Gender Equality in decision-making IN R&I and HE

Current and emerging issues in the scientific literature

Gender equality and gender mainstreaming have become one of the European Research Area priorities –and gender-balance in decision-making is one of three key objectives. Women’s representation in academia decreases the higher up the academic ladder – culminating in the very small percentage of women in decision-making posts, on boards and in committees and as heads of institutions. In 2017 only 27% of board members (including leaders) and 21.7% of heads of institutions in the higher education sector were women (She Figures, 2018:115). Strategies and policy interventions to promote gender balance in decision-making are often seen as a means (i.e. an input) to creating an institutional culture that fosters greater gender equality.

Wroblewski (2019) notes however that this is based on an ‘implicit assumption’ that an increased “participation of the underrepresented sex will initiate cultural or structural change”. Wroblewski unpicks this assumption highlighting how it is fundamentally based on two different gender equality goals:

  1. To abolish structural barriers for women’s careers and to change the “rules of the game” like decision making criteria, norms, or values underlying assessment procedures, etc..
  2. Second, the competence to initiate structural or cultural change is only attributed to women, which would assign the responsibility for change to women only. Organizational change requires the involvement of all relevant stakeholders – male and female (e.g. De Vries and Brink, 2016).” (Wroblewski, 2019:172) at all levels in the organization but in particular at the leadership level (Kalpazidou Schmidt & Cacace 2019).

We will therefore address these two different issues separately by differentiating between ‘gender balance’ as an explicit strategy to include more women in decision-making positions and gender competence in decision making in R&I and HE linked to institutional change.

Gender balance in decision-making

Whilst there are various strategies used to promote gender equality in decision-making, targets and quotas are often the mechanism used to promote a greater gender balance on boards of funding agencies, research organisations and universities (EC, 2018; 3). Whilst quotas or targets are often used to increase the share of women on decision-making boards there is mixed empirical evidence as to their effectiveness. For example, from the realm of politics Dahlerup states: “‘the mere introduction of quotas has not resulted in uniform increases in the numbers of women parliamentarians worldwide’ (cited in Meier & Lombardo, 2013:56). Meier & Lombardo (2013:56) however recognize that electoral gender quotas have the potential to increase women’s representation rapidly, as Costa Rica or Rwanda have shown”. In the realm of gender quotas in R&I in Austria a quota regulation came into effect in 2009 which stipulated 40% (increased to 50% in 2015) of members of a university body must be women. This was accompanied by hard sanctions and resulted in a palpable rapid increase in the share of decision-making body positions held by women – from 27% in 2008 to 40% in 2011 to 50% in 2018 (Wroblewski, 2019: 173/174). To counter the slow rate of change seen in the private sector, in 2010, Iceland introduced 40 per cent quotas for both women and men on boards of public and private companies, obliging companies to report on gender diversity status and progress in annual financial statements, which resulted in a great increase (of 25 percentage points) in the proportion of women on company boards to 44% (WIP, 2014). Other research has demonstrated the positive effect of board quotas on women’s board representation in the corporate sector is higher when accompanied by hard sanctions (i.e. fines or dismissal of directors) (Humbert et al, 2019:459).

Regarding gender balance, the setting up of targets or quotas at the national level has been shown to support the implementation of the EU policy objective related to gender-balance in decision-making. Monitoring has also been recognised as a ‘key driving factor’ for an effective implementation of quotas or targets. It highlights how monitoring mechanisms which collect sex-disaggregated data should be applied both at the national and the institutional level (EC, 2018; 3). It also highlights the role that incentives (like award schemes) and sanctions (financial consequences) developed at national level can play in the effective implementation of targets (EC, 2018; 3).

At the institutional level developing election rules to ensure a balanced representation has been an effective institutional strategy developed at Ghent University, Belgium.

“The new election procedure for the Board of Ghent University (Belgium) requires faculties to have at least one male and one female candidate for the elections. If the elections have an unbalanced gender outcome (not respecting the minimum 40/60 gender balance) the candidate with the least votes from the overrepresented sex (compared to other faculties) has to give way to the faculty’s candidate of the other sex with the highest number of votes. Although it triggered some resistances, the new procedures paved the way for substantial changes: as a result of the 2014 election, the Board has now a 50/50 composition. There was no further need to implement positive measures to elect a female representative and the reformed election attracted the most voters ever in the history of the University" (EIGE, 2016:46)

There is a general consensus in the literature that recognises that the successful implementation of targets and/ or quotas is intricately linked to institutional and cultural change.

Gender Competence in Decision-Making

Gender competence in decision-making goes beyond gender balance i.e. the equal presence of women and men in all relevant boards and committees, by factoring in the ability of their members to address their own biases and make informed decisions that are gender aware and gender-sensitive. The assumption that increasing the ‘descriptive representation’ leads to ‘improved substantive representation’ leading to structural and cultural change must be questioned (Wroblewski, 2019:181). Research has demonstrated

“the extent to which the participation of women in higher education management also leads to structural and cultural changes is essentially a matter of chance. It depends on whether these women have prior gender or gender equality expertise or at least recognise and are open to gender equality issues. If this is the case – and other members of the rectorate share this awareness – women in rectorate positions can achieve a great deal for gender equality and trigger steps towards structural and cultural change.” (Wroblewski, 2019: 181).

Gender competence and expertise need to be embedded into decision-making bodies irrelevant of the gender of its members. Awareness raising and training initiatives – that demonstrate the benefits of a greater gender equality must therefore accompany targets and quotas (EC, 2018; 3). Training and awareness raising however does not only facilitate the adoption and acceptance of quotas and targets in the organisation in general but targeted at leaders, decision-makers and managers can also lead to a greater gender competence. This is key if decisions taken are to be more gender fair and institutional processes and procedures free from bias.

The gender-integrated leadership programme (AKKA) at the Lund University (Sweden) is a programme whereby leadership is understood as something that can be learnt and developed, and that focuses on the individual´s competences, and not on personal characteristics.

“The AKKA programme aims at raising gender knowledge and awareness, and providing methods and tools for structural change in order to achieve sustainable gender equality. From 2004 to 2014, five AKKA programmes have been offered for 150 senior scholars in Lund University (Sweden) (of which 37 were men). The programme runs over a year with monthly meetings. Throughout the years, AKKA has increased the number of women in leading positions, contributed to an enhanced visibility of women as potential leaders, increased willingness of both women and men to assume leadership positions, raised gender awareness among female and male academic leaders, promoted networking and collaboration within the university, raised the knowledge about the university’s politics and activities, developed tools to deal with resistance to gender issues and for change management, contributed to highlight discrimination, and developed concrete change projects.” (EIGE, 2016, 46)

The National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions (2016) highlights another way to increase the gender competence of those at senior level by making 'demonstrable experience of leadership in advancing gender equality' a requirement of appointment to all line management positions including Rector/VC/President.

Lukes’ three dimensions of power is relevant to decision-making arenas: the first dimension conceives of power as decision making, the second dimension as as decision making and agenda setting and the third dimension as decision making, agenda setting and preference shaping.

Power as understood in the critical leadership studies tradition builds on Luke’s third dimension of power (O’Connor et al, 2019; Collinson, 2019) and understands leadership as involving ‘asymmetrical situated power relationships’, thereby acknowledging ‘that leaders holding formal positions of power can limit the decisions made by other participants through the use of ‘stealth power’ (Lukes, 2005; Webb, 2008)’.

“Leaders in positions of formal power have access to resources that are not simply the ‘carrots and sticks’ that affect individuals. Thus, Lawrence (2008:174) argues for a more explicit focus on systemic power as an ‘automatic form of regulation that enforces compliance without involving episodes of actions’. For Webb (2008) and Lukes (2005), a key issue involves the exercise of what the former calls ‘stealth power’, i.e. power which is not seen as such. Leaders occupying formal positions of power can create structures which give the illusion of participative decision-making. They can create contexts (Cunha et al, 2013) through which stealth power is enacted, i.e. they can set agendas, so that power is exercised subtly without the awareness of those subject to it.” (O’Connor et al, 2019a:725.)

This focus on stealth power is interesting for gender equality in decision-making arenas in R&I and HE for a variety of different reasons. Firstly, it makes us question the simple assumption that the mere decision-making arena can be equated with the exercise of power, thereby making us question how a mere focus on gender balance in decision-making arenas could lead to real institutional change. The less explicit and more subtle workings of power dynamics can manifest through ‘non-actions’ and resistance to change. How do we then deal with these ‘non-actions’ and resistance? And, finally could the concept of stealth power actually be harnessed for a greater gender equality in R&I and HE institutions?

Kalpazidou Schmidt’s (2019) analysis of gender equality policies of the Scandinavian countries with a focus on the representation of Scandinavian women in leadership positions in larger companies and academia reveals that: “a comprehensive national approach and persistent, coherent policies, followed by substantial financial incentives are required to stimulate gender equality work and achieve set objectives. The political will (or lack of) at system level and the legislative framework are pivotal for the policy design and strategy formulation at organizational level, the implementation of concrete actions and the impact of gender equality efforts in academia and companies.” (Kalpazidou Schmidt, 2019).

Key Issues to Debate:

  1. What can we learn from different experiences of applying targets and quotas to create more gender fair decision-making bodies?
  2. How do you address the double burden when the same few women have to participate on many different committees/ boards?
  3. What are effective ways to build gender competence in decision-making bodies?
  4. How can we effectively deal with ‘non-action’ and resistance to institutional change?

Key references 

Brooks, Ann, and Alison Mackinnon, eds. Gender and the Restructured University. Changing Management and Culture in Higher Education. SRHE and Open University Press., 2001.

Burkinshaw, Paula. Higher Education, Leadership and Women Vice Chancellors - Fitting in to Communities of Practice of Masculinities. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. //

Burkinshaw, Paula, and Kate White. ‘Fixing the Women or Fixing Universities: Women in HE Leadership’. Administrative Sciences 7, no. 3 (September 2017): 1–14.

De Vries, Jen, and Claire Webb. 2005. Gender in mentoring: A focus on the mentor; evaluating 10 years of a mentoring programme for women. Paper presented at the 4th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education, Oxford, UK, August 31–September 3. [Google Scholar]

Dubno, Peter, John Costas, Hugh Cannon, Charles Wankel, and Hussein Emin. ‘An Empirically Keyed Scale for Measuring Managerial Attitudes Toward Women Executives’. Psychology of Women Quarterly 3, no. 4 (1 June 1979): 357–64.

EIGE. ‘Gender Equality in Power and Decision-Making Review of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in the EU Member States’. Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union: European Institute for Gender Equality, 2015.

EIGE. Gender Equality in Academia and Research: GEAR Tool, (2016) Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union.

European Commission (2018) Guidance to facilitate the implementation of targets to promote gender equality in research and innovation, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union.

FESTA. ‘Gendering Decision Making and Communications Processes: Report of Recommendations Developed’. Deliverable 4.1, January 2015.

Funder, Maria. ‘Gender Cage-Revisited. Handbuch Zur Organisations- Und Geschlechterforschung. Baden-Baden, Nomos.’, 2004.

HEA (2016) National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions, 2016.

Hoobler, Jenny M., Courtney R. Masterson, Stella M. Nkomo, and Eric J. Michel. ‘The Business Case for Women Leaders: Meta-Analysis, Research Critique, and Path Forward’. Journal of Management 44, no. 6 (July 2018): 2473–2499.

Humbert, Anne Laure, Elisabeth Kelan, and Kate Clayton-Hathaway, ‘A rights-based approach to board quotas and how hard sanctions work for gender equality’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 26, 4, pp447-468.

Humbert, Anne Laure, Elisabeth Kelan, and Marieke Van Den Brink. ‘The Perils of Gender Beliefs for Men Leaders as Change Agents for Gender Equality’. European Management Review, 2018.

Kalpazidou Schmidt, Evanthia, (2019) Diversity in diversity policy: the case of the Scandinavian countries, Human resource Development International DOI: 10.1080/13678868.2019.1681850

Kalpazidou Schmidt, E. & Cacace, M. (2019). Setting up a Dynamic Framework to Activate Gender Equality Structural Transformation in Research Organizations. Science and Public Policy, vol. 46, no. 3, p. 321-338.

Meier, Petra, and Lombardo, Emanuela ‘Gender quotas, gender mainstreaming and gender relations in politics, Political Science, 2013, 65, 1, pp46-62.

Meyerson, Debra, and Joyce K. Fletcher. ‘A Modest Manifesto for Shattering the Glass Ceiling’. Harvard Business Review, 2001.

O’Connor, Pat, Martin, Patricia Y, Carvalho, Teresa., O’Hagen, Clare., Veronesi, Liria, Mich, Ornella, Saglamar, Gulsun, Tan, Mine G, and Caglayan, Hulya (2019a) Leadership practices by senior position holders in Higher Educational Research Institutes: Stealth power in action?, Leadership, 15,6, pp722-743.

O’Connor, Pat, O’Hagan, Clare, Myers, Eva Sophia, Baisner, Liv, Apostolov, Georgi, Topuzova, Irina, Saglamar, Gulsun, Tan, Mine and Caglayan, Hulya (2019b) Mentoring and Sponsorship in higher education institutions: men’s invisible advantage in STEM? Higher Education Research & Development, 39,4, pp1-14,

O’Hagan, Clare, Pat O’Connor, Liria Veronesi, Ornella Mich, Gulsun Saglamer, Mine Tan, and Hulya Caglayan. ‘Gendering Decision Making and Communications Processes’. FESTA Female Empowerment in Science and Technology Academia, 2015.

Stoch, Magdalena. ‘Uniwersytecki Standard Antydyskryminacyjny (University Anti-Dicrimination Standard)’, n.d.

Veronesi, Liria, Alessandro Ross, and Marco Zamarian. ‘Methodologies and Measures for Analysing Informal Decision-Making and Communication Processes’. Expert Report WP4.2. FESTA Female Empowerment in Science and Technology Academia, 2016.

Vinkenburg, Claartje J. ‘Engaging Gatekeepers, Optimizing Decision Making, and Mitigating Bias: Design Specifications for Systemic Diversity Interventions’. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 53, no. 2 (June 2017): 212–34.

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Wroblewski, A. (2019) ‘Women in higher education management: Agents for cultural and structural change?’, Social Sciences, 8(6). doi: 10.3390/socsci8060172.

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