“Since we know that many aspects of the organization of science, especially peer review are affected by gender bias it is of utmost importance to the science and society dialogue that the compositions of boards are gender balanced.” (Osborn et al, 2000)

Implicit bias refers to the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that can influence individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Across gender, race and body size, implicit bias can manifest in a variety of ways, such as in hiring, promotion, and salary decisions, as well as in interactions with others. For example, studies have shown that women and minorities are often underrepresented in leadership positions and that individuals with larger bodies or who are living with obesity may face discrimination in the workplace. Implicit bias can also be a factor in healthcare, where research has shown that doctors may unconsciously discriminate against patients based on their race or gender, leading to disparities in treatment and outcomes. Efforts to address implicit bias include training programs, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and the use of tools such as blind resumes to eliminate bias in hiring processes.

Great to speak with Heleen Claringbould to learn more about her role and important work in the SWEET project on gender and implicit bias and the way it impacts research, professional relationships, and everyday life.

Heleen, How would you describe your role in the SWEET project and in other EU projects you are involved with?

In the SWEET project, Corepage developed a Gender Action Plan where the main goal is to integrate awareness of gender equality in the consortium and across research, and to include this theme as an element of project performance in general. Gender equality here refers here to equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men within the participating institutes and boards, and, to gender diversity and prevention of gender bias in research, where prejudicial action comes from gender-based perceptions.

The definition on gender bias in the SWEET gender action plan (D6.2) is that gender bias appears with prejudiced actions or thoughts based on gender-based perceptions that women are not equal to men. (EIGE 2019)[1].

By contrast, I asked to apply gender sensitivity wherever applicable, from identifying and addressing perceptions of the researchers to engaging with needs of their target group. Through questions, presentations and short interviews about the progress and plans I will report on the state of gender equality throughout the project and its consortium, as far as I know from the responses and from background research about the institutes approaches on gender equality. 

Previously, I have been involved in several EU projects on land use management (mostly agriculture) and prevention of soil degradation. I used to point to the difference between gender equality in the organisation and in the approach to the content of the research. The organisational awareness is often about “Who is in charge in the organisation you work for, how many men/women are there, and in which positions, what measures are taken to facilitate gender equality at work; who are the stakeholders you chose to work with?” There is a very broad spectrum of land users, owners and those who have a (different) stake in the production chain. And: “Who (when and how) do you invite when you have experimental workshops or demonstration days to provide representation of the stakeholders, including women?”. Often related to inheritance, culture, educational opportunities, agriculture is still highly dominated by men.   

Awareness concerning the content of the research is about understanding the needs of stakeholders and the diversity among them, by gathering disaggregated data from men and women. The numbers always become smaller when you separate this dichotomy into additional categories, for example people who are not represented by the men/women dichotomy. The information about how women and men as stakeholders (or test persons) think about certain approaches can also be gathered with open questions in a questionnaire or with interviews, providing qualitative instead of just quantitative information. Gender related remarks can be made by a woman or a man specifically, but cannot lead to a significant conclusion on gender bias, therefore research with larger numbers is necessary.   

How do you think implicit bias affects the representation and advancement of women in academic and professional settings, including the EU Project environment?

Across scientific fields worldwide, men are a majority, only 29% of scientists are women, in Western Europe 32% women, in UK 39% women, (UIS 2019)[2], shows that there is a gender difference, regardless of the reasons. Women in Europe in academic staff in 2018 had about equal positions (50%) at grade C level compared to men, 40% at B level and around 26% at A level. (SHE figures 2021, p. 176-181)[3]. The data show that at European level in 2019, 23.6% of women were heads of institutes in higher education, and under one-quarter of board leaders (24.5%) were women at European level. Something changed in the percentage of women at the A level compared to 20 years ago.

The average percentage of women in senior academic positions in the EU Member States in 2000 was (13.2%), but the overall percentage for women in all academic positions (31%) (SHE figures 2003 p.6/61); this remained almost the same over the past 20 years. It was then said that: “Since we know that many aspects of the organization of science, especially peer review are affected by gender bias (Osborn et al., 2000), it is of utmost importance to the science and society dialogue that the compositions of boards are gender balanced. The improvement of appointment procedures and recruitment strategies for national boards is therefore a crucial starting point to redressing this balance” (SHE figures 2003 p.74)[4].

This is the case in the academic world, but also in board memberships, corporations, and politics this general gender difference is a fact. We want to prevent the SWEET project and its research from gender bias, we want the project to be built on a balance of numbers of men and women. To prevent bias aside from the numbers, it is important to be aware of stigmatisation, of  perceptions used in project research. To mobilise a gender balanced research team is one thing, it requires additional effort to maintain the balance and prevent staff attrition, which appears to be a gender biased process, explained as the “leaky pipeline”. The leaky pipeline describes the continuous exit of women from Science and Technology (S&T). The pipeline leaks develop due to lack of support, inadequate career opportunities, challenges following motherhood and due to isolation and exclusion of women. (EU 2009). (D6.2 p.6- p.16 )

I think that the interests of women can best be formulated, heard and represented by women. In fact, if there were not such stubborn proportional gaps between women and men in leading positions, it would not be an issue at all, but as the numbers tell us, there is ongoing male dominance in research leadership which drives the direction and priorities of research, which has to be faced in order to realise more equal opportunities for women and men.

How do you ensure that your research and analysis consider the intersectionality of gender with other factors such as race, sexuality, body size, neurodiversity and ability?

Yes, those are other important issues. I think the first step in addressing this challenge is to start gathering disaggregated disaggregated on gender and other key variables.   Depending on the type of research undertaken, several aspects should be considered. There are many questionnaires available on health and health performance. There are also gender responsive questionnaires, specifically taking into account answers from men and women separately. I ask researchers to add gender disaggregation where possible, to gather gender related information, to support the analyses. And of course one could check other factors. The process leads to developing insight. In SWEET, a project focused on the effects of the use of sweeteners or sweetness enhancers we need a sufficient amount of  data, which is sometimes challenging. Survey groups in our studies are not large and when divided between men and women, they become even smaller. Therefore often gender bias is excluded at the start of the test research. As one of the researchers explained, “The dietary needs were already considered at the design stage. Thus, no significant differences have been observed due to sex.” 

How do you think individuals and organisations, including academic institutions and the European Union, can actively work to address and overcome implicit bias in the hiring, promotion, and leadership development processes?

The European Commission already made several important steps towards gender equality in the R&I sector by using some requirements for the consortia that delivered proposals for grants to work on specific research topics.

When I joined a consortium in 2007 (a Framework Program 6 project) the EU asked for a gender action plan at project level, it was about getting gender balance in the project teams and involving women stakeholders at the test and experiment sites. In the EU Horizon 20 programme (2014-2020) more emphasis was put on involving women in leadership positions in the project staff (team leaders, work package leaders) and in Horizon Europe since 2022 there is an obligation in several programs for Higher Education (HE) and government institutes, to have a Gender Equality Plan (GEP), which is an elaborate plan for the entire institute, with commitment of the board and open access to gender disaggregated data of the performance of the gender balance among the staff and training on gender awareness.

For most of the SWEET institutes we work with, this is comparable with the Athena Swan approach which ”brought about important structural and cultural changes, including increased support for women’s careers, greater appreciation of caring responsibilities, and efforts to challenge discrimination and bias”. In the conclusion it says: “The findings from this study suggest that Athena SWAN has a positive impact in advancing gender equality, but there may be limits to how much it can improve gender equality without wider institutional and societal changes. To address the fundamental causes of gender inequality would require cultural change and welfare state policies incentivizing men to increase their participation in unpaid work in the family, which is beyond the scope of higher education and research policy.” (Ovseiko 2017).[5] 

There may be a similar conclusion for EU efforts with the GEPs for HE, but it makes people focus on this issue. Since colleagues they want to participate in this competition with other applicants, once it becomes part of the key criteria people become more aware of the challenge and this helps expand the field of influence of the issue of gender bias across fields, eventually creating more awareness across society.

KEY TAKEAWAYS (SHE figures 2021)[6].

Overall, women are under-represented at the highest level of academia (grade A), with only very small improvements between 2015 and 2018. In addition, the proportion of women among grade A staff (equivalent to full professorship positions) varies by field of R&D. Women are relatively well represented among grade A staff in the field of Humanities but have a minimal presence in the field of Engineering & Technology.

While some progress has been achieved in gender equality in R&I, progress has been particularly slow and insufficient in the area of gender equality in leadership positions (European Commission, 2020a).

The data analysis in this chapter shows that there have indeed been improvements in respect of the

representation of women among the heads of higher education institutions. However, the progress varies among countries. Likewise, women remain under-represented among board members and leaders. Overall, despite policy efforts towards increasing women’s representation at the highest research positions, a strong gender gap persists.

  • While women represented more than half of Bachelor’s and Master’s i.e. ISCED 6 & 7 students (54%) and graduates (59%) and almost half of academic staff in grade C positions (47%), women’s representation decreased at grade B (40%) and grade A (26%) positions with little improvement since 2015 (Figure 6.1 & She Figures, 2018). The under-representation of women in grade A positions has been recognized in the new ERA Communication (2020a) which contains further actions to strengthen gender equality in R&I.
  • In STEM fields, the share of women is even smaller among Bachelor’s and Master’s students (32%) and graduates (35%) and across all grades of academic staff (grade C: 35%; grade B: 28%; grade A: 19%), as shown in Figure 6.2.
  • At European level, the proportion of women among grade A academic staff increased only slightly between 2015 and 2018 from 24.1% to 26.2% (Figure 6.3). In 2018, men were twice as likely as women to hold grade A positions at the European level (15.7% for men and 7.6% for women) (Figure 6.4).
  • In each field of R&D, women represented no more than around one-third of grade A staff at European level in 2018 (Table 6.2). The highest proportion of women among grade A staff was observed in Humanities (35.0%) and Social Sciences (30.9%) while the lowest proportion of women among grade A staff were in Natural Sciences (22.0%) and Engineering & Technology (17.9%). Horizontal gender segregation in the participation of women and men in fields of R&D also may in turn lead to greater vertical segregation. In other words, under-representation in particular professions may limit women’s prospects for career advancement in certain fields.
  • EU policies such as the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 (European Commission, 2020b) have emphasized the importance of increasing women’s representation in decision-making and leadership positions. The data show that at European level, 23.6% of women were heads of institutes in higher education in 2019 (Figure 6.8), 2.4 p.p. higher than in 2016 (21.3%) (Annex 6.4). These data suggest that some progress has been made in improving women’s representation in decision-making and leadership positions in this sector.
  • In 2019, just over 3 in 10 board members were women (31.1%) and under one-quarter of board leaders (24.5%) were women at European level (Figure 6.9).

[1] EIGE 2019: https://eige.europa.eu/gender-mainstreaming/concepts-and-definitions

[2] UIS 2019: UNESCO inst. for statistics: http://uis.unesco.org/apps/visualisations/women-in-science

[3] she figures 2021-KI0221406ENN.pdf

[4] She figures 2003 – Publications Office of the EU (europa.eu)

[5] info article Ath Swan s12961-017-0177-9.pdf

[6] From SHE figures 2021 p.176 she figures 2021-KI0221406ENN.pdf