SOMMa 1st meeting on gender equality policy

  • Directors of SOMMa Centres discussed at the CNIO best practices in gender equality to attain a culture change allowing to integrate gender equality into strategic science decisions
  • Gender equality expert Cheryl Smythe discussed the gender policies implemented at the Babraham Institute to obtain the Athena SWAN Charter: a UK recognition to best practices for gender equality, and model for prospective future European initiatives
  • The British Embassy in Spain took part in the event, that was closed by Ana Puy, Director of the Women and Science Unit at the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities

On October the 29th, took place the 1st Gender Equality Event of SOMMa, in Madrid, at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (CNIO). The conference was organized both by SOMMa and CNIO’s Women in Science Office (WISE), created in 2012 by its director Maria Blasco and coordinated by Isabel López de Silanes. The event also enjoyed the collaboration of the British Embassy in Spain, featuring a talk of the British Ambassador in Spain, Hugh Elliott.

The meeting aimed at sharing best practices in this area at the SOMMa Centres to promote a change of their institutional culture in support of female talent and gender equality in science, and of strategic decision-making in a coordinated and institutional way.

The why of the event

During this first SOMMa meeting on gender balance at CNIO, several directors of SOMMa Centres discussed the network’s best practices and shared experiences, so that its members could learn from the experience acquired by other members. This knowledge exchange would help generate a change of culture enabling gender equality to be integrated into strategic decision-making in science.

The dimensions of gender equality. Here, the representation of the average Gender Equality Index of the EU (2017).
The dimensions of gender equality. Here, the representation of the average Gender Equality Index of the EU (2017).

“We must support and facilitate a strategy of excellence in which gender balance benefits from scientific talent,” said Patrizia Ziveri, Chair of the Mobility and Exchange Work Package of SOMMa and Scientific Director at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB). “Strategic decisions made by mixed-gender groups of experts benefit science and society. The main questions that government agencies and institutions should ask are: How do we back the scientific careers of the best women in the centres of excellence and how do we promote sustained leadership? What are the benefits for science and society of having gender diversity in future strategic decisions in research centres of excellence?”.

“At CNIO we started making structural changes in 2012 to enable more women to take a step forward in their scientific careers,” explains Maria Blasco, CNIO Director and SOMMa Vice-Chair. “For example, the introduction of flexible working hours has significantly reduced the number of women asking for shorter working days. But much remains to be done.”

There is indeed still a long road ahead before reaching gender equity in research. According to data from the recent SRUK/CERU Survey on Gender Equality in Research, male and female scientists doing research in Spain perceive gender inequality in the workplace very differently.

For instance, up to 79% of male researchers feel treated with equity in their workplace. This figure drops to 55% for female researcher answers. Sixty percent of female respondents believe that maternity leave harms their career, whereas only 33% of male respondents think the same about paternity leave. In general, women feel less internal support than men do, more women think that their work is not appreciated, and they feel less encouraged to ask for a promotion. Moreover, only 40% of all Spanish male and female researchers surveyed believe that the departments are committed to gender equality.

British ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott attended the meeting, and declared that “women and science are words that should go hand in hand more often. We cannot afford this loss of talent, creativity and innovation, and this is why the British Government has committed to promote quality education for girls all over the world as its strategic goal. Governments and societies must commit to work together, to inspire and empower female talent, to support and develop it across all life stages, from school to the board of directors.”

Scientists for gender equality

Gender equality expert Cheryl Smythe, International Grants Manager of the Babraham Institute, explained the barriers that her centre identified with regard to the gender gap, and the measures taken to overcome them and to obtain the Athena SWAN Charter, which since 2005 recognizes UK universities and research centres that are committed to the establishment, monitoring and evaluation of practices that lead to real gender equality. In the United Kingdom, such centres must have the Athena SWAN accreditation to be able to request funding for their projects, and more and more experts are now asking that the European Union implement a similar accreditation system.

Group picture of all the participants of the Gender Equality event at Madrid's CNIO
Group picture of all the participants of the Gender Equality event at Madrid’s CNIO

Directors and representatives of ten other SOMMa institutions presented initiatives deployed at their institutions. They were: Maria Blasco of the local host, CNIO, Patrizia Ziveri of ICTA-UAB, José Luis Riechmann of the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG), Bruna Vives of the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), Teresa Sanchís of the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), Josefa Masegosa of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC), Neus Domingo of the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), Aurelio Ruiz of the Information and Communication Technologies Engineering Department at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (DTIC – UPF), María Santos of the Department of Signal Theory and Communications of the Polytechnic University of Barcelona (COMMSENSLAB, UPC), and Roberta Zambrini of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems (IFISC).

The talks: barriers in sight… and ways to overcome them

Setting the stage with some context about the Babraham Institute, and the difference between the concepts of equality, equity and inclusion, Cheryl Smythe started her keynote talk. Attendees were invited to take the test for implicit bias, being warned that the results might reveal aspects one may be unaware of. Awareness of it, indeed, is one of the requirements for being able to act on bias, affirmed Smythe.

Cheryl Smythe further elaborated about a number of challenging factors for reaching gender equality in research, factors that lie broadly in areas such as: decision making inside institutions, work-life balance (and relatedly, family leaves), institutional culture and awareness, recruitment practices, promotion and career, development and training practices. Strategies to overcome some of those hurdles were proposed over the discussion, and actions that led to the obtention of the Athena SWAN Charter by the Babraham Institute.

Keynote speaker Cheryl Smythe, on the obtention of the Athena SWAN Charter.
Keynote speaker Cheryl Smythe, on the obtention of the Athena SWAN Charter.

The statistics presented by Aurelio Ruiz (DTIC) earlier during the event showcased something that was perhaps yet foreseen: data showed that the representation of women decreased with increasing seniority level of the research positions at hand. This would be reflecting the underlying problems that female researchers face in their careers. Flash talks of SOMMa directors and other representatives showed the steps taken to attain gender equality at several members.

The importance of acquiring reliable data of the situation in order to take informed decisions, as well as an appropriate follow-up of the impact of the measures was highlighted as also a key for success. During the talks, it was underscored that there are specific hurdles for the attraction of women to technology careers and research, one of the specific fields where female researchers are more scarce.

Connecting with the previous, one of the exposed initiatives aimed at providing visible role models for prospective female researchers (in that specific case, engineers), which is particularly urgent in technological fields of research. There, women are at a clear minority even at the undergraduate level. Other measures focused on conciliation, support in child-care, “stop-the-clock” policies during parental leaves, prevention of discrimination, or training and education against gender bias. Recruitment bias, for instance applying measures as gender-balanced evaluation panels was another focus point mentioned.

Ana Puy, Director of the Women and Science Unit at the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, closed the meeting talking about work in course to establish an upcoming system for evaluating at a national level the gender policies implemented by Spanish universities and research and innovation institutions.

Snapshop of one of the flash talks: engineer María Santos explaining concepts of engineering to a group of children.
Snapshop of one of the flash talks: engineer María Santos explaining concepts of engineering to a group of children.

Among the ideas that appeared repeatedly during the event were the need for a systemic commitment inside institutions, both top-down and bottom-up, ensuring an adequate provision of resources, and the commitment to the proposed action plans, as well as the value of diversity in decision making.

While a good number of initiatives were presented, hurdles in the way ahead were also made evident. For instance, initiatives were often found to be rather individual than institutional, could perhaps be missing dedicated resources or the required critical mass leading to stability over time necessary to consolidate real transformation. As initiatives undertaken initially in a relative isolation from fellow SOMMa members, they did not benefit from the experience acquired to date by the other institutions of the network. This is something that SOMMa aims to change.

Neither research nor any society can afford to overlook a significant portion of the talent or potential of half of its population. Rescuing the words of Ambassador Hugh Elliott during his address: it is of the greatest strategic importance to empower women everywhere.

To learn more, watch the video of the full event, here.

Image credits:

The scores of the Gender Equality Index and its domains at EU-level in 2015, along with the changes in scores from 2005 picture was downloaded from Wikipedia and licensed via an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.

Group picture was re-used with permission from the CNIO.

Remaining pictures were taken on-site by SOMMa personnel.