Interview with Lut Mergaert from Yellow Window

This is a short interview with Lut Mergaert from Yellow Window on her experiences in the space of Gender Equality and some of the challenges she considers we are faced with in truly achieving Gender Equality in Research.

To start off can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your organisation? How did you get into the field of gender and equality?

I have been with Yellow Window since 1992. Yellow Window has evolved over the years and has now become a more mixed consultancy with different activities, partly also due to a merger that took place in 2000. That is around the time I started to work on Gender Equality projects. In fact, it was one of these Gender Equality projects that I was working on in this period, that triggered my interest for the subject.

Following this project, I started doing a postgraduate distance course on gender and then decided to pursue a PhD on Gender Studies, so I have a degree in applies economic sciences and then did a PhD on management sciences at Radboud University with Mieke Verloo. Within my PhD I studied gender in EU research policy, and I used the European Commission DG Research as a case study.

Following on from this, I developed a specialisation in Gender in Research and research policy through working on this in framework programme 6 (FP6). One study, of three years, which I undertook on behalf of the EC concluded that the Commission could not expect the research community to integrate gender in research and to take up gender issues, while not providing capacity building support measures. In light of this recommendation, the Commission launched a call for tenders for developing a toolkit on gender in research and setting up and running a training programme in framework programme 7 (FP7). Yellow Window tendered for it and we won it. This meant that during FP7 we rolled out 73 one-day training sessions across Europe on Gender and Research.

Towards H2020, the Commission had started funding structural change projects, through which various consortia are supported to develop and implement gender equality plans (GEPs). The Commission then instructed The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) with the task of bringing together the different experiences, tools and programmes which had been developed by all these structural change projects, so that others who entered this space, did not have to start from scratch each time. EIGE launched a call for tenders, we bid for it, we won it and through this tender, we set up the GEAR Tool. We also developed a whole network because we set up this tool, in a very participatory way.

Following on from this, people knew we had been involved in the development of the GEAR tool so began inviting us to be involved as partners for different projects. That is how we came to be in four different structural change projects in which we support the partners as expertise providers. The first one of these projects is GEECCO, which started in 2017. SUPERA started in 2018 and then two more, GEARING Roles and GENDER SMART that started in January 2019. In parallel I am also the scientific coordinator for the Gender Equality Academy project, also funded by the Commission’s H2020 programme, which seeks to set up a Gender Equality Academy which will focus on building structural change in research organisations. That was not short but that’s the background!

Can you tell us a bit about what you have noticed about gender in research and innovation? Are there still gender divides?

Well, in my opinion we are far from getting over the current problems we have in relation to gender equality in research. There remains a lot to be done in this space.

When we developed the GEAR tool we made an analysis of the state of play within Europe and we saw that the GEPs of the various research organisations that had the financial support of the Commission were much more ambitious, holistic and better supported compared to others which did not have this support. So, the challenge, for the Commission is to continue supporting the European research community with financial means. However, it is worth noting, that this support is given to only a relatively small number of institutions.

The GEAR tool, however, to a certain extent, is one way to expand the reach of this support, via a channel that may not necessarily include financial support. The ACT project, which consists of the setting up of communities of practitioners, is another way in which this support could manifest itself. The Gender Equality Academy is a third way to open up the Commission’s support to other institutions that may not be receiving financial support.

This, I think, is the major challenge which we and the Commission are faced with. Finding other avenues and possible initiatives that may support a large number of organisations in Europe that may not be receiving financial support. Having said this, financial support remains crucial, for lifting up the initiatives undertaken by organisations in Gender Equality, across Europe, while at the same time, giving them legitimacy so it increases their chances of being supported by the higher managerial levels.

What are you hoping that these projects will achieve?

Of course, I hope that they continue working on Gender Equality beyond the project and thus, beyond the period that they receive financial support from the Commission.  We hope to achieve this long-lasting commitment, by helping them to institutionalise their activities, so try to imbed them in the normal functioning procedures in the organisation but that is not an easy task.

At the beginning of this process, the projects supported by the Commission only lasted 3 years which was far too short. Now the Commission has extended them to a lifetime of 4 years, which is still pretty short to set up things, to implement them in a sort of pilot fashion and then try to imbed them in the normal functioning of the institution. That is quite a task to complete, not only for one action but a range of activities, in the organisation, on different fronts and topics and calling on different people. I have to say, it is a pretty exhausting task, which is often conducted by a small group of people. Often within the project, you also have to call on people in their regular functions without burdening them too much, not adding to their normal workload, but trying to get them to do things slightly differently or trying to engage with them or add a gender dimension to their every day tasks.

Another challenge is the operationalisation of intersectionality. The Commission and DG Research have taken on gender equality considerations pretty early on in their research policy so in that sense, they were exemplary. However, they have remained with a rather binary and strict approach to sex and gender and are only now taking a broader approach and intersectional vision. The challenge remains how to operationalise that. In theory everyone agrees, but in practice it isn’t that straightforward.

What makes implementing GEPs so important?

Because it is the leverage for change in the functioning of the organisation. It is a way to help people realise how processes and practices, which appear neutral, are not, and to try to make the mechanisms which are perpetuating these inequalities more visible in order to identify where interventions may help change these mechanisms and avoid the perpetuation and reiteration of the production of inequalities. Ideally, a GEP wouldn’t be needed in the long-run but there is no alternative but to do it now.

A recent article stated that no country will achieve gender equality by 2030 what do you think we need to do to speed up this process and achieve gender equality?

That is a big question… firstly, larger mobilisation is needed and we need to support each other more, not just within an organisation but actually backing up others in different organisations also. Finding alliances is also important to try and exercise more pressure at higher up levels.

Personally, I am not convinced that we should avoid resistances, oppositions and confrontations, I know that there are some tensions there and not everybody would agree that confronting people is the most productive way forward, but I am not sure that always avoiding confrontation is either. In fact, always operating below the radar does not allow for significant progress to occur.

Lut Mergaert from Yellow Window

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