Work-Life-Balance and Gender Criteria in Quality Assessment

On 3rd December 2021, TARGET organised a co-creation workshop on work-life-balance and gender criteria in quality assessment.

While gender equality has long been enshrined as a goal in research performing and recently also in research funding organisations, this is most often not the case in higher education quality assurance agencies. Neither ENQA, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, nor INQAAHE, the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, explicitly mention gender in their guidelines. In fact, common quantitative indicators claim to be gender-neutral and transparent, although they may contain a gender bias and thus reinforce gender inequalities. 

One consequence of this quantification of excellence, which has emerged through managerialism and the neo-liberalisation of universities, is that academics need to work more and more in order to score well in quality evaluations. This in turn has a negative impact on their work-life balance. This is especially true for women because, on the one hand, they still largely take on family responsibilities and caregiving duties and, on the other hand, they often take on tasks at universities that, in turn, do not count as much as research output (publications), the amount of research funding obtained or excellence awards.

For this reason, the aim of the third TARGET co-creation workshop is to discuss these topics based on specific questions formulated by two partner institutions (ARACIS and FRRB). These questions arose in the context of the further development of their GEPs. The workshop aims at providing input for GEP further development and focuses on the following questions:

  • How can research organisations implement work-life-balance policies in their GEP to counteract the leaky pipeline and patriarchal structures within academia?
  • How to integrate gender criteria in higher education quality assurance to enshrine gender equality is an aspect of excellence?

In the first part of the workshop, we had the pleasure to hear from Ana Belén Amil, Gender Equality Officer at the Central European University (CEU), and Thomas Öst, from the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (UKÄ). 

Ana explained how work-life-balance is undermined by the concept of “excellent worker” that academia presumes, with unlimited time to spend at work and full mobility, disregarding any demands from family, community and personal life. Meritocracy is based on the assumption that the recruitment/promotion systems are gender neutral, and challenging this assumption faces strong resistance. Ana mentioned an extensive set of recommendations on friendly life-work practices that could be included in a GEP, including paid parental leave, flexible working, gender-sensitive recruitment, childcare on site, or tenure-clock extensions. However, she also noted that these measures can create wider inequalities if they are mostly taken by women. The implementation of these measures must be accompanied by policies to change traditional gender norms and values.

Thomas presented the innovative evaluation system in the Swedish higher education evaluation, which focuses on evaluating procedures in internal evaluations, including monitoring and follow-up of existing policies in private and public universities. Under the program of Gender Mainstreaming in Government Agencies and Academia all Swedish institutions should integrate gender equality in their ordinary activities, focusing on equal career paths, equality in recruitment and equality in resource allocation. Innovative issues have been the activities of monitoring and follow-up, including assessment panels, self-evaluations by the institutions and on-sites visits. If a program does not pass the assessment, UKÄ can close it. However, in general institutions do not want bad evaluations and have incentives to improve. 

In the second part of the workshop, the cases of ARACIS and FRRB were discussed. ARACIS is the Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. They aim at achieving gender balance in their Permanent Specialty Commissions, as well as the commissions carrying out the evaluation of activities done by ARACIS. There has been an increase in the number of women in the technical apparatus and a working group has been established for including gender among the equality evaluation criteria. Several gender experts from Romanian universities participate in this group. 

FRRB (Fondazione Regionale per la Ricerca Biomedica) is a funding agency in the field of health and life sciences in the region of Lombardia, Italy. FRRB adopted a new GEP in 2021 which included work-life balance as an aspect for improvement. FRRB sees remote working as a form of work life balance, for which they are now working on a new regulation following the Covid-19 crisis. However, flexibility has some limits. There are tasks that cannot be done from home without losing value, being in the office has an added value.  It is key to find a balance between on-site work and work at home, for both the institution and the staff. FRRB is currently developing a new policy on working from home, which should provide the opportunity to make a clear arrangement and avoid any problems that may arise.