Why are Communities Central to SPEAR?

Structured reflection together with peers facing the same issues offers one of the most efficient ways to build skills, expand practical, strategic and political capacity to empower actors within organizations to address complex and systems-wide problems without clear boundaries, definitions, actors or even clear objectives. In other words, joint, structured reflection – on what worked and what could be improved, how intentions are met, how to engage people who can make a positive impact – makes us better at adequately responding, maneuvering, and designing intelligent (re)solutions in countering complex issues. Collectively sharing our problem definitions as well as potential resolutions may become key to our change efforts.

Why are Communities Central to SPEAR?

Taking this approach seriously, structured, joint reflection is central in our efforts to implement effective gender measure in order to address the persistent gender inequality in the nine SPEAR universities. The lack of gender equality (in Academia as elsewhere) is one such complex, systems-wide, ambiguous situation characterized by deep divisions and contradictory convictions and perspectives – a ‘wicked problem’. No single solution can adequately account for or definitively address a wicked problem. It does not originate from any one readily identifiable source, but from numerous, intertwined, complex and historic circumstances.

Gender problems countered in SPEAR

In SPEAR we counter gender problems in many different ways: How to raise awareness that there is in fact massive and persistent systemic gender inequality in our specific organizations. A situation that is not merely due to women’s personal choices to make family rather than career their first priority. How to engage people and units to exercise real impact on how we recruit, promote, delegate, appraise, value, everyone on equal terms, effectively affording equal opportunity and ensuring diverse and inclusive working settings. How to counter and reduce conformity in units, bodies, committees, as well as procedures and decision making, teaching, research output – to the great disadvantage of everyone. How – some places – even just getting to a point where it is possible to engage in calm and informative dialogue concerning gender issues without bringing out strong and adverse emotional reactions. One (inadequate) response to these challenges would be to merely focus on fixing the numbers, that is, making sure that there is equal representation. This may look good on paper but does not necessarily improve underlying mechanisms and dynamics for skewing and biasing decisions and evaluations.

Wicked problems

Wicked problems stand in contrast to two other types of ‘problems’: tame problems and crises. Tame problems may have a certain degree of complexity, yet they are solvable through tested-and-true procedures, actions, measures – for instance strategic planning, timetabling, operation procedures. Tame problems require management and procedures. 2) crises or urgent, acute situations, such as a hurricane, an accident or school-shooting, require assertive and decisive action – reducing complexity and range of possibilities. Both tame problems and crises often present themselves as vastly preferable to the messy, complex and inconclusive nature of wicked problems – think of climate change, poverty, migration or drug trafficking. And gender inequality.

In the case of wicked problems, no single hierarchy or entity can by themselves once and for all adequately eliminate them. In fact, what seems like a measure of success one place may create or intensify problems other places. Take, for instance, quotas to ensure a balanced gender representation in committees and boards, that end up singling out and overburdening the few women eligible for board membership. Or think about how ensuring transparency and external competition in recruitment procedures which may live up to legislative and administrative objectives but which may obstruct and complicate discipline-specific carefully developed and honed talent nurturing of inhouse talent.

Seeming solutions to wicked problems, although well-intended, run the risk of increasing the problems precisely because they are complex and difficult to identify and encompass in the first place. Indeed, wicked problems are notorious for being obstinately and inevitably uncertain and ambiguous, and for being characterized by unavailable, inconclusive or incomplete information. And even if it were possible to analyze and design seemingly right solutions, it would be impossible to positively define when success would be attained – and indeed what that success might look like.

In the case of wicked problems, it is never an option to let them lie and sort themselves out over time: Indeed, wicked problems present us with a continuous urgency for attention and obligation to act. Now. Even if what we have at our disposal is never more than barely adequate information. Even if we are restricted in terms of power to act or political goodwill or contextual enablers. Even in the face of novel and messy complexities. Even despite a glaring lack of clear and unambiguous ways forward based on prior and conclusive experience.

Thus, as gender practitioners the best we can therefore hope to provide is ‘good enough for now’-actions, striving for better (rather than worse) developments in the absence of obviously ‘right’ or ‘tested-and-true’ solutions.

Structured, joint reflection – becoming effective in the face of the wicked gender inequality in Academia

However, what we do know from tackling other wicked problems is that collaborative efforts are pivotal – indeed, a sort of “good-enough solution” approach towards our “good enough for now” actions. SPEAR structures these collaborative efforts in multiple ways:

Through our Community of Learning we pursue and turn state of the art Gender knowledge and practical tools and approaches into our very own methods and means for ensuring cultural change and improved gender equality in each of our organizations. This work is structured around EIGE’s framework for the implementation of Gender Equality Plans.

Our Community of Practice includes an ongoing consortium-wide exchange of our concrete and current experiences with effecting and implementing gender measures in each our different contexts. The collective insights and experiences we are thus exposed to serve as important inspiration and perspectivization of our own contexts, conditions and possibilities. This work is further anchored in smaller and more frequent learning and support cluster meetings, where it is possible to spar and continuously reflect, follow and support each other in our endeavor to be effective.

And, finally, in our wider national and regional networks we seek to inspire and develop effective ways of moving our organizations – and indeed the wider European academic sector – in positive directions in terms of ensuring gender equality both in the universities as workplaces, in decision making and in research output.

Thus, through continuous, structured reflections on our daily, lived experiences from addressing, moving, countering, mitigating, communicating and generally striving for improved gender equality in our different academic and national contexts the SPEAR consortium members continually seek to inspire and enrich our actions – thereby using the communities as essential in becoming effective gender practitioners and keys to the necessary development in our respective organizations.