Gender equality in recruitment and career progression

As summarised in a 2018 policy brief by the European Research Area and Innovation Committee (ERAC) Standing Working Group on Gender in Research and Innovation, various studies have shown the existence (and persistence) of implicit gender bias in the evaluation of research and performance. Different gender roles are associated with women and men, and a different value is given to each: evidence shows that the same piece of work is assessed as superior if it is believed to be by a man. Furthermore, the notion of excellence in science is gendered: excellent researchers are often considered those who dedicate all their time to science, who are willing to work late or at weekends, or who relocate in order to support their research. Part-time work or career interruptions, such as in the case of parental leave, do not fit into this profile. What is more, the prevalent perceptions of gender roles do not just affect men; rather, they are also affect women – and somewhat in a more problematic way. The so-called impostor syndrome is one way in which one’s own belief system can adversely affect a researcher’s career. It may lead to women opting out of competitions or even career paths due to perceived inadequacy (despite proper qualifications), especially when they are working in a field dominated by men.

Recruitment, selection and career progression support measures aim to ensure that women and men get equal chances to develop and advance their scientific careers. Measures are needed to avoid and undo the systematic and structural discrimination of women along their career paths in research. Critically reviewing existing selection processes and procedures at all stages and remedying any biases are important steps for ensuring gender equality in academic and research careers. Furthermore, public bodies and research funding bodies also need to consider how their policies and funding programmes can promote gender equality in research careers (see the chapter on gender-sensitive research funding procedures for more information).

Read the sections below for a list of potential measures to tackle this issue, to get additional tips on what to consider and to see examples of practices in other organisations.

Gender equality in recruitment and career development

  • The ‘Gender equality actions in research institutions to transform gender roles’ (GEARING ROLES) project produced several videos targeting different gender equality issues. Watch this virtual workshop ‘Good practices for achieving gender equality in recruitment and career development of researchers’ (2019).

Addressing unconscious bias

  • The following video by the Royal Society (2015) provides a clear and impactful introduction to the notion of unconscious bias, showing that prejudices dictate most of our perceptions and decisions about who belongs to our in-group, thus strongly impacting selection and recruitment in science.
  • A video entitled ‘Contrasting gender biases in the evaluation and recruitment of professors and researchers’ was provided online in 2018 by the EU-funded project PLOTINA. It explains the notion of unconscious bias, and why and how it can affect scientific evaluations and hinder women researchers. It provides practical advice on the steps to take to combat this unconscious bias.
  • A video from the Université de Lausanne (Switzerland) entitled ‘Eviter les biais de genre lors de nominations professorales’ (with English subtitles) concerns gender biases when nominating professors.
  • The Centres de Recerca de Catalunya (CERCA) created a video on gender bias in recruitment to make panel members aware of the different biases that might come up and how to solve them.

General guidance and handbooks

The information provided in the GEAR action toolbox is strongly oriented towards the Horizon Europe Guidance on Gender Equality Plans. Consult the document directly for additional information and to access links to further best-practice examples.

The latest She Figures policy briefs cover the issue of improving the presence, participation and progression of women in science (see policy brief 1). Each policy brief presents available data and recommendations. The policy briefs also connect the discussed issues with key policy priorities at EU, national and institutional levels.

In 2017, the EU-funded project LIBRA released the LIBRA Recruitment Handbook – Inclusive, transparent and unbiased recruitment processes to support institutes participating in the LIBRA project in their recruitment processes, helping them not only to find the most suitable candidate, but also to increase diversity. It provides a series of recommendations for a more fair, objective and transparent recruitment process for senior leadership positions in science research institutes. These recommendations can also be applied more broadly to include the recruitment of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) students, postdoctoral researchers and technical staff.

A handbook on gender issues in recruitment, appointment and promotion processes has been developed within the framework of the EU-funded structural change project ‘Female empowerment in science and technology academia’ (FESTA) (2015). This handbook is intended to support practitioners who are involved in hiring processes and stakeholders who can influence regulations. It helps to create awareness of the biases that can influence appointment processes and criteria.

The Updated handbook of gender-sensitive indicators in the Baltic Gender project (2019) also provides indicators on recruitment. For each indicator, the handbook provides a definition, a rationale for using the indicator, a list of required data, and how to collect and analyse the data.

Addressing unconscious bias

Science Europe developed the Practical guide to improving gender equality in research organisations; the first part of the document deals with ‘How to avoid unconscious bias in peer review processes’ (p. 11).

Several ‘unconscious bias tests’ can be found on the internet. One test that is frequently referred to is Project Implicit. This is also the test that Facebook staff are invited to take before attending training on managing unconscious bias. The video modules of this training are available online.

Consider also the learning materials by Uta Frith (Royal Society) on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) targeting unconscious bias (including the exercise on the surgeon’s son’s accident).

DORA is developing a toolkit of resources to help academic institutions improve their policies and practices by avoiding cognitive and system biases. Several personal biases that can influence hiring, and their institutional implications, have been identified.

In order to check whether job advertisements contain subtle bias, you can use the gender decoder. It detects and uncovers specific language that is subtly ‘gender-coded’. If your company puts a job advertisement online, you can run it through the decoder first. You can also view the full list of masculine- and feminine-coded words used by the decoder.

Working papers

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) working paper on the STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA) survey of drivers of and barriers to careers in science and engineering(2018) provides guidelines on implementing the survey instrument in various contexts. The main objective of the survey is to collect information from individuals to identify the most important drivers and barriers that might have been encountered in school, during their transition to the workforce upon completion of their education training, and in their day-to-day work environment in science and engineering.

The EU-funded project ‘Gendering the academy and research: combating career instability and asymmetries’ (GARCIA) produced a number of working papers focused on recruitment and career progression: ‘Constructing excellence: the gap between formal and actual selection criteria for early career academics’ (2015), ‘Academic careers and gender inequality: Leaky pipeline and interrelated phenomena in seven European countries’ (2015), ‘Supporting early career researchers through gender action plans. A design and methodological toolkit’ (2016) and Gender-sensitive mentoring programme in academia: A design process’ (2016). You can find more working papers on the project website. See also the ‘Toolkit for organizing reflexive working groups for selection committee members’ (2016).

Other resources

The EU-funded GEARING ROLES project worked on an update of the open, transparent, merit-based recruitment system (OTM-R). You can also find the current version of the OTM-R checklist in the document, which lists a number of questions for organisations concerning their recruitment practices.

The report Exploring Quotas in Academia (2015), published by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and Robert Bosch Stiftung (Germany), discusses the use made of quotas, their potential benefits and potential harms. It also presents options for the implementation of specific types of quotas.

The WAVE Employer Case Studies: From evidence to action on gender pay gaps (2015), from the ‘Women adding value to the economy’ (WAVE) project, presents explanatory factors for the gender pay gap and a set of measures to tackle the problem.