European Policies and Research Funding: A Case Study of Gender Inequality and Lack of Diversity in a Nordic Research Programme

Pat O’Connor and Antoinette Faux-Chamoux
Pat O’Connor and Antoinette Faux-Chamoux

by Pat O’Connor & Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux

Supra national and cross-national funding is increasingly becoming the norm in a context characterised by international consortia. Although bringing advantages in terms of scale, it raises issues about the relative salience of national location and gender and its implications for the funding of projects led by women, and for the composition of research teams. These themes are explored in a case study of a cross-national research programme, with a broadly Nordic funding structure, based in Sweden, and with a total budget of approximately EUR 3million. Two critical intervention points were identified: firstly those related to the relative power of the location based Steering Group and the gender balanced expert panels; and secondly the project leaders’ attitudes to diversity.

The Steering Group for the research programme was composed of representatives of nationally located funding organisations. At the inception of the Steering Group (when critical decisions were being made about structures, criteria and funding), only 20 per cent of the members were women. This breached the Swedish 40 per cent gender balance rule.

Although projects led by women accounted for 45 per cent of those who submitted applications, and just under 40 per cent of those assessed as excellent by the experts, they constituted only 22 per cent of those funded. Thus male project leaders who applied had a roughly one in 12 chance of being successful, as compared with a roughly one in 35 chance  for female project leaders. This gender disparity held among both Swedish and non-Swedish based applications.

Gender bias was thus shown in the composition of the Steering Group; in the use of location but not gender in deciding which projects were to be funded; in blatant deviations from the excellence list and in the allocation of the lowest level of funding to the only female led group etc. The decision by a Finnish based body to top up the funding awarded to the only female led (Swedish based) group project was an interesting example of a pro-female decision which was not based on national considerations.

A national and institutional research context which is strongly supportive of gender equality had limited influence on the decisions taken by a Steering Group. It suggests that gender inequality is maintained at the micro level (i.e. the interactional or individual level: Wharton, 2012).

To a degree to which is rarely made explicit, project membership is very much in the gift of the project leader. The leaders of three of the six group funded projects had positive attitudes to gender equality and this was reflected in gender diversity, disciplinary and locational diversity in their research teams. In the other three funded group projects, the project leaders had less positive attitudes to diversity on all three dimensions: in contrast to the call for applications.

The evidence suggests firstly that measures need to be put in place to ensure that national location does not dominate funding decisions in supra or cross national projects.. Secondly it underlines the importance of project leaders’ attitudes to diversity in their research teams. The funding context, even in Sweden, seems to implicitly accept gender representation (i.e. one woman and five or six men) rather than gender balance (40 per cent of the unrepresented gender on research project teams).

The EU is encouraging research stakeholder organisations to set targets and monitor progress, and clearly this is an area in which research funding organisations can provide leadership. A number of countries (such as Spain) award additional points to projects directed by a woman or which have a higher than average representation of women on the project team: EU, 2008).

Gender is one of the five key areas targeted by the EU in research policy. However, it is still not compulsory in Horizon 2020. Insofar as the EU and the OECD are interested in research innovation, it is unacceptable that research teams that lack diversity be funded. Gender diversity in project teams, at least in this study, is a marker of diversity on these other dimensions.

This case study is thus a salutary reminder of the importance of the interactional and/or individual levels in perpetuating gender inequality, despite the favourable policy context at national and institutional level.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like to read Women’s pensions in the European Union and the current economic crisis by Liam Foster

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