Learning from gender equality policies in Austrian Research Funding Organizations

By Angelina Kussy and Maria Caprile, (NOTUS) 

At the end of September 2021, we had the pleasure to hold an online study visit on gender equality policies in three Austrian Research Funding Organizations (RFOs): 

  • Austrian Science Fund (FWF), national funding agency on basic research, presented by Sabine Haubenwallner and Barbara Zimmermann, respectively Head of Unit of Gender Issues and Head of the Department Strategy and Careers.
  • Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG), national funding agency in industrial research and development, presented by Alexia Bumbaris and Theresa Kirschner, who work in the Structural Programs Department.
  • Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF), private foundation focused on basic research and new technologies, presented by Donia Lasinger, deputy managing director.

The objective of this study visit was to know more in-depth the experiences of RFOs with long-standing experience on gender equality policies and discuss inputs for further development of GEPs in the TARGET RFOs. Topics for discussion were:

  • Development and institutionalisation of gender equality policies.
  • Policies and measures adopted to foster gender equality in careers and their impact.
  • Policies and measures adopted to foster the gender dimension in research and their impact.


In general, Austrian RFOs have benefited from a favourable regional and national context for gender equality. Change in the Federal government started around 2005, when there was an important discussion on gender equality in R&I. Since then, the Federal Government has been advancing gender equality policies, including an article on the Constitution on gender-oriented budgeting for the Federal Ministries and the implementation of the Austrian ERA Roadmap. The Roadmap has an explicit commitment to gender equality in R&I and focuses on strengthening/institutionalising cooperation between the three relevant Federal Ministries founding R&I. 

Concerning the status quo of gender equality, there are significant differences between public universities and other R&I sectors, although there is no comparable data. GEP is required by law in public universities, which have relatively good gender equality policies. Due to quota regulations, the percentage of women among rectorate members is high (49% in 2020). However, the percentage of women professors is still very low (24% in 2020) and suggests the need for further action. Regarding other types of higher education institutions, the legal framework is less favourable and gender equality policies are less developed. In the private R&I sector there are no legal requirements and the only steering instrument is funding. 

Gender equality policies in RFOs

RFOs play a highly relevant steering role for gender equality advancement. This includes project application procedures, guidelines, type of research funded. A wide range of measures have been adopted, among others:

  • Criteria concerning gender balance of the applicants (principal researcher, composition of the working team)
  • Criteria concerning gender-sensitive working conditions
  • Criteria concerning the gender content of the applications (relevance and impact)
  • Capacity building to foster the role of women in innovation in the private sector
  • Specific funding programmes targeted to women researchers
  • Criteria for ensuring equal allocation of opportunities and funding
  • Monitoring of gender equality measures

Some key points for discussion

Discussion highlighted some aspects which have facilitated the adoption and effectiveness of gender equality policies

  • A favourable context (including the government steering role and established best practices)
  • Top-management commitment, including participation in internal workshops, which encouraged participation of the rest of the staff
  • Gender expertise and commitment of staff initiating change
  • Step-by-step process of raising gender awareness and building gender competence among internal staff through workshops and targeted training
  • Establishment of gender units 
  • Training for reviewers and potential applicants
  • Clarity and visibility of criteria used and quality of guidelines
  • Cooperation and networking with other RFOs at national and international levels
  • Giving time to measures implemented
  • Improving monitoring tools
  • Evidence-based process for redesigning policies, based data on progressmade to foster further advancements.
An example: Gender competence in project evaluationsRFOs usually screen applications firstly through external or internal reviewers, and then a jury makes the final decision. Different strategies are applied to ensure gender expertise in this process, in particular concerning gender in research content:Include gender expertise as a criterion to be a jury memberEnsure gender expertise in all jury members by providing guidelines and dedicated time to train on gender issuesBuild gender competence of internal board members who take the final decision (training and workshops)

The discussion also highlighted some resistances, both internal and external. Internally, criteria related to gender balance were sometimes discussed on the grounds of excellence. Workshops and training were useful to handle it, including evidence gathered through monitoring to show the extent of inequalities.

Externally, the main discussion hinged around gender in research content. The typical answer was “it does not play any role in my research; it is simply not relevant”. In order to overcome this, guidelines and workshops with potential applicants were held. In general terms, applicants gave positive feedback, indicating that it was insightful for their project to include a gender perspective.

Finally, it was also noted that RFOs have limits to produce change if gender equality is not also promoted at the institutional level in research performing organisations. Here, one limitation is the lack of GEPs in private companies in the case of industrial research. Limitations in industrial research are also related to the low presence of women in the STEM fields.