On International Women’s Day we examine how overcoming bias and striving for gender equality can ultimately improve both women researchers’ careers and the quality of research produced by all. This leads to more informed decision-making, both within and outside of the academic world. In many areas of research, taking into consideration the gender-sensitive dimension in the design and conduct of research projects leads to innovative approaches, and ultimately better addresses individual and societal needs.
Since its inception, the ERC, under the steering of the working group on gender issues currently chaired by Prof. Barbara Romanowicz, has taken several initiatives to ensure the fair treatment of applicants for ERC research grants - regardless of their gender - such as the measures safeguarding recognition of parental leave in career assessment.
In recent years, the ERC’s funding competition results show comparable success rates for women and men – an indicator of equality of opportunities. After taking a variety of steps to ensure fairness at every stage of the ERC evaluation process, the success rates for men and women in the last funding programme (2014 to 2020) were essentially indistinguishable. However, the persistent gender disparity in funding proposal submission rates is a reminder that this work is not finished and that the ERC needs to remain active in this area.
These considerations motivated the ERC to organise a conference on ‘Sex and Gender Dimensions in Frontier Research’, which took place in November 2020. Its aim was to create a platform to discuss innovative approaches for gender unbiased research. The conference’s scientific sessions covered a wide range of topics which were presented by high-level researchers, and the large majority were ERC grantees.
European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel opened proceedings by emphasising that research can only be truly excellent as long as it incorporates relevant sex and gender dimensions. Research can only be truly excellent as long as it incorporates relevant sex and gender dimensions While there are areas of science - such as astronomical observations and pure mathematics - where gender aspects are not relevant, integrating sex/gender awareness into research design is essential in most other fields. Such integration is critical for the robustness and validity of the knowledge produced in fields as different as health, transport, labour, migration or even the development of algorithms.Research that is sex and gender sensitive is more representative and therefore more scientifically and societally relevant
The main conclusions of the session on ‘Gender in medicine and medical care’ were that the ERC-supported research that was presented clearly showed that sex-differences account for biological variation. This is the case both in vitro and in vivo, both in humans and in other species such as fruit flies, and at all levels, from the cellular level up to organ level.In addition, analysing sex-differences is key to a better understanding of their biological basis, as well as for better, fairer and equalitarian healthcare research and treatments.
The ‘Gender, demographics and behaviour’ session discussed the importance of integrating gender dimensions in the social sciences as well as in epidemiology to ensure robustness, representation and validity of the questions addressed and results obtained. Gender-blind analysis can lead to devastating results by supplying biased evidence for economic, educational or epidemiological policies.
The final session, ‘Gender and fairness in the digital society’, provided a clear and thought provoking insight into how bias from ‘wild’ or partial data sets need to be addressed in when used in conjunction with artificial intelligence, for example in automated translation services, internet searches, form auto-completion, and image analysis. The presenters highlighted the need for an interdisciplinary approach involving social sciences to understand and potentially correct algorithmic bias that originates from data.
Policy makers also have a role to play in driving change. European Commissioner Helena Dalli emphasized that gender equality is essential for innovation and scientific advancement. She further mentioned the Commission’s new Gender Equality Strategy, which places gender equality at the core of EU policy development. To promote full participation of women in science, the Commission will now require that all institutions that host researchers applying for support under the new EU research funding programme, Horizon Europe, have a gender equality plan.
Former ERC Scientific Council member Dame Athene Donald led a discussion with two Members of the European Parliament: Marc Angel (Luxembourg) and Lina Gálvez Muñoz (Spain). They agreed that collecting good quality data forms the basis for robust policy-driven initiatives. However, data on men and women in different scientific fields is scarce in Europe, and answering questions about women’s representation in different academic disciplines is essential for motivating and directing corrective action. The speakers noted, however, that the ERC has set a sterling example of how to collect data and to publish gender statistics on grant funding.
A brilliant reflection and conclusion of the event was supplied in Athene’s blog: “Policy-makers and funders, as well as individual researchers, all have their own part to play in ensuring that sex and gender are appropriately fed into the design of cutting-edge research programmes, and that fairness in the award of such grants is maintained, with constant vigilance over each stage of any process.” With this in mind, and following this year’s IWD’s theme, let’s all “choose to challenge” in 2021!Policy-makers and funders, as well as individual researchers, all have their own part to play in ensuring that sex and gender are appropriately fed into the design of cutting-edge research programmes, and that fairness in the award of such grants is maintained, with constant vigilance over each stage of any process.
Watch all the ‘Sex and Gender Dimensions in Frontier Research’ presentations
Read more about ERC funded research with gender dimensions
Recent paper from ERC Scientific Officers: Gendered participation in the geosciences: 10 years of ERC funding