Vera Mikkilä

Promoting equality and nondiscrimination – in the best interests of science

24 Mar 2023

The Academy of Finland has been working to reform its early-career research funding schemes, which has also involved gender equality and nondiscrimination impact assessments. One of the aims is to ensure that all applicants receive fair and equal treatment. The number of female applicants and the gender distribution in funding decisions in particular are closely monitored. Gender impact assessments are one way of mainstreaming the promotion of equality and nondiscrimination as an integral part of the Academy’s research funding operations.

Diversity must be recognised and acknowledged in the world of science and research – as in society at large. Public authorities have a universal obligation to ensure that vulnerable groups have access to participation. Gender equality and nondiscrimination impact assessments are a good way of ensuring that proposed reforms or other measures do not have unintended adverse effects, such as illegal indirect discrimination. Indeed, under its current Equality and Nondiscrimination Plan, the Academy has committed itself to including equality and nondiscrimination impact assessments in all its future development projects.

In 2022 the Academy completed a major reform of funding opportunities for early-career researchers. Postdoctoral Researcher funding and funding earmarked for early-career researchers through Academy Projects were both discontinued. At the same time, changes were made to Academy Research Fellowship funding with a view to achieving more efficient and higher-impact grant allocation and to streamlining the processes of both application and administration.

In connection with the reform we conducted gender equality and nondiscrimination impact assessments (PDF). These assessments were based on observations and conclusions drawn during the preparatory process from its very earliest stages. The promotion of equality and nondiscrimination cannot expect to achieve high impact if it is added on as an afterthought or if it is just a sideline; it has to be an integral part of the preparatory process from the outset, throughout the project.

We started the process by running questionnaires and consultations in order to chart existing potential problems and challenges. In autumn 2021, we collected funding applicants’ views on the reconciliation of family life and research work with the following questionnaire item:

What kinds of challenges have you faced/do you see in balancing family and private life with the researcher’s job duties? What kind of flexibilities in funding would help to facilitate the balancing of work and family/private life?

It was clear from the responses that researchers with families and women in particular struggled with the so-called mobility requirement in funding schemes for early-career researchers. Among the flexibilities identified by the respondents, reference was most often made to the opportunity to extend eligibility or the funding period based on family leaves.

Based on the above, it was easy to infer that even though experience from different research environments is still considered important to building up the necessary research qualifications, removing the mobility requirement from the list of eligibility criteria can help to create greater flexibility, strengthen the position of applicants with families and so advance the fair and equal treatment of applicants.

Number of female applicants and gender distribution in funding closely monitored

In connection with the reform of early-career research funding, we also examined application and funding statistics from the vantage point of gender equality and nondiscrimination. Here, our most important (but unfortunately not very surprising) observation was that women account for only a small proportion of applicants, especially in engineering fields but also to some extent in the natural sciences, across all funding instruments. This is a well-known phenomenon in academia, and regrettably we at the Academy have no magic formula to help turn this situation around. Nonetheless we remain committed to working towards a healthier balance, and to this end it is important to closely monitor the number of female applicants and the gender distribution in funding decisions. The first call for applications under the new guidelines did not yet bring any changes to the gender breakdown of applicants, but the situation will have to monitored for at least a few years before any firm conclusions can be drawn. We also have various positive measures in place to promote equality. For example, the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering has taken the position that in the case of applications of equal merit, applicants from the underrepresented gender may be given preference.

In the preparatory process we have also given close consideration to age, nationality and the diversity of research careers. We are working to provide training and guidelines to our own staff, application reviewers and decision-makers in order to raise awareness of unconscious bias and prejudice around equality and nondiscrimination issues. Furthermore, the Academy is fully committed to the cause of responsible researcher evaluation. We are closely monitoring the effects of the Academy Research Fellow reform and, based on our observations, will take action if and when necessary.

One reason behind Finland’s progress and success in education and research lies in our continued efforts to make sure that individuals can succeed regardless of their background, gender or family situation. Looking forward, we at the Academy of Finland are determined to mainstreaming the promotion of equality and nondiscrimination as part of our day-to-day work – and are convinced that doing this will be in the best interests of science.

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