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New global report on research funding organisations and gender dimensions

According to the European Commission, the gender dimension should be included in research when relevant. Methods of sex and gender analysis in research serve to enhance scientific excellence as well as to enhance the lives of men and women. This is also stated in policies of many national research funding organisations (RFOs). But how do they work to implement them? A new report, The Gender Dimension in Research and Innovation, brings more knowledge on this topic.

The study investigates patterns of how the RFOs organise their work and points at common challenges as well as consequences of measures, priorities and decisions. This is one of few reports to study research funding organisations globally. Previously, studies on single RFOs have been laid out. This study has a comparative approach to several ones, in an international context. The report can be seen as an indicative guide for research funding organisations now working - or want to work - with these issues.

The report primarily consists of a survey of RFOs around the world. To further map knowledge, it also includes a thorough review of previous studies of the issue, as well as analyses of interviews with two RFOs. The report also contains a smaller desk study of how a number of RFOs describe their implementations of relevant policies.

Three common challenges

The report shows that the inclusion of gender dimension in research funding can be characterised by three common challenges:

1. Academic freedom -  vague definitions

The RFOs set up goals for greater awareness of the relevance of gender dimension in research. At the same time they don’t want to control or interfere with applicant’s choices of methods and theoretical perspectives. It is a question of academic freedom, based on the principle that it is a prerequisite for quality in research that the researchers themselves are best coped to judge how to investigate the research question at hand. Not to interfere with academic freedom is an important aspect. But on the other hand: Guidelines with vague definitions or no definitions at all are not helping the applicants.

– The challenge discussed does not have to be a dilemma as such. If RFOs set out to promote greater awareness of the relevance of gender dimension in research, one can question the point of being so vague that it does not make any difference, says Jimmy Sand, one of the two authors of the report.

2. The mix up gender equality – gender dimension in research

There seem to be a confusion of gender dimension and gender equality. A troublesome circumstance is the quite common mix-up of the two, by applicants as well as by evaluation panel members. An example: On a question about gender dimension in their research, applicants describe the gender balance of their team, which sometimes can pass the evaluation panels as an accepted answer. This is probably due to a lack of knowledge. For applicants not familiar with the concepts and the distinction between them, this tends to be confusing.

– If even the RFOs themselves get the concepts mixed up and use them interchangeably, it is difficult to achieve the goal set up of promoting gender dimension in research. One recommendation to avoid such quite simple mix-ups is to clarify in the instruction, for example by separating gender from sex, and gender in research content from gender balance in the research team, says Susanna Young Håkansson, one of the two authors of the report.

3. Organising the issues

The third challenge is how the research funding process is organised. Among RFOs it seems to be more common to focus on how the calls are written and which questions are asked in the application forms, than on making sure the evaluation panels have the appropriate competence in assessing elements of gender dimension in research applications.

The report argues that there should be a link between requirements for applicants and assessment criteria, if the organisation has any ambition to follow through and consider a gender dimension through the various steps of the funding process. Applicants are asked to motivate if and how gender dimension is relevant to their project, but one can question the point of it if there isn’t any competence in place to assess it.

To sum up

A gender dimension is not something that can be “added on”. It must be thorough, used as a cross-cutting perspective and there from the beginning. The report presents some suggestions, in order to achieve this:

  • More and clearer guidance and training in gender methodology for applicants, reviewers as well as topic writers
  • A stronger focus on the evaluation panel and suggests that at least one evaluator should have gender expertise 

The report is initiated by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg, written by Susanna Young Håkansson and Jimmy Sand.