What about gender equality plans?

The new Horizon requirement, that each institution applying for European research money has to have a gender equality plan covering certain areas pre-defined by the European Commission, has stirred quite a lot of activity all across Europe. In the Nordwit countries we have had mandatory gender equality plans for quite a number of years. Have they helped to alleviate the “Nordic paradox” – relatively few women on the higher echelons of research institutions and enterprises in the technical sector?

In the Nordwit team we can agree that they certainly haven’t solved the problem as the issue is still well alive. We also agree that we haven’t come across gender equality plans in our research – they are conspicuous by their absence in our material, i.e. our interviewees and collaborators did not refer to them as tools for working with gender equality. When discussing the reasons for this we first established what we already knew: Despite the legal requirements, not all employers have crafted such plans.

This is bound to change with the Horizon requirement. However, we also talked about other aspects, which probably will remain: We know that even when plans do exist they often are not implemented or are implemented only partially. The employees are often not aware nor interested in the plans and do not know what the plans contain.  And as long as gender equality work is perceived as negative and conflictual – a stance we, as well as other researchers in the Nordic countries, have come across in our studies – any gender equality plans are difficult to implement.

The Horizon requirement has raised high hopes among gender equality workers and gender equality proponents. Certainly it has put gender equality on agendas, in particular in countries where such issues have hardly been touched in organizational management. However, it remains to be seen whether the plans actually will lead to significantly increased gender equality. The expectation that they will do so seems to build on a view that gender equality an organizational change process that can be implemented top down – disregarding the substantial amount of research showing what kinds of active and passive resistance at different levels in an organization often obstruct gender equality initiatives.

In 2017 the legal requirement for employers to have a gender equality plan was discontinued in Sweden. At that time such a legal requirement had been in force for more than 25 years. Now there is a legal requirement for employers to be able to account for the gender equality work they have done. While this may not change things as such – law enforcement is necessarily not changing – it still signals what we have learnt during those 25 years: Plans do not promote gender equality. Only engagement and actions do.

Minna Salminen Karlsson

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