A Community of Practice: Approach to Improving Gender Equality in Research

1 September, 2022
Credit: UN women on IFAD.org (Investing in rural people) Credit: UN women on IFAD.org (Investing in rural people)
By Rachel Palmén and Jörg Müller, researchers from the IN3 group GenTIC (Gender & ICT: Researching Gender in the Network Society), presenting the 1st Edition of ‘A Community of Practice Approach to Improving Gender Equality in Research’.

This book, recently published by Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group), has 12 chapters written by 28 contributors from different disciplines, geographical locations and professions.  It brings together the latest research from various communities of practice (disciplinary and place based, as well as thematically organised), and reflects on the knowledge, experience and practice gained through taking a unique community of practice approach to fostering gender equality in research and innovation sectors and in higher education in Europe and beyond. Based on research funded by the European Commission, it considers how inter-organisational collaboration can foster change for gender equality through sharing of experiences of gender equality plan (GEP) implementation and examining the role of measures such as change-monitoring systems.

Book cover of 'A Community of Practice Approach to Improving Gender Equality in Research'
Book cover of ‘A Community of Practice Approach to Improving Gender Equality in Research’

ACT was a Horizon 2020 project that lasted for 3 years 6 months (from May 2018 to October 2021), involving 17 partners from Europe and Latin America. It sought to advance gender equality at universities, research centres and research funding organisations by facilitating collaboration between institutions with experience in the implementation of GEPs and institutions with less experience in this area. It aimed to address common needs and improve assessment of gender equality in HE & R&I in three fields: gender balance in career progression, gender balance in decision-making positions, and integrating the gender dimension into research content and teaching.

Objectives with each logo of ACT project, on act-on-gender.eu
Objectives with each logo of ACT project, on act-on-gender.eu

The ACT project set up and supported an international network of communities of practice (CoPs) as agents to develop gender equality actions at research performing and research funding organisations in the European Research Area.

  •  ACT established the first European network of communities of practice by supporting eight new or consolidated CoPs working on gender equality in HE & R&I; it assessed their needs and offered opportunities to foster synergies and innovation in this field.
  •  ACT consolidated and strengthened existing infrastructure for knowledge sharing and mutual learning in the field of institutional change and gender equality across Europe (the Knowledge Sharing Hub, an online survey tool for gender equality audit and monitoring, and an evaluation framework for CoPs’ collaborations and activities).
  •  ACT also developed an adaptable support toolkit, training materials and audio-visual resources for adopting best practices on gender equality by R&I organisations.

The book begins with a conceptual reflection on a community of practice approach to institutional change for greater gender equality in R&I and HE focusing on policy and practice, authored by the editors, Jörg Müller and Rachel Palmén. This is followed by another conceptual chapter, developed by colleagues at Loughborough University led by Aleksandra Thomson, questioning whether CoPs for institutional transformation can be termed and conceptualised as communities of political practice. The following section details the development and use of the practical tools and methods used, including the development of the Gender Equality Audit and Monitoring survey, authored by Kevin Guyan et al., and another chapter by our colleagues at Loughborough University together with Kathrin Rabsch, charting co-creation methods for communities of practice towards institutional change. These methods are useful for members of different institutions who are working together on developing gender equality measures, actions, policies and plans for their own institutions.

The next section of the book includes chapters which reflect on six of the CoPs established and supported throughout the project. The chapters in this section are primarily written by authors who acted as CoP facilitators throughout the project; this meant that it was their task to facilitate the CoP meetings, work with innovative collaborative methods to share GEP experiences and implementation, and document their experiences. The book includes chapters from two of our geographical communities of practice, one that examines fostering structural change in research and academia in Central and Eastern Europe, developed by Paulina Sekula et al., as well as a chapter focusing on developing alternative infrastructure for gender equality in academic institutions in Slovenia, authored by Jovana Mihajlović Trbovc. The next chapter in this section, by Sybille Reiland et al., examines taking a disciplinary approach to CoPs for a greater gender equality in physics & life sciences. This chapter is based on the experiences of the GENERA CoP and the Life Sciences CoP, and is based on interviews carried out with CoP members. Whilst disciplinary CoPs were seen to provide a useful focus to discuss issues pertinent to disciplines, i.e. integrating the gender dimension into research content, or how the evaluation of researchers can vary according to discipline, the usefulness of a disciplinary approach to CoPs was not always immediately evident to CoP members. The next two chapters reflect on the two thematic CoPs that were developed as part of the ACT project. The first, gender budgeting community of practice and targeted implementation projects, by Laufey Axelsdóttir et al., examined the extent to which this approach can challenge gender biases in decision-making in research organisations. The final chapter in this section, a reflection on the STRATEGIES CoP, posed the question of sustainability of gender equality policies and strategies and was written by the CoP facilitators, Damala et al.

The final three chapters of the book reflect on the extent to which this approach has been useful in advancing gender equality in R&I and HE. The chapter by Sybille Reidl et al. is based on their work as evaluators of the CoPs, where they took on the role of a ‘critical friend’. Whilst the CoP approach is seen as particularly useful for advancing institutional transformation, they conclude that as a stand-alone strategy, it would not work. Resources are needed for organisations and institutions to engage with gender equality work, and whilst a CoP approach can complement this work, crucially, it cannot be a substitute for it. The penultimate chapter in this book reflects on to the extent to which the CoP approach has impacted on the three ERA gender equality and mainstreaming objectives: careers, decision-making and integrating the gender dimension into research content. This chapter, developed by Kathrin Rabsch et al., documents the scaling up work, where CoPs and relevant European level players came together in e-discussions and online events to share content and promising practices in careers, decision-making and integrating the gender dimension in research and teaching content. The final chapter, by Rachel Palmén and Jörg Müller, attempts to provide some conclusions and weaves together the empirical work documented in the different chapters with the more conceptual reflections and the literature in this field.



This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 788204. The contents of this website reflect only the author’s view; the Research Executive Agency (REA) and the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains. 

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