GEARING-Roles annual conference on gender equality in research and higher education

The third GEARING-Roles annual  conference “GEARING-Roles annual conference on gender equality in research and higher education” took place in Estonia. It was organised by the Estonian Research Council (ETAG) on the 30th of March 2021, addressing the gender dimension in research. Over 220 people registered for the conference, of which 197 participated (45 onsite, 152 via Zoom), and the recording is available on the YouTube channels of both ETAG and GEARING-Roles. Over 100 people have watched the recording.


The Estonian Research Council thanks all speakers and participants for taking part in the conference that took place within the framework of the “Horizon 2020” project GEARING-Roles. The conference covered subjects such as intersectionality in research, implementing gender equality plans at research institutions, the current state of gender equality in Estonian research, and the gender dimension in research and higher education. 

Summary of the conference


Barbi Pilvre, the Associate Professor in Media, Art, and Communication at Tallinn University, chaired the event. During the conference, was opened for the questions by listeners that were presented through Barbi Pilvre to the speakers.


The opening speech was delivered by Renno Veinthal, the Deputy Secretary General for Research and Development, Higher Education, and Vocational Education and Training Policy at the Ministry of Education and Research of Estonia. He noted: “Higher education and research and development are key instruments for empowerment and social change. Universities can be powerful institutions for promoting all aspects, including gender equality, diversity, and inclusion. ” 

Renno Veinthal also pointed out gender inequality in the leadership positions at Estonian research institutions, differences in the numbers of invetions and patents, and the pay gap. That disparity is rooted in organisational culture, its structures, societal norms as well as our individual decisions. Additionally, the work culture that does not allow balanced work, family, and private life affects women more than men. He acknowledged: “The launch of the European Union New Research and innovation framework program (Horizon Europe) will bring some important changes in the field – we welcome the change that the institutions wishing to participate in the new funding programs must have gender equality plan. “

He also stated: “The issue of gender equality needs public debate and guidelines. Our organisations need to see gender equality as a value. Although we are moving towards gender parity, most of the sectors, at the current rate, unfortunately, won’t reach parity, at least in some domains, like inventing and patenting, until 2070. So it takes a generation – would that be okay? I am not sure. If you consider the length of the academic career – typically 30- 35 years – very decisive steps must be taken to speed up the progress. ” 

Veinthal agreed: “Universities will continue to be critical actors for change when it comes to gender equality – through their teaching, research, and outreach they can have a transformational impact on society. But universities are also large organisations. They should set a leading example for other industries by not only creating policies and services that support women’s advancement, but by ensuring these measures are properly documented, promoted, and implemented.”

Karin Jaanson, Executive Director of the Estonian Research Council stated that gender equality in research is important because, at the organisational level, diversity provides practical decisions as different perspectives and opportunities are represented. If the global research community wants to have maximum impact, gender topics must be included. She agreed that gender equality in research challenges and their extent varies from country to country and from organisation to organisation.

Maria Silvestre, the Scientific Coordinator of GEARING-Roles and Professor in Social and Human Sciences at the University of Deusto, added: “One of the great lessons of this project, at least for me, is discovering the strength and value of the networks we are able to create. Our project is a network itself. Another important network is that of the sister projects being a member of these networks on a personal level but above all on an institutional level allows us to face the known resistances, not only in an accompanied and sorority way but also in a much more effective and profitable way. I’m sure that this circumference will help us to continue building alliances. “

Two keynote speakers with fruitful presentations joined via Zoom. Mathias Nielsen, the Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, talked about the gender dimension in research and how to avoid binary survey questions using the two-step method. In his presentation, he also gave concrete examples of the importance of the gender dimension, methods for including the gender dimension in research, and the mutual benefits of promoting gender equality and the gender dimension. He stressed why it is important to have a gender dimension in research: “It can lead to new insights that enhance the external validity and the precision of scientific research in many areas./../ Analysing gender and sex in all stages of the research from the initial consideration of problem choice to the data analysis can add important dimensions to research.” 


Nielsen shared his experience in the Gendered Innovations project that aims to integrate the aspects of sex, gender, and intersectional analysis into the research. It also develops empirical case studies that help illustrate how integrating sex and gender, and intersectional analysis can lead to innovations and discoveries. He introduced their Policy Review that tries to develop methodological tools and case studies to support and advance sex and gender analysis in the European research and innovation areas. The goal is to summarize key aspects of sex and gender analysis at each stage of the research process. He compared it with the GEARING-Roles project: “One of the central principles you can say of the Gendered Innovations project and [GEARING-Roles] is that sex and gender analysis needs to be taken into consideration already from the very beginning of the research project. It’s insufficient to retrofit these into a project at the end stage. This will rarely lead to anything useful.”


Nielsen introduced the Gendered Innovation project report results, which include a method of intersectional analysis that offer concrete suggestions on how to make intersectionality an integrated part of the research project. The project includes detailed instructions on how to consider sex, gender, and intersectionality in different areas—it also includes a method that tries to outline the state-of-the-art approach for collecting data about sex and gender in surveys (the two-step method approach that asks about sex at birth and gender identity in two separate items in the survey, which includes more inclusive response options both for the sex category and for the gender identity category). He also shared his thoughts based on various research articles, e.g., “As women have entered the previously male-dominated field of history, the change of research topics considered worthy of the empirical investigation was clear. This has expanded topics over time, and this correlates with the representation of women in the fields.”

The second keynote speaker on intersectionality was Raili Marling, the Professor of English Studies at the University of Tartu. She stated that intersectionality has brought along a revolution in how researchers think about identity, particularly gender identity. In gender studies for a long time, a single determinant model of identity was assuming that one aspect of identity, e.g., gender dictates one’s access to social resources such as education and research funding. She continued: “Today, we all know that when we look at gender from this unitary perspective, we miss very important impacts that we are made by race, age, religion, regional belonging, and many other topics. Women in different social and geographic locations have very different problems. So do men. Campaigns that are just based on this unitary model will not be able to provide equal access. This is what the term “intersectionality” is designed to address“. Marling pointed out that race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation don’t exist independently of one another in the social world. “Various forms of privilege are related to one another in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to understand one without paying attention to connections with the others.


Marling primarily referred to the concept of intersectionality by Crenshaw in 1989: “for those new to this topic, the easiest to define it as multiple forms of power and privilege that intersect with gender so that we don’t have just gender as a determinant but a more complex compound that includes many different aspects. “She also pointed out that the more categories one adds to the mix, the more there is the danger of moving away from the most salient ones, such as race and class. She cited Helmut Lutz that race, class, and gender should be the minimum standard as a research category, and others can be added depending on the research context.


Marling mentioned: “We conducted a 10-year survey of gender research and the state agenda. We attempted to include intersectionality in articles as much as possible. Still, we found it hard because although everybody understands, for example, gender always intersects with ethnicity, we don’t have national statistics that account for all contexts. This is something that we need to keep in mind. It is a field that is in a starting phase in Estonia. It hasn’t yet fully normalized that we would always be aware of the multiplicity of the axes that gender comes along with.” She brought out some conceptual questions on intersectionality based on research and how to use intersectionality as a method in research: “there is a debate about whether it’s a theory, whether it’s a concept, whether it’s a heuristic device, whether it’s a strategy. There is a debate about whether we should look at this on an individual or social level. Already the number of debates shows you that this is something that has become something of a buzzword. This is a term from Kathy Davies – one of the more widely cited authors of intersectionality.” Marling added that intersectionality challenges static definitions of identity – the assumption that one can at any point be just a woman, just a man, or just a scholar and through that raises the question of the stability of identity categories, the question of what aspect of your identity is more present at time.


Marling acknowledged: “thanks to intersectionality, we can be more aware of the important differences among women and men. These are not monolithic categories and when we are creating interventions, for example, in increasing the mobility of women in institutional structures, we need to be aware of this mutual influence. It is both important for the present and for the past because if we understand the history of exclusions that have created today’s status quo, we are able to attend to them better. “She valued the important mantra by citing Mary Matsuda: “the way I try to understand the interconnection of all forms of subordination is through a method, I ask the other question: “when I see something that looks racist, I ask ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this? When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask,’ Where is class interest in it?’ “So, intersexuality is an exercise in trying to find this other question and bring it together with matrices of power.” She also added: “All scholars recommend that we look at intersectionality in all levels of work in identifying the problem in designing research, collecting and analyzing data, dissemination and knowing we need to think of the audiences. A research paper might not be the best way to reach all the groups that we are trying to address.”


Marling also brought out that the method creates multiple challenges for scholars: “every time we move from a beautiful theory to something we have to apply in research, we bump into challenges, for example, what categories to analyze. We cannot analyze everything because then we will lose sight of anything. It is also important to see that in research, we need to tackle how we look at these categories in an additive fashion or in a fashion that sees them as interlocking. We need to be attentive to the fact that we need to decide how much attention to give to the category so that we don’t leave the crucial ones like race, class and clan rate, race gender and class, unanalyzed.” Many scholars mention the challnge of looking at the intersectionality of individual identities or social structures. However, Marling recommends to look at intersectionality in all levels – from research design to dissemination, and to think about the audiences.


Intersectionality in research acknowledges unique experiences of discrimination and oppression. Raili Marling emphasised that gender should never be treated as a “standalone category” but as something related to other differences and mutually constituted by them. How is the intersectional approach different from classical empirical sociological or social science research, which combines different research categories gathering and analyzing data? And what kind of new knowledge does it bring? In Marling’s view, the main difference is that one is not looking at the categories separately from each other but as they impact each other.


The keynote speeches were followed by a discussion, based on the questions from Slido, e.g.what are the steps taken at the secondary school level to encourage girls to take on technical studies? What is the role of gender equality in a time where western countries move towards a world with different possibilities to define gender? How to differentiate sex and gender analysis in research?

During the coffee break, participants had the opportunity to visit the GEARING-Roles travelling T-shit exhibition. The second part of the conference began with presentations on gender equality plans (GEPs) by Anne Laure Humbert (Director of the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice and Professor at Oxford Brookes University), Roman Kuhar (Professor at the University of Ljubljana), Karin Jaanson, Zeynep Gülru Göker (University of Sabanci), Maria Lucinda Fonseca (University of Lisbon), and Laia Tarragona (GEARING-Roles’ Project Manager and Researcher at the University of Deusto). Each shared the main achievements and challenges faced in implementing the plans in their organisation. The discussion was moderated by Xavier Eekhout.


The panelists discussed how to achieve the long-term, structural change.

– Laia Tarragona said the GEARING-Roles project has forced through GEPs partner institutions for cultural change and brought gender equality to the center of the public debate.

– Karin Jaanson prioritizes rising awareness: if more people are on board with the change, there is less resistance and a greater chance for a cultural change.

– Maria Lucinda Fonseca stresses the importance of public monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, as well as changes in the rules. If rules are changed at the University level, a small institute is more like to follow.

– Zeynep Gülru Göker adds that cultural change means to have more people involved. For her, it’s what sets GEARING-Roles apart from other projects – the participatory aspect enables this kind of innovation and internalization by bringing together different people, NGOs, students. It’s necessary to do the same outside of the University as well.

– Roman Kuhar spoke about top-down approaches to the adoption of a gender equality plan. This way, it was easier to adopt structural change. In his experience, it’s useful to arrange focus groups with different faculty members and a primary focus group with administrative staff. Making some sensibility among all is a bottom-up approach that helped and will be helpful for the future implementation of the gender equality plan. It is an awareness-raising approach, and changing culture is a long process that must be persistent.

– Ann Laure stresses keeping an eye on both the short-term and long-term perspective. Cultural change requires that one identifies and leverages the pockets of interest and activities happening in institutions. One must Identify what is already happening and trying to web those activities together to create a supportive network internally, so it’s possible to leverage internal change makers and collectively have more impact. It’s also vital to extend the network externally and learn from others. Another thing is to make sure that one is properly equipped – making sure that we have knowledge on gender and diversity that we don’t take for granted. Some practical tools and methods (auditing tools, diagnostic tools, and other creative methodologies) do help, and gender equality projects have already created great resources.

The second part of the conference started with the presentation of “Gender Equality in Estonian Science – Current Situation and Ways of Improving” by Helen Urmann from the University of Tartu. The survey was supported by Estonian Research Council’s RITA program. Notably, she stated that more women than men acquire higher education in Estonia (63,6% in 2019), but fewer women reach higher academic positions (26% in 2019). This issue is called the “leaky pipeline” problem. The study also showed that the academic landscape in Estonia is perceived as gender-neutral – inequalities are primarily seen as results of personal choices rather than the inflexibility of the system. Her presentation led to an interesting discussion.

Next, Triin Roosalu, Associate Professor at Tallinn University, presented the study “Reducing the Gender Wage Gap in Academia” (REGE), also supported by the RITA program. People have a different perception of what the gender pay gap or equal work is. She described how the gender pay gap could be calculated and highlighted the attitudes that employees, employers, and the state have towards it. It is promising that the University of Tallinn is coming up with a method to measure pay gap that could help people understand the situation.

The second panel discussion looked at the current state and main challenges of gender equality in Estonian researchAnne Kahru (National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics), Marek Sammul (University of Tartu Narva College), Ester Oras (University of Tartu),  Maili Vilson (University of Tartu), and Kristjan Vassil (University of Tartu) were the participants. The panelists discussed topics relating to gender equality in their respective research fields (IT, ecology, environmental toxicology, chemistry, archaeology, and political sciences) and gender equality policies in their institutions. Here are some of their thoughts:


  • In IT, the gender-related issues are somewhat more complex, Kristjan Vassil says. There are significantly more men than women in the sector and men tend to ask – and receive higher salaries. The challenge of bringing girls to IT is related to a change in the culture, and that takes time. He adds that creativity and engaging local communities could help. Changing the mindset and involving girls in IT starts at kindergarten. Vassil thinks institutions need GE policies. By looking at what we have learned, a push from EU could offer useful solutions for our GE issues. The Univesity of Tartu has four goals and allocated resources, set activities, and come up with KPIs to get the results. By Vassil, the first is important to recognize that we have become on the road to minimizing the gender equality issues. Secondly, systematically address structural motions and incentives – not possible to be unaware of gender equality.


  • From a purely ecological perspective, sex doesn’t matter at all, says Marek Sammul. As for the pay gap study, he recognised situations (e.g some fields of research) where men are underrepresented. He also agrees that, to some extent, all academics are gender-blind. Sammul thinks it is important to have the mindset to ask other questions all the time. He believes there is a need for a process in policy that is a part of some studies. In his opinion, 1. structural problems are easy to solve; 2. stereotypical problems are hard to solve; 3. we need to take into account the individual responsibility – not possible to make a person do a Ph.D. or make them want to do it. By Sammul, the worry is more about stereotypes than the pay gap. All kinds of misconduct and mistreatment, including intersectionality, have to be in focus but as equal treatment as a whole, not alone to gender.


  • In environmental toxicology, Anne Kahru agrees that gender is definitely an issue. She adds that fair treatment and glass ceiling effect are important – resources need to be cleverly used, and female role models are required. By Kahru, the priority is normal balance in decision-making bodies because the system starts where you can vote.


  • Kahru and Sammul see that there have been funding opportunities for gender research, but competitions could help, and special programs can draw attention to GE.


  • Archeochemist Ester Oras also agrees that gender topics are very relevant. Intersectionality could be implemented to learn from the past and behave better. Oras agrees that women are not setting high goals, and GE policies could help. The first step is to have data on the institutional level and see the problems to tackle them. Oras adds the open work-life and transparent processesshould be praised. In this case, role models and mentoring schemes are crucial to breaking stereotypical perceptions.


  • In political studies, Maili Vilson also agrees with the importance of including gender topics as it is a horizontal issue. She also agrees that intersectionality could be very practical regarding services and equal society. Vilson thinks younger researchers and female Ph.D. students differ by field; however, there is a lack of awareness of GE, and in this case, GEP helps to recognise the situation. Younger researchers need role models, e.g., balancing life, and the supervisor has a lot of responsibility. She sums that higher education and teaching are essential not to produce stereotypes.

You are welcomed to watch the GEARING-Roles’ third annual conference recording here. A photo gallery of the conference by Liis Markvardt is available online, together with the profile and bios of the speakers and the visual reporting by Piret Räni. Slides from the speakers can be found here.