy are required to be effective. Horizon Europe and the new strategy for a European Research Area could provide a forum for that. Let us keep our fingers crossed that this potential is being used and stay active advocates for gender equality in R&I.