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.
A gender equality plan (GEP) may include a review of procedures and implementing respective measures in the following areas.
- Recruitment and promotion.
- Establishing codes of conduct for recruitment and promotion. Clearly established principles can increase transparency and help avoid unconscious biases. The European Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers is a well-established example.
- Involving gender equality expertise in recruitment and promotion committees. Gender equality officers and/or gender scholars can report whether equal consideration has been given to candidates of all genders, including the type, frequency and quality of the questions asked, or in the case of promotion processes, the remarks made about candidates for career progression and any gender biases observed.
- Providing unconscious bias training for recruiters, reviewing the language used in advertisements and being aware of language biases in recommendation letters (see the section on training and raising awareness).
- Preferring open and publicly advertised recruitment and selection procedures over closed ones.
- Increasing the number of potential women candidates by broadening the disciplinary range of recruitment in fields where women are under-represented.
- Proactively identifying women in under-represented fields, including active scouting of women through, for example, field-specific internet sites.
- Using standardised curriculum vitae (CVs) and undertaking blind assessment of CVs.
- Ensuring that search and appointment panels are gender balanced, or, if not possible, including a minimum number of women.
- Increasing accountability by requiring departments and committees to justify recruitment and promotion shortlists that do not include women.
- Agreeing on a policy of re-advertising if there are no women in the applicant pool.
- Evaluation and appraisal criteria.
- Accounting for the time frame / period for the achievements and the intensity of work carried out.
- Accounting for career breaks and subtracting leave periods when assessing research output; also, placing appropriate value on non-traditional career paths, for example getting particular kinds of training, unusual undergraduate degrees and different job experiences.
- Assessing research quality rather than quantity, and not relying on journal-based metrics.
- Assessing soft skills as well as research outcomes, such as being a project leader in a research project successfully concluded.
- If defining criteria in a new, unbiased way is not possible, it should be considered whether biased criteria can be given a smaller weight.
- Ensuring that administrative responsibilities, student supervision and marking workloads are transparent and valued alongside research outputs.
- Considering organisation-wide workload planning models to promote transparency and fairness, by enabling an equitable and transparent spread of workload among academic staff that is consistent between departments.
Note that gender equality in recruitment and career progression is not an isolated topic and hence should be addressed in GEPs in synergy with other measures. In particular, measures to ensure gender balance in decision-making and in measures promoting work–life balance and a good organisational culture are likely to intersect with policy measures on recruitment and career progression.
Consider the following points on implementing measures to promote gender equality in recruitment and career progression.
- ‘Unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ bias unintentionally influences judgements and opinions about others. It is very important to be aware of your own biases. Likewise, it is highly relevant to organise training for those involved in selection processes to avoid unconscious or implicit gender bias interfering in decision-making.
- A gender pay gap results from variances in contractual conditions and terms of employment, of which the effects are cumulative over time and most often disadvantageous to women.
- While quotas are generally seen as effective in bringing forward an improved gender balance, quotas tend to evoke significant resistance. Try introducing voluntary targets first and closely monitor the effects.
- In a number of countries, the so-called cascade model has been introduced, following the German example. In this model, the institutions set targets for the proportion of women at each qualification level on the basis of the proportion of women at the level immediately below.
- While it is generally accepted that ‘merit’ and ‘excellence’ are key criteria for the assessment of candidates for academic positions, these concepts are not gender-neutral.
To generate excellent research requires excellent researchers. This implies both attracting them, and recognising, fostering and promoting them. But throughout the EU, gender still plays an inappropriate role in selection. The more transparent the procedure, based on explicit criteria, the more successful women are likely to be. Excellent male candidates have nothing to fear from transparency! (Rees, 2015).
The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) strives to improve the evaluation of researchers and their outputs through new tools and processes in research assessment that use metrics responsibly and promote transparency and consistency in decision-making. Find out more about DORA here.
In order to get more detailed information and guidance on how to promote gender equality in recruitment and career progression, check out the resources provided in the tab ‘Tools and resources’.
Here are some examples of measures implemented in other organisations (note that they will open in a new window):
- action research with regional workshops on the promotion of gender equality in regional research and innovation (R & I), University of Tampere, Finland,
- ‘career restart’, Masaryk University Grant Agency, Brno, Czechia,
- ‘cascade’ measure, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium,
- development of cross-curricular study programmes, Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology, Malta,
- Enterprise Ireland 2020 action plan for women in business – fuelling growth through diversity, Enterprise Ireland, Ireland,
- gender advisors in recruitment boards and commissions, National Centre for Scientific Research, France,
- gender coefficient in the full professor programme, Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Spain,
- gender equality in the national R & I funding programme FUSION, Malta Council for Science and Technology, Malta,
- GenderLab, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark,
- implementation of target 3 of their gender equality, Research and Innovation Foundation, Cyprus,
- Irène Curie fellowship programme, Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands,
- long-term development goal on ‘gender equality and rights of women and girls’, Riga Technical University, Latvia,
- mentoring scheme, University of Naples Federico II, Italy,
- small grant scheme for female scientists in technical sciences, National Centre for Research and Development, Poland,
- supporting young mother researchers, National Research, Development and Innovation Office, Hungary,
- WeAreHERe (peer-to-peer approach to enrolment of female students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines), Politecnico di Torino, Italy.
You can find further inspirational examples in the following sources.
- the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) provides a section on good practices for various relevant topics;
- the EU-funded project ‘Promoting gender balance and inclusion in research, innovation and training’ (PLOTINA) provides a library of actions, focusing on issues such as career progression and work–life balance, but also the integration of sex and gender in teaching curricula.
- these sustainable measures were already mentioned in the first version of the gender equality in academia and research (GEAR) tool and are still in place.
If you want to learn more about how you can adjust these measures for your own purposes and how to implement them through a GEP, read the step-by-step guide for research organisations, universities and public bodies, or the step-by-step guide for research funding 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.
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).
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.