#OpenVU: Gender equality – how will we achieve it?

2W4C8721 1 642x410Carried out in 2018-2019, the Analysis of Diversity and Equal Opportunities in Vilnius University (VU) revealed that the number of women working at VU exceeded that of men by 12%. However, the share of female professors was twice as small as that of their male counterparts (64 percent men and 36 percent women), while the share of female research professors was four times smaller than that of male research professors (79 percent men and 21 percent women). Moreover, the results of the analysis demonstrated that a 17 percent pay gap between female and male academic employees existed: better-paid and more prestigious teaching and research positions were mostly held by men, which was the reason behind the pay gap.


Results of the study

The results of the analysis did not surprise Aurelija Novelskaitė, associate professor and senior researcher at VU Kaunas Faculty: “The university is part of the society which tends to have stereotypical perceptions in terms of gender. Both in Lithuania and in other countries, one can still face the understanding that women are emotional, having no career ambitions, fully committed to their family and financially dependent on men, while men are rational, intellectual, successful, career-oriented heads of the family.”

Novelskaitė points out it is difficult to distance oneself from thinking based on traditions and stereotypes. “As long as someone does not name a specific problem or does not prove that something hurts someone in the society, everything seems normal because we are used to living this way. It goes without saying. For instance, it goes without saying that a man needs to be granted a condition to get a higher salary in order for him to come to work in a university, library or other field of activity where the majority of positions are held by women. Therefore, he is offered a higher position, and other conditions are created. Meanwhile, a woman seems to need nothing: she can work for a lower salary (i.e. take up a lower position), perform less-valued, often more time-consuming and emotionally-demanding tasks (which also prevents her from climbing the career ladder). After meetings, coffee cups are often washed by women as well… It is still said that everyone has the same rights, and women themselves do not want to do certain things, but the opportunities are different,” assoc. prof. Novelskaitė argues.

Aurelija Novelskaitė KnF 180330 00938 225x300The study also unmasked the fact that women, almost exclusively, choose to go on childcare leave at VU. “The data show that in 2018 no man working in the administration went on childcare leave. Only two male academic staff members exercised their right to paternity leave,” says assoc. prof. Novelskaitė, adding that this once again confirms the stereotypical attitude that caring for the family is women’s responsibility.

According to the senior researcher, in order for the situation to change, the society’s attitude towards both women and men must change. Stereotypical attitudes about what women or men cannot do or about what women or men must do need to be eliminated.

When asked how much it is possible to change the attitudes and habits that have been prevailing in the society, the associate professor answers that the media and educational institutions are one of the main factors of change. For example, the lecturers of VU Gender Studies Centre, which was established in 1992, teach a joint university course Gender Studies every semester at the Faculty of Communication and every semester as of this spring at the Kaunas Faculty. In the course, lectures, not only VU lecturers but also researchers and scholars from universities in other countries, government organisations (e.g. the Women’s Information Centre), the government and international institutions (e.g. the European Institute for Gender Equality) present the most relevant gender and gender equality issues. Gender-related courses are also taught at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science and the Faculty of Philosophy. According to assoc. prof. Novelskaitė, the current situation resembles a fact noted in scientific articles: today’s students, as well as those individuals who were studying one or two decades ago, claim that issues related to gender equality are already solved and their choices are undetermined by gender stereotypes, while their careers will take a different trajectory compared with the older generation.

“Statistics and everyday facts show that the situation is not changing as fast as one could want. The year 2000 was the threshold when the number of women who had defended their dissertations was higher than that of men for the first time in Lithuania. However, in 2020, or 20 years later, there are still almost twice as many male professors as female professors at VU. Still, there are only a single female among the 20 professors in the Faculty of Physics and the Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics. In other faculties, where women make up the majority of the staff, there are more female professors, but the overall share of women holding professorships among all women working at the faculty is lower than that of men. This makes us think that the situation will not change by itself; therefore, it is necessary to implement targeted measures,” says assoc. prof. Novelskaitė.


Strategy approved

At the beginning of this year, VU Senate approved the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Strategy, which also provides for the pursuit of gender equality in individual areas of research and studies at VU. It also aims at achieving a balanced representation of women and men in VU’s governing bodies.

“The adoption of this strategy sent a message demonstrating that our community is very diverse: we have gender, sexual orientation, disability, nationality and other characteristics on which our social life directly depends. Moreover, these factors are not understood as self-explanatory because, for example, a person who has never experienced disability simply does not have the understanding of how a person with a disability feels. It is neither possible nor necessary to have all possible experiences, but to understand and respect differences is a human privilege.

I was very pleased when, following the approval of the strategy, some leaders began to address the community in letters using gender-inclusive language. For me, this means that our community’s awareness and sensitivity regarding gender (I believe – not only regarding that) is growing. This is what we are after when implementing the strategy,” assoc. prof. Novelskaitė claims.

In order to ensure gender equality in VU, the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Strategy 2020–2025 envisages two measures: the Gender Equality Plan and the Guidelines for Gender-Inclusive Language.


Gender Equality Plan is underway

Initiatives to ensure gender equality at VU started being implemented before the approval of the strategy. One of the initiatives was launched in 2019, when VU started working on the project titled Supporting and Implementing Plans for Gender Equality in Academia and Research (SPEAR), funded by the EU Horizon 2020 Science with and for Society (SwafS) programme. VU is participating in the project together with other eleven universities and organisations from Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Croatia, Portugal, Finland, Sweden and Hungary. The project’s activities are integrated in VU Diversity and Equal Opportunities Strategy.

In VU, SPEAR is being carried out by VU Library and the nine following academic units: Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Faculty of Philosophy, Faculty of Physics, Faculty of History, Kaunas Faculty, Faculty of Communication, Life Sciences Centre, Institute of International Relations and Political Sciences and Business School.

“Therefore, ten units at VU decided to develop pilot gender equality plans in order to firmly establish gender equality. We are currently analysing the situation in the departments in detail, identifying the main gender equality issues and the possibilities to address them. Obviously, the units are very different. For example, the Faculty of Physics is planning to set up a working group to develop a gender equality plan. The Institute of International Relations and Political Science, the Business School and the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration perceive the principle of gender equality as an automatic element of everyday practice; meanwhile, the Library’s staff members are mostly female, so the Library wishes to work on attracting male employees, etc.” points out assoc. prof. Novelskaitė.

She says that the pilot plans (pilot measures) are planned to be delivered in the upcoming autumn. After a year, after evaluating the results, effectiveness of the experimental measures, experiences and practices, the development of the joint VU Gender Equality Plan will be started, which is going to be based on the experience of VU units focusing on different fields of science. The plan is expected to be finalised in 2022.

“The goal is not to look nice or just to transpose legal requirements but to ensure equal opportunities for women and men to be able to climb to the highest positions at VU, to successfully drive their careers forward and to balance work and personal-life responsibilities. We aim at creating a work environment in which all women and all men can fully realise their potential,” notes the associate professor.

When asked what measures were planned to be used to achieve the set goals, she replied that many EU initiatives had been already carried out and provided not only the lists of possible measures but also the instructions for their implementation in scientific organisations. However, each country and each organisation has its own specific context. Automatic implementation of measures developed elsewhere would be risky; consequently, it is necessary to assess the situation first.
“We have already started to carry out an in-depth analysis of the situation in VU departments, and we are trying to discover the most important points for us. It has already become clear that guidelines are going to be developed in the future, and they will provide information on how to properly integrate gender aspects into the information broadcast by VU to its community, schools and the society as a whole. We are considering preparing recommendations on gender mainstreaming in the preparation of (scientific) projects, in VU external communication, marketing, etc.
Yet another area that is already obviously in need of action is ensuring equal career opportunities for both women and men. This area includes the aforementioned issues related to work-life balance, pay gap and other issues. Indeed, in order to choose the needed measures based on the current issues of VU, we are scrutinising the situation in specific departments,” reckons assoc. prof. Novelskaitė.


Guidelines for Gender-Inclusive Language to be drafted

The approved Diversity and Equal Opportunities Strategy provides for the development of the Guidelines for Gender-Inclusive Language. Why is this important? According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, avoiding discrimination on the grounds of biological and social gender starts with language, as the symbolic use of gender-biased terminology influences attitudes and expectations and can push women to the background in the mind of a reader or a listener or perpetuates stereotypical perceptions of the roles of women and men.

“The language we learn and use reflects and reinforces our identities, our cultural views and our values. However, a language in which the generalised gender is masculine excludes women from the prevailing discourse. On the one hand, this is the same 'self-explanatory' thing when we use common masculine grammatical forms, but on the other hand, what does the greeting 'hello guys!' say about our logical thinking when only girls are sitting in the classroom?

Julia T. Wood in her book under the title Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender and Culture, which was published in 2008, talks about a male student’s experience when a lecturer at a university decided to experiment and used only female grammatical forms to address the audience throughout the lecture. After the lecture, the male student admitted that he felt uncomfortable or even upset at first because sometimes he just did not know what to do. However, it was a valuable experience. So, how do our female students feel when, for example, they are told the following: “You will never be a good surgeon, but maybe you can become a paediatrician?” the associate professor remembers the results of a previous research project.

No guidelines for gender-inclusive language have yet been drafted in Lithuania. VU’s guidelines will set out the premises as to why it is generally significant to pay attention to gender when speaking and/or writing. The guidelines will also present solutions in other languages and make recommendations on which grammatical forms to use in different contexts. These guidelines will be of a recommendatory nature, hoping to create a framework for the systematic use of gender-inclusive language in both spoken and written interactions in VU academic community. In this way, young people would be fostered as more sensitive to gender peculiarities, and the message about the mindfulness of VU community would be conveyed to the public.

#OpenVU is a series of articles about the university that seeks to be open not only to scientific ideas and a variety of disciplines but also to the diversity among the members of its community. The series will include conversations on future plans and initiatives to help create a study and work environment that promotes individual, social and cultural diversity and ensures equal opportunities for the members of the university community.

You can find more about the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Strategy here.

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