Relevance of gender in the policy area

Promoting gender equality is a key principle of the EU in all its activities. European research still shows a pronounced under-representation of women, particularly in the hard sciences and in leadership positions. Gender equality in research is essential not only for fairness and inclusiveness, but because it could help address current and future deficits in skilled labour within the EU and support the transition to a fair, green and digital society [1]. Gender equality provides important leverage for enhancing the competitiveness of research and innovation (R & I) organisations in Europe, for increasing their innovation performance and for transforming them into more equitable and inclusive organisations.

According to the European Commission’s She Figures 2021, women accounted for just 33% of European researchers in 2018. Women are particularly under-represented in the business enterprise sector (BES) but also among inventors and founders[2]. In addition to the low percentage of women researchers, women are also under-represented in top-level and decision-making positions in European research. The European Commission shows that – despite progress – gender inequalities in science persist.

Extensive research has been undertaken regarding the reasons and mechanisms that keep women away from research and from moving up the career ladder in this field. Studies have revealed gender-discriminatory practices, such as biased recruitment, promotion and funding processes and criteria. There is also a strong influence of gender stereotypes in relation to R & I. Gender discrimination in science may take different forms, sometimes overt, but most often subtle and hidden. It may operate even in highly formalised and seemingly gender-neutral peer-review processes or selection and promotion procedures. Furthermore, working cultures in R & I organisations are experienced as not inclusive and frequently even toxic[3], especially – but not only – by women. Gender-based violence and sexual harassment have long been overlooked as sources for why women leave R & I.

Conventional research agendas often fail to take sex and gender differences into account and to distinguish different possible impacts related to gender. This phenomenon leads to omissions and distortions and may also result in missed market opportunities. But integrating sex and gender analysis into research sparks and enhances creativity by offering new perspectives and questions, and by opening new areas of R & I.

Gender equality in research is thus still influenced by a set of persistent gender inequalities:

  • gender segregation in research and innovation;
  • gender-related career challenges and gender imbalance in senior positions in academia;
  • gender gaps in research productivity;
  • gender bias in access to research funding;
  • gender-blind and gender-biased research;
  • gender-blind and gender-biased organisational culture and institutional processes.

In the European Research Area Policy Agenda for 2022–2024[4], the European Commission emphasises that gender equality will be pursued through promoting institutional change in R & I organisations. Gender equality plans (GEPs) are the main policy instrument used to achieve this change. Furthermore, it recommends that gender equality policies need to address intersections with other diversity categories and potential grounds of discrimination, such as ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. Increasing the inclusiveness of gender equality policies in this regard also means that efforts should be made to ensure an equal implementation of these policies in all Member States and in all R & I sectors, especially targeting organisations in the BES.

Gender inequalities in the policy area – Main issues

Existing gender equality policy objectives at EU and international level

Policy cycle in research

Click on a phase for details

How and when? Research and the integration of gender into the policy cycle

The gender dimension can be integrated into all phases of the policy cycle. Below are some useful resources for and practical examples of main- streaming gender into research policies. They are organised according to the most relevant phase of the policy cycle they may serve.

Within the research sector, mainstreaming gender means taking three different objectives into consideration: gender balance in research teams, gender balance in decision-making and the gender dimension in research content.

The first objective is related to all the actions that stress the importance of including female scientists in research teams as it facilitates the participation of women in research and, at the same time, introduces the perspective of female scientists to the analysis process. The second objective is related to all the actions aimed at considering the equal presence of women and men researchers among the top levels of the academic hierarchy. The third objective is related to all actions aimed at taking gender as a significant variable within any research content into account. This process of engendering research does not change the scope of the research; it provides new perspectives, raises new questions and uses new analysis tools to create a more complete picture of the problem. As men and women have different roles and power, their perspectives on a problem can be quite different. By combining their experiences and viewpoints, researchers can enhance the comprehension of a problem.


The key milestones of the EU research policy are presented below.

Current policy priorities at the EU level

The overarching policy priorities of the EU policy for research are clearly identified in the European Commission’s 2020 policy communication on the new ERA for research and innovation[66], which responds to new circumstances and challenges for European research. To this end, these new priorities were set:

  • prioritising investments and reforms in R & I;
  • boosting market uptake;
  • strengthening mobility of researchers and free flow of knowledge and technology;
  • improving access to excellence.

On 16 July 2021, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Council recommendation on ‘A Pact for Research and Innovation in Europe’. The pact proposal defines priority areas for joint action in support of the ERA, sets targets for investment and reform, and aims to simplify the policy coordination and monitoring process at the EU and Member State level with an ERA platform. To ensure impact and sustainability, the engagement of R & I stakeholders is intended by the pact.

The European Commission detailed the concrete but voluntary ERA actions for 2022–2024, promoting the priority areas in the European Research Area Policy Agenda[67]. Action 5, under the priority area ‘Deepening a truly functioning internal market for knowledge’, aims at promoting gender equality and fostering inclusiveness, taking note of the Ljubljana declaration. The following out- comes are expected:

  • development of a policy coordination mechanism to support all aspects of gender equality through inclusive GEPs and policies, and a dedicated EU network on their implementation;
  • strategy to counteract gender-based violence including sexual harassment in the European R & I system and assuring gender-equal and inclusive working environments through institutional change in any research funding or performing organisation;
  • a policy approach to inclusive gender equality that addresses gender mainstreaming and opening to intersectionality with other diversity dimensions to advance the new ERA;
  • development of principles for the integration and evaluation of the  gender  dimension  in R & I content in cooperation with national research funding organisations.

Horizon Europe follows after Horizon 2020 as the biggest EU R & I programme ever. It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market, in order to boost economic growth and create jobs. The framework programme (2021–2027) lays out three priorities:

  • fuel the EU’s scientific and technological excellence and strengthen the ERA;
  • tackle policy priorities, including green and digital transitions and SDGs;
  • boost Europe’s innovation uptake, competitiveness and jobs.

By coupling R & I, Horizon Europe is helping to achieve economic growth and job creation through these three priorities. The goal is to ensure that Europe produces world-class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation.