Despite political efforts to change the situation, gender imbalance is still evident in European universities and research institutions. A powerful tool for change is positive action. The tool may seem to be at odds with the meritocratic values that distinguish academia. Resistance to such measures may seem particularly well-motivated in science, which is supposed to be value-neutral and only let academic merit be the decisive factor behind researchers’ success in the competition for employment and research grants.

However, merits can be assessed and measured in different ways and merit systems may, for historical reasons, favor men over women. There are still societal expectations that the woman should take the main responsibility for children and aging parents, as well as for other household tasks. This pattern is reflected in working life, where female researchers can be expected to also take care of the academic housework. Dual household work reasonably gives women worse conditions in a competitive work environment that rewards productivity and quantity. Can the merit system then be said to be value neutral? Or does it prevent important changes not only to the gender distribution, but also to the system itself, which possibly favors quantity over quality, certain types of research questions over others, and self-absorbed competition over good collaboration?

Meritocracies, like everything else in this world, are changeable. They can change without ceasing to be meritocracies. Positive action could give the academic merit system a push in a possibly better direction, with better ways of assessing scholarly merit, soon helping to render the tool redundant. We therefore need to approach the question of positive action with our eyes open to both opportunities and risks.

The European project MINDtheGEPs (gender equality in research) recently published a policy brief, intended to support thoughtful implementation of positive action in European research. The tool can be used in three important areas: when awarding research grants and fellowships, when hiring full professors, and in the composition of evaluation committees. The policy brief provides an overview of common arguments for and against in the debate about positive action in European research organizations, divided into these three important areas. It is instructive to see the arguments side by side, as well as the counterarguments against the counterarguments. Because is it really self-evident that positive action must undermine a meritocracy?

Read MINDtheGEPs’ policy brief here: Gender quotas & positive action: An attack on meritocracy? There you will also find case studies of positive action at two Italian universities.

MINDtheGEPs hosts a series of Open Forums to discuss gender equality in the academic and research & innovation sectors, to facilitate knowledge exchange and mutual learning among scholars, practitioners and professionals supporting gender equality policies and measures. On 20 March 2024, their next Open Forum, they will share and discuss the contents of their latest policy brief – exploring the contentious topic of positive action, assessing arguments for and against, and drawing insights from MINDtheGEPs’ Gender Equality Plan development.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Solera C, Cipriani N, Holm Bodin A. (2023) Gender quotas & positive action: An attack on meritocracy? Zenodo. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1002437

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