Rationale for gender equality change in research and higher education institutions

Setting up and implementing a plan requires strong arguments about the benefits of working towards gender equality in universities and research institutions. These supporting arguments are of different nature and outreach. They can be combined in different ways to build the case for gender equality within the institution, and to reach different categories of stakeholders.

The scope of arguments to be used needs to be adapted to the culture of the institution. In particular, you should be cautious about the uptake and acceptance of performance-related arguments. While it is widely accepted that measuring performance matters in research, this framing is not accepted to the same extent in every context.


It is generally acknowledged that promoting gender equality in research organisations and higher education institutions brings positive impact with respect to:

  • compliance with domestic and EU regulations
  • well-being at work
  • social dialogue and cooperation among stakeholders
  • internal decision-making and career management procedures
  • inclusiveness and the sense of community
  • the quality of research (and teaching)
  • the overall profile of the organisation in a competitive environment

In itself, quoting these broad areas of impact can help build the case for gender equality policies. It is however not sufficient, and potential benefits should be formulated so as to be directly relevant to different categories of stakeholders. The main types of benefits are:

Compliance with domestic and EU regulations

Although to different extents, all universities and research organisations are bound to respect certain legal obligations related to discrimination and gender equality. Even if it may vary, there is a cost for breaching existing regulations. This cost can consist in fines, legal prosecutions and liability, damaged reputation, a loss of attractiveness or internal conflicts.

Complying with the rules requires resources and know-how, which are often more easily secured if implementing a gender mainstreaming strategy (for instance, sex-disaggregated data production, monitoring instruments, etc.). Investing in gender equality helps organisations to comply with legal provisions more comprehensively and proactively.

Find out more information about the EU labour law here.

Check also the legal and policy frameworks promoting gender equality in research of the 28 EU Member States.

Creating better work environments

Research organisations and universities are also work environments in which all staff should be able to freely develop their skills and fulfil their expectations. Since these work environments are made up of women and men, adopting a gender sensitive perspective in this regard is sensible.

Beyond compliance with existing rules, preventing verbal, psychological and physical gender-based offenses is a basic requirement for a safe, gender-friendly work environment.

Enabling work-life balance in the organisation, distribution and planning of work, brings benefits for both sexes. These benefits are relevant both to the individuals, in terms of well-being and motivation, and to the organisation, in terms of effectiveness. Besides, better work environments contribute to retaining and attracting talents. They are part of a more sustainable management of human resources.

Attracting and retaining talents

Research activities are highly intensive in human capital. Training qualified and creative researchers is costly, and bringing them up to their full potential takes time. Moreover, research organisations are involved in an intense competition for talent. This makes it especially necessary to address the full pool of talents, including women – even when those are under-represented.

It also requires retaining research staff over time and to give them the opportunity to achieve their personal and professional objectives and potential. It has been shown that women are abandoning their scientific careers in much greater numbers than men.

Described as the “leaky pipeline” of women in science, this phenomenon has a considerable impact: a loss of knowledge, an organisational cost and a reduced and limited perspective in scientific research. It also feeds a vicious circle: as women leave research in greater numbers, research becomes less attractive to women. Attracting and retaining female researchers in a knowledge-based economy can only be reached if the full spectrum of gender bias and inequalities in research is addressed.

Economic benefits

There are different kinds of economic benefits. First, research is not only intensive in human capital, but also in funding. Universities and research organisations are engaged in a fierce competition to access public funding. Increasingly, this competition is organised and framed by funding agencies bound to the objectives of the European Research Area.

Along with other priorities, principles of Responsible Research and Innovation apply to the selection of successful applications. Within this framework, gender equality is increasingly referred to as an additional criterion to access public funding. This is clearly the case under the EU Work Programmes of Horizon 2020.

Therefore, addressing gender equality in research, but also adopting a gender lens in research content and outputs, can improve the competitiveness of universities and research organisations. Secondly, an increasing part of research is directly interested in producing an added value in terms of products, services and policy delivery.

Building gender-balanced teams, securing gender expertise and adopting a gender perspective in implementing and disseminating research work can bring specific benefits. A broader set of needs, expectations and usages is likely to be taken into account, and research outputs can reach a greater validity. New target audiences, beneficiaries or final users/customers can thus be reached by adopting a gender perspective.

Excellence and research quality

The quest for excellence and quality has become a major issue for research organisations and higher education institutions. It is driven by an intense competition for skills, funding and innovations. Bringing a gender dimension in research and innovation content improves the overall quality of research design, hypotheses, protocols and outputs in an ample variety of fields.

It does not only allow to address gender bias and to build more evidence-based and robust research, but also contributes to pluri-disciplinarity. As science and innovation are increasingly framed as working for/with society, reflecting the diversity of final users from the early research stage has become a must.

‘Gender blindness’ (understood as the lack of consideration for gender-related aspects) often goes with neglecting other relevant social or experiential parameters. Challenging this blindness, on the contrary, creates awareness for a broader set of variables than the sole sex and/or gender.

Effectiveness and efficiency of the research

Building gender diverse teams helps securing a broader set of viewpoints, contributing to enhance creativity and innovation – and thus also the quality of research. Such teams promote inclusiveness, experiment more and share and create knowledge.

In addition, teams with a balanced number of women and men tend to perform better and to exhibit superior dynamics and productivity. Ensuring diversity in working teams (in terms of gender, race, nationalities, age, etc.) helps creating a supportive organisation, which improves its reputation, and contributes to retaining and attracting (new) talents. Check below some research undertaken in this field:

A leverage for organisational change

Pursuing gender equality requires to involve all staff categories, including management, non-research staff and students, in a joint effort to produce change. As these categories only rarely collaborate, this overarching goal offers the opportunity for enhancing the sense of community and ownership.

Additionally, changes requested to achieve gender equality also bring benefits in terms of transparency and accountability, decision-making, career management and research evaluation procedures. Indeed, these procedures are often affected by different sorts of bias and unwritten rules which a concern for gender equality helps to challenge.

Changes needed to achieve gender equality and bringing a gender perspective in research require a longer timeframe to measure their effectiveness. Both shorter term and longer term impacts have to be pursued to ensure the mobilisation of research organisations over time and to make qualitative and quantitative evidences more salient. But these efforts in terms of monitoring can also be beneficial for a better knowledge of what makes organisational change successful or not.

Last but not least, addressing gender (in)equality can be part of a broader strategic process aiming at enhancing the competitive edge and national or international profile of the organisation.

Speech of Carlos Moedas, EU commissioner for Research and Innovation, (at occasion of Gender Summit 2015) emphasising and explaining the need for gender equality in research and structural change in research organisations:

Inés Sanchez de Madariaga, about why gender equality in Responsible Research and Innovation is relevant and what are the issues at stake:

Need inspiration?

Interested in more arguments for why work on gender equality and diversity in research is relevant? The Norwegian Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research provides six key arguments on its website. These arguments deal with:
1) fairness; 2) democracy and credibility; 3) national research objectives; 4) research relevance; 5) research quality and 6) competitive advantage. Read the argumentation in full below.

Why work to improve the gender balance and increase diversity in research?
It is important to clarify the reasons for working for gender equality and diversity in an institution. The Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (2014-2017) gives the following arguments for its efforts to promote gender equality and ethnic diversity in academia.

Gender balance and non-discrimination are a matter of fairness. Women and men, regardless of their ethnic background, must have the same opportunities to participate in, and the same power to influence, the higher education and research community.

Democracy and credibility
To have a well-functioning democracy, women and men, as well as various ethnic minorities, must participate on equal footing in all areas of society. If the community of researchers and research managers is more gender balanced and ethnically diverse, the institutions will more accurately reflect the diversity of the population. This will strengthen the institutions’ credibility and ensure that they incorporate the research interests of a larger portion of the population.

National research objectives
To achieve national policy objectives for higher education and research, Norway must utilize all the human capital at its disposal. An imbalance in recruitment results in a loss of research talent. The various subject areas are still segregated by gender and tend to recruit a disproportionately low number of ethnic minorities. It is therefore essential that a gender and diversity perspective underlies the establishment and realization of national research priorities.

Research relevance
High-quality research that is relevant to society requires that research communities are able to raise the “right” questions and consider a number of different solutions. This is best ensured when research communities are open to different types of people with different experiences and have the ability to cooperate across and within disciplines. Research and education are integral to policy formulation and public administration, and contribute to a more critical, diverse and open public debate. When researchers reflect the diversity of the population as a whole, the credibility and relevance of research is enhanced.

Research quality
Heterogeneous research groups that include women and ethnic minorities have been shown to be more robust and innovative than homogeneous groups. This promotes quality and innovation in knowledge production. A focus on gender and diversity perspectives in research will enhance the quality of research as well.

Competitive advantage
Women comprise 50 percent of the talent that institutions compete for when recruiting to positions and academic communities in higher education and research. In addition, some people with a minority background are excluded for a variety of reasons. If women and ethnic minorities cannot be recruited, talent is lost and research quality is affected. This in turns weakens the competitive advantage of academic institutions as they work to develop their academic areas.
Source: Committee for Gender Balance in Research (Norway)

Want to know more?

Advocacy: speaking notes

Below are examples of ‘speaking notes’ to support advocacy for gender equality. These short notes (usually not longer than two paragraphs) aim to provide convincing arguments to progress gender equality in universities and research institutions. They can be helpful, for example, when you have to convince a key staff member or colleague in a couple of minutes of the benefits of work towards gender equality. 

These notes are provided here for inspiration. They are tailored to address different staff profiles including senior executives, managers, human resources teams, etc. It is advisable to customise your own speaking notes and to make them fit your institution and the person(s) you will be addressing.

1. Addressing senior staff

2. Addressing Managers

3. Addressing Human Resources Management

4. Addressing Researchers

5. Addressing Social Partners