Women, diversity and gender in policy research: an agenda

31 October 2017

This article intends to contribute to the global debate regarding the role of women in research and the challenging conditions they face in both institutions from the ‘Global South’ and ‘Global North.’ + It draws from a discussion at a roundtable held at the Overseas Development Institute, co-organised by On Think Tanks, in October 2017.+

The roundtable’s and this article’s objective was to attempt to outline a laundry-list research agenda that may inform future work and events on the subject. But we unearthed a broader discussion and complexities that need to be addressed. 

More women, or more diversity?

Many terms are confused in this discussion. Is it more women or is it more diversity that we want? Or is it gendered organisations and research what we are after? Priyanthi Fernando had warned us that the discussion had to move beyond women and numbers. 

The discourse of inclusion of more women in the research environment tends to overlook intersectionality – namely class, race, age and sexual orientation but not exclusively. Such is the case is research environment in Peru where we observe that initiatives focused on promoting the role of women in public policies and academia does not represent women across the spectrum – e.g. women from public universities, female researchers based abroad, young women, LGBTQi researchers. Thus, “more women in research” does not necessarily translate into “more diversity”.

Women in research environments

It is not enough to achieve ‘critical mass’ in order to change in male-dominated spaces.

Comparing the composition of research organisations in the UK, Germany and Peru, we find a ‘leaky pipeline’ + which is a decreasing proportion of women at each step of the career. It is worthwhile to highlight projects such as ‘Gendering the Academy and Research: Combating Career Instability and Asymmetries’ (GARCIA) supported by the 7th Framework Programme of the European Union which focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and SSH (Social Sciences and Humanities) fields in European universities and research centres to promote gender culture and combat gender stereotypes.  Also, Peru’s Grupo Sofia and Plataforma Comadres which attempt to raise the profile of women in social sciences.

However, the largest positive impact relies inside the research institutions. The first step is oriented to the promotion of women’s skills such as mentoring. However, a more systemic approach is required. According to a recent study by Turban, Freeman and Waber, using data from one large multinational firm, shows that women did not necessarily “have fewer mentors, less face time with managers or were not as proactive as men in talking with senior leadership”. The main problem is usually reducing bias along with addressing issues like salaries, career trajectories, work-related travel, parental leave across. Leveling the playing field is singled out as a common problems across industries, especially technology and innovation. Moreover, strengthening these skills in research organisations usually conceals the extra-work for women in senior positions – being mentors for example, or highlighting this issues in the first place.

Additionally, it does not always account for the clustering of topics around which women tend to converge (social development, gender-related issues, education) while other areas continue to be underrepresented by them (applied econometrics, war and security, international relations). Nor does this approach address the way gender shapes individual’s methodological choices: women researchers, generally, tend to use qualitative approaches.

Who is responsible?

This can be addressed from several perspectives. On Think Tanks is naturally interested in how the organisational set-up or the business models of think tanks and policy research centres, where many researchers in the social sciences work, affect these issues.

Are the business models conducive of greater diversity or by their very nature (and design) make any changes in this direction harder –or impossible?

The hammer to break the glass ceiling: more research

Consequently, then, our research agenda should begin by clarifying the terms and concepts we use: gendered research, women in research, diversity and research, etc.

It must explore particularities, too. Drawing up cases of the life-stories of women (and other monitories) in the sector.

And it should consider how “more women” could translate into “greater diversity”.

But other research projects and questions remain:

  1. We need basic data on women in research. Efforts like Transparify that rate think tanks by their financial transparency could be translated into other aspects of the organisation, including greater transparency about the roles that women play.
  2. We should explore how different business models for think tanks, policy research centres and universities affect women, minorities and gendering research. So far we have paid attention at how business models affect think tanks capacity to access funds, produce research and deliver impact. But we have yet to consider:
    1. How the model affects its staff.
    2. The practice of being a thinktanker and how that changes. They are a mix of several professions. So, how does the professional habitus of a thinktanker changes or should change?
    3. What is the role of directors in shaping networks, approaches, etc.?
    4. Does all of this have a consequence on what we study, who we study, why see study, how we use it, etc.
  3. Country comparisons of these would allow us to draw lessons at regional and international levels. We might also find that, as in the comparison between Peru and Germany, that women might not be that worse off in the ‘Global South’ and that change is indeed possible.  For instance, in a comparison made between two think tanks in Peru and the UK in 2015, we found that women made up between 50-57% across junior, middle and senior positions in Peru whereas the only made up between 20%-37% in the UK.
  4. The way that researchers network and relate to each other is also interesting and important. What is the role of gender in the influence networks in think tanks and the policy research environment?
  5. In practical terms, can we identify principles, values, skills that need to be taught to researchers early on?
  6. Finally, is gender the constraint? Or is it class, privilege, homelessness, etc. What limits the participation of women (and minorities) in research? What reduces the diversity in the sector?