Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Donia Lasinger on the contribution of the Vienna Science and Technology Funds (WWTF) as a compareably small funding organization to equality of all genders

Where to start from…

Donia Lasinger

Being embedded in an environment as well as in a system and understanding its influences and logic have always fascinated me. During my exchange year in Ireland, at Trinity College Dublin, I had a very important insight: a professor in organizational studies was discussing case studies and then turned to the students and asked: “What would you do in this situation?” After several rounds of guessing, I promptly realized that the ideal answer that he expected was “it depends”: on the people involved, on their beliefs, on the organizations and its culture, on the context. This short phrase would become a guiding statement for a lot of experiences in my studies, as well as in my work – be it while analysing value based management systems, implementing cost-cutting projects or developing business strategies. Theories and practice always depend on the setting they are based in. The way in which people and organizations experience break-through innovations differs according to the individual people involved, the teams and their working habits or the organisational culture.

What does this have to do with gender equality?

I have had personal experiences in the area of inequality: sometimes being a man or a woman makes a difference. During my studies, it could change the game – for example when the decision was made about who should receive the prestigious possibility for an exchange year abroad in Canada. Despite being an excellent student, I did not get this possibility, and the reasons given included “you are a woman and this university is so far away, you will be homesick and we know it is better for you” and “you will not be able to succeed in such a performance driven environment.” Later on, working in an international strategic consulting company I was confronted with the question of how I should behave in a very masculine-dominated environment. Although I am not shy to work in these kinds of surroundings, I was astonished when it came to expectations towards me being a tough consultant: I attended some seminars in which they taught me to behave like my male colleagues, in other workshops it was the other way round and I was advised to strengthen my female qualities (mostly my looks and how I should dress). This all left me quite confused, asking myself, why I just could not be like me? I soon realised that these situations evolve according to the context. Now, years later, I know exactly what was missing in these specific situations: it was gender equality and the knowledge about it.

Gender equality and research funders

Gender mainstreaming, i.e. achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that has not yet been achieved. It is of the utmost importance to implement measures that strive for gender balance and diversity, including in the context of science and research. I had the pleasure to deepen my knowledge about it in my current position as deputy managing director in a small and regional funding organisation that acts as a niche player in the Austrian research funding context, the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF).

The Vienna Science and Technology Fund is the only larger Austrian private non-profit organization established to promote science and research via funding for excellent basic research in Vienna. Since 2003, over €200 million have been dedicated to excellent researchers in Vienna and young research group leaders from abroad, the latter in order to establish their own research group in Vienna. This is achieved through competitive calls according to international standards, and organized within long-standing thematic programs such as life sciences, information and communication technology, environmental systems research and cognitive sciences. Four years ago, we were asked to participate in a four-year EU project on gender equality named Gender Equality in Engineering through Communication and Commitment, or GEECCO (H2020-SwafS-2016-1). The goal of the project was to improve gender equality in the participating institutions, four technical universities (Research Performing Organisations, RPOs) and two Research Funding Organisations (RFOs) – one being us. For us, the aim of the project was to implement the gender dimension in our funding programs, instruments and review processes. 

When starting this journey, we had individual measures in place but were missing the resources and time to make more in-depth analyses and improvements. As an organisation, although we had a certain overview of gender statistics (how many female evaluators do we have compared to male ones, how did this ratio evolve over time, how many female applicants do get the grants in the end and what is their contribution, etc.) we were missing to get the complete picture. When it comes to gender mainstreaming in research and science, there are many actors who can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goal mentioned above. In addition to researchers and their institutions, political players, companies and funding organizations play an important role in stimulating change. As pointed out by the European Commission She Figures report in 2018: “Gender imbalance amongst researchers still remains, as in 2015 only one third of the EU’s researchers were women” and “as they move up the academic ladder, women are less represented” (p.6). This is also true for successful grant applications to do research: “The difference between women and men team leaders in their research funding success rate was in favour of men in most of the countries examined. At the EU-level, the funding success rate was higher for men than for women by 3.0 percentage points.” (p.136). This can also be broken down to the national level when considering statistics from R&D in Austria: “Internationally, Austria has a below-average female ratio (in full-time equivalents): The 24% female share in this country compares to 54% in Latvia, 50% in Croatia, 43% in Portugal or 40% in Denmark in 2017, according to Eurostat. Austria is thus one of the laggards across Europe.” (Wien in Zahlen, 2020, p.23). Even if this leads back to the low rate in the corporate sector, it is alarming. Universities are becoming more aware of these problems and are taking actions to change this situation, for example publishing their statistics on gender pay gap, part time ratio and glass ceiling index, which gives an impression of the situation, and are also constantly raising awareness of the problem.

Besides RPOs, international research funders are also paying more attention to gender equality, and many of them are presenting statistics with more detailed gender-breakdown data as well as making statements with regard to gender equality and diversity. Therefore, in my work at WWTF and as a member of the GEECCO team, I was confronted by a set of questions: What can be done to change the status quo and improve gender equality? What role do RFOs play in gender mainstreaming? And in particular: what can we in WWTF do to contribute to this matter?

Context matters: WWTF – A local and flexible niche player

In the light of the questions just raised, it’s important to note that the answers may vary depending on several factors as raised in the introduction: 

  1. context of the organization (e.g. private versus public going sometimes hand in hand with rules and laws like quotas); 
  2. amount of resources available (e.g. having the possibility to nominate a person dedicated to gender mainstreaming tasks or even an entire group/department) and  
  3. political environment (e.g. Sweden being a frontrunner in this topic with a longer history of focusing on it).

Ultimately, however, each and every organization has a specific role to play in this urgent and important change. What does this mean for an organization like the WWTF?

WWTF operates mainly in Vienna. Vienna is home to nine public universities as well as large extra-university research performing organisations. Moreover, around 200.000 students make it the largest German-speaking student city. 2/3 of all Austrian basic research activities take place in Vienna and 2/3 of all Austrian ERC (European Research Council) grantees are in Vienna (80% if the Metropolitan Area is considered). In general, the WWTF understands its role as supporting excellent scientific research in Vienna on topics of priority, e.g. giving money to excellent researchers. We are a small organization that is embedded in a wider context. We observe the activities of other RFOs, RPOs (like the Viennese universities and research institutions) and conduct regular reviews to keep up with new developments and necessary internal improvements. Other funding agencies are operating in the city or Austria too, including public funding organizations like the basic research funder FWF (Der Wissenschaftsfonds) or the applied research funder FFG (Austrian Research Promotion Agency,) as well as regional funders, like the Vienna Business Agency.

The WWTF journey: how a small funding agency can work towards gender equality

When it comes to gender equality, WWTF is constantly learning from others. We identify and implement established standards, adapting them to our own needs and necessities. On the one hand, being a small organization means only having a certain amount of resources available. On the other hand, our advantage lies in the flexibility in driving changes as a niche player. Having limited options means we must use resources carefully and reach our targets efficiently. I would like to take you now on the short five-step journey to guide you through the change process we implemented in striving for gender mainstreaming. Each step summarizes our experiences, taking into account the context we operate in and giving tips for other RFOs.

1. Setting the scene: building up knowledge and a gender-friendly culture inhouse

Before you can start making changes, you need to do your homework. This means knowing what gender mainstreaming knowledge already exists in the organization and what measures have already been taken, such as if measures to reach gender equality have already been taken, what worked well and what not, or why such considerations are new to the organisation. To give an example: to build up internal knowledge, we searched the archives to find out what kind of actions have already taken place in gender mainstreaming in the history of the organisation. It was very helpful to find out what measure worked and why, who was on board and maybe what kind of pitfalls were encountered. 

The first steps are marked by persuasion and internal discussions in order to prepare the organization for the coming changes. This includes both the management and, ideally, all employees. Some might be convinced that they already do a lot to push the topic forward (but might not actually do it), others may not be interested as resources are scarce (and they have other things to do) while others might be biased without even realizing it (“gender does not matter here, the way we have done things here has worked and we do not need to change anything”). All of these arguments are valid and need to be listened to (again, context matters!) There are a lot of possibilities and reasons, as well as excuses for each of them. T It is crucial to bring everyone on board and raise awareness of the topic itself. Finding allies that see the importance and the necessity to improve the situation may be very helpful to start the change.

Workshops and training courses to raise awareness can be helpful at this point, in order to include external specialist knowledge as a key element. At the WWTF, we implemented them over the course of the GEECCO project to improve our expertise and skills. This step of persuasion and argumentation will repeat itself throughout the change process. 

(Dis)Advantage: being a small team (of 8 people)! On the one hand, building a gender-friendly culture and understanding inhouse can be easily implemented as only a few persons need to be on board. We did this by inviting an external gender expert to give us a basic workshop on what gender is about, what usual pitfalls are and how we could include more gender sensitive measures. This was followed by an intense discussion about the relevance of gender in basic/fundamental research. The advantage of a small team are the short distances and the regular interaction opportunities. It is easier to exchange in a small setting, also on a regular and often informal basis. On the other hand, however, everyone has to be on board in a small team and to convince each one takes time and perseverance. Having not much redundancy in the organisation and living in a very lively environment means that resources of each and everyone are limited. Nevertheless, everyone needs to be on board to make the change happen and finding the right arguments to convince them is a successful strategy, as it will be elaborated in the following second step.

2. Gather and bring forward good arguments: provide evidence that action is needed

The next step includes two dimensions: a deeper understanding of the current internal situation of the own organisation as well as the analysis of current developments outside the organization. Starting with the look inside, as a funding organisation it was valuable that we had the time to look at all steps of our daily work and routines. This means that we considered the entire funding cycle (preparation of a funding call, the execution of it and the work afterwards, see figure 1) and the role of gender there. Why? Changing one variable might not be enough or might not lead to any real change. To make this more explicit: we introduced a new criterion in the application: gender in content. This means that sex-specific and gender-related aspects may potentially be relevant and have to be considered when writing an application: e.g. is the research question or the approach likely to introduce sex-specific and gender-related biases in findings? Applicants were also asked to provide a brief explanation in case there is no potential biological sex and/or gender dimension to be considered in the proposed research. When introducing a new criterion, it is necessary to think about how to communicate this change to applicants (to make them aware of it and explain why it is important), how to explain it to them or to give guidance via checklists ), how to inform the evaluation bodies (e.g. juries) or how to include this in the evaluation of the proposals. It is therefore valuable for a funding agency to consider the entire funding cycle and the role of gender there. If one part is missing, the expected effect may not be realised. E.g. in the preparatory work before the call (selection of instruments, topics, drafting and promotion of calls) it is a pitfall if the applicants were not informed and consulted enough so that they may have interpreted the criterion wrong. In the execution of the call itself (including the evaluation processes and their bodies, the process leading to the funding recommendation and decision) it may be hindering if there is no criterion installed in the evaluation of the proposal that includes gender or if the jury does not have the expertise to evaluate this fact. Moreover, when the project is over and no one asks if the applicant kept his*her promise in regard to gender, the whole exercise was also not very well thought through (including the work after the call such as reporting, contracts and ex-post evaluations).

Figure 1: Model of the funding process and its phases

The second part was to analyze the status quo externally and learn what others are doing. Work that others have done can inspire one’s own work. For this reason, we identified about 20 European and international RFOs and collected their measures for gender equality (Best practice report: Furthermore, we established rigorous exchanges with these organizations to talk about experiences made to foster continuous learning.  

Having collected quite a vast amount of data about funding activities, support conditions and measures to make evaluation processes more fair, this treasure of information was helpful in having examples where changes went well and where not. We saw that the context matters a lot, i.e. if organizations operate in a gender aware setting or not, how much resources are available etc. We got a lot of ideas what we could do in respect to affirmative actions, how to adapt programs or evaluation criteria. Moreover, we collected ample evidence that gender mainstreaming improves the status quo and leads to gender being viewed as a cross-cutting issue within the organization itself: “Investing in equal opportunities for men and women in research makes for teams that perform better, and attracts top-level researchers” (European Commission, 2009, page 1). Again, the evidence was very helpful in arguing and demonstrating that the changes were necessary. This brings us back to the experience made in our own organisation.

(Dis)Advantage: being a small organization! Arguing from an internal perspective, the positive aspect is that numbers are easy to access and collect. The negative aspect is that there is no elaborate monitoring system and everything must be ”done by hand“. For a small organization, a practical and hands-on solution is better than overloading the system with a complex system or having no system at all. There could also be a problem with small numbers and samples related to the funding volume, which makes the argument or evidence (e.g. outcomes and impacts of measures taken) quite difficult or seemingly impossible. In this case, it is helpful to broaden the view and look for evidence and numbers in other RFOs. It is necessary to select the best examples to learn from, i.e. organizations that are quite similar in structure, strategy, instruments, funding objectives, legal status, size, etc.

3. Know where you are heading: formulate clear goals (and non-goals) and measures to reach them

With all the information and options available, it is important to stay focused. This can be done by formulating an overarching key objective as well as intermediate goals and corresponding measures. What should be achieved? In which period? Who is responsible? What positive influences and inhibiting factors can be identified? How can they be overcome? It is important to stay realistic but ambitious, with a clear plan; and to monitor progress. 

As demonstrated above, we have decided to review the entire funding cycle for possible gender mainstreaming measures and adapt it to our size and capacities. Our goal was to incorporate the minimum standards that have been established in the immediate context (e.g. other funding organizations in Austria). All knowledge collected so far should be incorporated in this step to set a vision where the whole journey should lead to: where the organisation starts from (step 1) and what the outside world looks like (step 2). This also includes the question on how much change the organisation is willing and capable to allow. Change can be necessary but also harmful if no clear picture about the goal of the change and the ultimate outcome of it is clearly communicated.

(Dis)Advantage: being a small fish in a big pond – context matters! When resources are limited, the implementation of external trends and standards must be reconciled with internal resources. And the motto is: stick to your plan but adjust it if necessary. To keep track, we have even developed a so-called log-journal, a document that shows our goals and how we want to achieve them. After these careful analysis and planning steps, the next one is implementation which has to follow right away.

4. Finally getting started: implementation of a pilot initiative

The next step is to get started, i.e. to get out of “paralysis by analysis” by identifying a “window of opportunity“. This means that measures should be implemented even if the “perfect” fully established plan is not (yet) in place. This is a constant balancing act between over-analysis and evidence, perfectionism and pragmatism. Learning from others is good because the wheel does not have to be reinvented. Rather, one must learn by doing. The own context is always different and no one-fits-all solution can be copied from one institution to another. It is therefore a continuous process of trying and adapting ideas and instruments, as the requirements and challenges also change. 

We started the process by implementing the changes mentioned above (e.g. including a gender in content criteria, gender balanced teams and taking more measures for more gender sensitiveness) in a funding call. Our funding is organized via a call system, i.e. in dedicated topics and with specific instruments we open a call for a limited period of time to allow for a specific competition. This seemed more reasonable than rather changing the entire organization and all processes at once In our case it was important to choose a call where the person in charge is aware of gender mainstreaming and is convinced of its importance (see step 1). This guarantees a good implementation and gives the necessary push to expand the initiative to other calls. Luckily, our applicants were mostly already aware of the topic as other funders already took similar actions in this regard.

(Dis)Advantages: being small means flexibility! Rapid implementation and customization are more likely to be successful in a small organization. Nevertheless, continuity and a common thread are necessary in order not to „get lost“ in trying out and demanding too high. This also leads to the last step, going back to a constant status.

5. Go back to a constant status: consolidate change within the institution

After making many changes and trying new things, those changes need to be processed. Of course, this also includes adapting measures if they do not turn out to be ideal: same applicants may be overloaded by new and excessive information explaining the changes. Or some applicants did not find or receive the information they needed to successfully incorporate the new criterion. The right balance of information and consultation sometimes needs to be found throughout the process. Therefore, this also includes a constant review of the status quo and the monitoring of developments and changes. Possible options are: involve and inform colleagues, report success stories to management, analyze and identify areas of improvement and develop new standards from experience. The aim is to institutionalize the measures implemented – and proudly present them internally and externally.

What’s next?

To return to the questions asked at the beginning of who should promote change, the simple answer is: everyone and every organization has a duty to contribute. Larger organizations may have the opportunity to dedicate more resources to the topic and to install structures in the organization such as a responsible person or a team. But even small funding organizations have the means to make a contribution, also due to their small teams, lean structures and flexibility. The explanations, observations and experiences that we have given are an example of how the status quo can be changed. It also shows how gender equality can be improved and how funding organizations play an important role in gender mainstreaming. Context matters in all of the stages but nevertheless, they are generalizable for others who want to start this journey right away.