Inclusion Really Does Matter: Improving Reactions to Gender Equality Initiatives Amongst Academics in Engineering and Physical Sciences

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: The Vice Chancellors Office


Across engineering and physical sciences (EPS) departments in UK Universities, there have been concerted efforts to address gender imbalances. Notably, numerous departments have participated successfully in the Athena SWAN award scheme set up by the Equality Challenge Unit, the aim of which is to promote gender equality. These departments have all implemented wide-ranging plans to address gender imbalances. Despite this, many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) domains remain predominantly masculine. Fewer than 10% percent of the UK's engineers are women, the lowest percentage in Europe, and the proportion of women studying engineering and physics has remained virtually static since 2012. Importantly, these gender gaps deepen as women advance in their academic careers: only around 15% of professors in STEM subjects are female. This situation is problematic because it means that university departments, as well as STEM employers, are not drawing from the full talent pool that is potentially available to them. Moreover, research shows that, under certain conditions, groups and institutions that are diverse tend to perform better.

Why is it that gender equality initiatives are widespread but progress remains slow? We propose that one of the reasons that these initiatives have had limited effectiveness is that they are sometimes met with negative attitudes that can range from indifference to hostility. Moreover, gender equality work can be seen as of low status and can burden female academics even further, as they undertake additional work to the detriment of their academic careers.

How can reactions to gender equality initiatives be improved? We propose that the first step is to understand, using scientific methods, when and why these initiatives can lead to negative reactions. This project aims to reach such an understanding by carrying out research specifically with EPS academics, who themselves are a distinctive population due to their level of education, scientific training, and experience. We will test whether academics, due to their scientific training, need to be persuaded of the need for gender equality initiatives by robust empirical evidence or whether methods that encourage empathy and perspective-taking with female academics can also be effective. We will also examine whether these initiatives lead to negative reactions because academics do not feel self-efficacious in bringing about change, due to a lack of understanding of how they can personally tackle inequality. The empirical research will also examine whether the prospect of increasing the number of women in STEM feels threatening to some men, by challenging the male prototypicality of this domain. We will test nine factors that might impact on the effectiveness of gender equality initiatives through a set of experiments conducted with academics across different areas within EPS, at three universities.

We will use the knowledge we generate from these studies to design resources for EPS departments. The first will be a resource package (video, brochure, questionnaire) for gender equality committees that provides them with evidence-based advice on how best to design and implement gender equality initiatives so that they are met with positive reactions. The second will be a training tool in three formats (a Virtual Reality toolkit, an online multimedia training, and an app). These tools can be used by EPS departments to train staff on gender equality issues, while ensuring positive attitudes towards and engagement in gender equality initiatives. These tools will be tested across different departments and universities, and refined as necessary. Finally, in order to increase the effectiveness of gender equality initiatives nationally, we will share the knowledge and tools we have developed with universities across the UK via a workshop, a dedicated website, and high-profile interdisciplinary publications.

Planned Impact

Diversity benefits everyone. Overall, improving reactions to GEIs will improve the likelihood of their success and improve the diversity climate within institutions. More specifically, we identify and explain several levels at which benefits will be visible:

(i) Athena SWAN and other gender equality committees (e.g., those associated with Project Juno) will obtain specific guidelines that will help them understand and minimise possible negative reactions to their initiatives, alongside evidence-based training tools specifically designed to enhance reactions to the initiatives that they are implementing.
(ii) Female academics in EPS fields will clearly benefit from this project, in several ways. First, if GEIs are more successful, EPS departments will feel more inclusive to female academics, improving the quality of their working lives. Second, the burden of taking on and persuading others of the benefits of GEIs will be reduced for female academics, because this is one of the factors we plan to change in existing GEIs. Third, and most importantly, these cultural changes will help female academics develop sustainable and successful academic careers.
(iii) Male academics will also benefit, as improving reactions to GEIs will lead to men feeling less threatened by such initiatives, more self-efficacious in addressing gender imbalance, and more involved in such initiatives. Men's involvement and positive attitudes are important, given that GEIs are not likely to cease to exist as long as large gender imbalances persist. As such, it is important to ensure that male academics' experiences with these initiatives are positive.
(iv) Students in EPS departments at all levels will benefit. Although the resources that the project will produce will be aimed primarily at academics, GEIs themselves (such as Athena SWAN) typically have action plans that target every stage of the academic career, from undergraduate stage onwards. Insofar as the project increases the effectiveness of these GEIs, it will have a broad impact on students as well as staff of EPS departments, in particular with respect to facilitating the progression of female undergraduates on the academic career path. Importantly, an inclusive gender environment can also lead to more female role models and mentors for female undergraduate students, an important factor in increasing their positive experiences and retention in EPS careers.
(v) Other minorities in EPS (racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals, individuals with a disability, individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds) may benefit from more effective GEIs in two ways. First, they may benefit because the Athena SWAN charter requires departments to explicitly address the intersectionality issues associated with minority status. Second, creating a culture that is inclusive for women will be likely to create an environment that is also more welcoming to those of any type of minority status.
(vi) The universities using these resources will also benefit. At present, many individual EPS departments spend considerable time and effort on developing and implementing their own GEIs, but these are not always evidence-based or effective. This project will help nationally coordinate these individual departmental efforts by allowing all GEIs to benefit from evidence-based resources.


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