Articleequal opportunities - institutions - science

FESTA. Female empowerment
in science and technology academia

foto Flickr/Department of Computer and Information Science NTNU

A EU project with the aim of creating an environment where the capabilities of all the employees of research insititutions are valued, and female researchers are encouraged to develop their professional lives

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Should we strive for a gender neutral notion of scientific excellence or should we better adopt a gender sensitive approach to excellence in science (and how)? What about decision making in science and technology Academia? Do female scientists have a say or are they excluded? Similar questions are the focus of the EU-project FESTA, actually ongoing at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) in Trento[1]. FESTA has the overall aim of pursuing a change in the working environment of academic researchers so as to create an environment where the capabilities of all employees are valued, and female researchers are especially encouraged to develop their professional lives.

In our belief recruitment processes are key in understanding and retaining women's talent. This is why we decided to investigate the perception of excellence in hiring processes by interviewing nine members of the selection committee and five among  successful and unsuccessful candidates. 

Our aim was to understand how the ‘excellence in research’ meaning is construed in selection procedures for senior scientific positions, which may represent, in fact, the first step towards a stable scientific career. The interviews were problem‐centered and qualitative and focused on the ideal senior level professional: we asked the persons interviewed to describe the excellent candidate and the way this is normally acknowledged in recruitment. The results of the interviews show that candidates and commissioners have very different standpoints concerning excellence. While both groups agree on the importance of the publication of peer reviewed papers, scientific ranking,  presentation of papers in international conferences, however, a clear difference emerged in the degree of importance the two groups confer to these things. For committee members these elements turned out to be relevant but not distinctive for excellence. They declared to consider them just as ‘starting points’ in the process of evaluating the ‘real worth’ of a candidate[2]. For most candidates, especially for women, such things represent instead objectively measurable indicators that should play the most important part in selection procedures. But why are women the ones that put more emphasis on indicators? Possibly because, compared to men, they perceive a stronger need for ‘objective’ evaluation, this being seen as a condition for fair and successful  competition. Interviewees insisted on two key-points: acknowledgment - which came out to be especially important for persons who belong to a minority in a given social context- and recognition that are directly connected to visibility within the scientific community primarily expressed through the participation as a speaker in important conferences, citation indices, research grants, collaboration in international projects, etc. The other way around, this assumption implies that in order to achieve visibility pronounced communicative abilities and networking skills, and not only merely ‘scientific’ abilities are required. As to appointment and promotion, the crucial point turned out to be evaluation. Three major issues proved to be of great concern to most -if not all- interviewees: what research achievements are being evaluated, by whom and how. Scientific excellence seems to depend on the assessment of the selection committee and/or the evaluation board/jury against given criteria. Accordingly with the findings of theoretical analyses, assessment turned out to be possibly gender biased. This conclusion is reinforced by the findings of the qualitative surveys of the other FESTA partners which highlight that ignoring or manipulating criteria is seen as the most common way in which biases may affect assessment. According the interviewees, criteria have to be explicitly formulated, transparent, weighted in a standard way, and fixed for the entire process, and only criteria agreed upon should have an impact on the decisions taken. 

To create awareness on our conclusions about recruitment and excellence, we drafted a handout providing flow charts illustrating appointment and promotion processes within each FESTA institution and explanations of possible existing biases in evaluation procedures, along with recommendations on how to counteract them. The handout addresses the members of selection committees, and is intended to support practitioners who are involved in hiring processes, as well as stakeholders who can influence regulations. It will also support applicants in understanding the formal processes themselves, so as to create the broadest possible awareness of which biases may influence evaluation.

In the framework of the FESTA project we gave great importance to awareness raising at a decision making level as well. The aim is to improve transparency and inclusion: a study of formal decision making processes has been conducted by the FESTA partners assuming gender as a social construction and considering power as exercised in organizations. The object of investigation have been the holders of formal power, the ways in which their power is expressed, presented and understood, and possible gendered implications of the exercise of power. As a first step of our study a documentary analysis of decision-making bodies, their structures, and the adopted procedures has been conducted. Special relevance has been given to decisions aimed at both allocating positions/resources and at making appointments, since they potentially have career-enhancing effects. Secondarily semi-structured interviews have been conducted with 25 positional power holders (9 women, 16 men, some of whom were individuals with legitimate formal power, others, instead, members of relevant committees, like, e.g., boards of directors, university senates, executive boards, selection boards, etc.). The interview guidelines included questions aimed at monitoring both decision-making and communication processes, e.g.: Is there a procedure for decision-making in the committee you are a member of? Is it easy to reach consensus? Are there circumstances in which it is necessary to deviate from this procedure? Is there a procedure for communicating decisions? Gender issues have been investigated transversally throughout the interview. Moreover a specific and explicit question related to gender has been addressed. It has been asked whether, according to the respondent, the gender composition of the committee might influence the decisions taken. The interviews have been transcribed and analyzed by means of content analysis[3]

In three FESTA partner institutions, chosen as case studies, it was found that the preponderance of high level positional power committee roles are held by men. Power proved to be centralized in all three organizations and, being women not well represented in decision-making roles, they turned out to be de facto excluded from the sources of power. Centralization of power and control over decisions seemed to lead women as well to a perceived incapability of both influencing and fully/effectively participating. From the interviews also emerged a general lack of gender awareness (more in men than in women), even though some evidence has been found of the existence of rhetorical support for including women in decision-making positions and processes. In any case, in all the three organizations the interviews represented a good occasion for decision-makers to explicitly think about gender and its relation to power, and to reflect upon possibly uncomfortable and unsettling issues, usually not taken into consideration. In fact most of decision-makers turned out to be unconscious of their gender blindness and to act mainly according to implicit stereotyped gender schemas. From the respondent’ accounts also emerged that decision-making by consensus is the norm across the three organizations. At a closer look, though, the reached consensus reveals only apparent, resting upon a tacit agreement with the decision-makers due to different reasons: ties of loyalty with power-holders, awareness that contrast is not worth because many decisions are taken in advance, rhetorical compliance to avoid endless meetings, and discussions to smooth conflicts. As to communication processes they turned out to be mainly top-down and so designed as to reduce chances of conflicts: opposing views or requests of explanations are prevented by avoiding both any bottom-up approach and any occasion of bi-directional open discussions, and by supporting no official complaint system. 

According to the specific outcomes of the interview analysis, 13 recommendations have been formulated, addressing desirable changes, both structural and cultural, related to gender bias. The former include publishing of gender-disaggregated data (in order to make differences related to gender visible), establishing an independent equality committee with top level support, and introducing gender auditing of the organization. Among the latter we mention the circulation of the minutes of all decision-making meetings, and the organization of regular meetings between management and staff for information exchange and of gender awareness training courses for decision-makers. A set of recommendations is finally strictly concerned with the empowerment of women to fully participate in decision-making processes by means of both participating in dedicated training in leadership and sharing good practices and role-models.


[1] The FP7 European project FESTA (Female Empowerment in Science and Technology Academia) started in February 2012 and will end in January 2017. FESTA coordinator is the University of Uppsala (Sweden). Beyond FBK, FESTA partners are: the Siddansk Universitet (Danemark), the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (Germany), the University of Limerick (Irland), the Istanbul Teknik Universitesi (Turkey), the South-West University "Neofit Rilski" (Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria). The involvement of FBK in FESTA is strictly related to the engagement of a small group of researchers (mainly, but non only, women working in the area of science and technology), who had been previously active in promoting initiatives aimed at contrasting situations possibly resulting in gender discrimination at FBK.

[2] "Of course, measurable parameters must not be denigrated and neglected, but they are to be taken with a grain of salt. When you try to measure the scientific quality of a candidate you only get that far. It is the ‘unique contribution’ that the person gives what should really be called excellence”– so an evaluator".

[3] A coding map was developed, linking codes to categories, clusters and themes, based on the analysis of the literature on gender, decision-making, communication in organizations.