What did we learn from COVID and how can we move forward?

Can Gender Equality Plans help shape the future?

In our society, gender equality continues to be a relevant issue that needs a voice. Although we have come a long way, many of the challenges women face today already existed 25 years ago when the Beijing Platform and Declaration for Action (BPDfA) was published, and we still have a long way to go. The BDPfA was – and still is – the most progressive document on women's rights and the most comprehensive global initiative ever designed. Gender equality is not, contrary to what many still think, a women's problem. It is a fundamental right and a prerequisite for an inclusive and future-focused society.

What did we learn from COVID and how can we move forward?

The most relevant advances related to gender issues and women and girls’ empowerment are supplemented by setbacks and new challenges that force us to be constantly "on our toes". Therefore, it is necessary to create conditions to trigger changes in various aspects of life. Although many of the challenges identified 25 years ago are still today's problems, leaders must take the responsibility to ensure that gender equality is always considered in decision-making processes and policy regulation.

Women were already facing daily challenges even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and before it was a global public health issue. It has been an "uneven field" for some decades now and in various sectors of society. The new challenges brought by digitalisation and technological innovation have also played a key role. In this context, the pandemic has exacerbated and intensified pre-existing issues and created new challenges. Universities and Research Institutes are neither isolated nor immune to these extraordinary factors and the impact of COVID-19 affected more women than men. The unknown and the lack of information that led to the initial total lockdown resulted in the almost complete stoppage of all teaching, research, and administrative activities – the famous administrative housekeeping so necessary for the entire academic community, students included – and many female professors and researchers found themselves facing a new reality and with increased unpaid housework and other familial responsibilities at home. It is not that their partners did not do their share or was not a fair share of responsibilities – simply, much of the unpaid housework and care still are upheld mainly by women. Perhaps these are still remainders of a near-extinct generation or a deep-rooted mark of the times. Still, in the era of information we live in, with easy access to information, men and women are more informed and one can only wish for them to realize the importance that work-life balance is for everyone. We all have a role to play and that for future generations to thrive, we need to break free of some of the chains that keep us linked to the past and break down some of the barriers.

Designing a Gender Equality Plan (GEP) was a challenge for many reasons and the pandemic was just another hurdle that we had to overcome. With the need to create conditions to be an agent of change comes the responsibility to be assertive and concise on our approach and the importance of being aware of what surrounds us and our reality. Portugal is a country where the numbers and the general statistics often hide details and the need that we still have for more inclusive policies focused on gender and non-discrimination issues. Do not misinterpret, Portugal recently celebrated the 44th anniversary of the Commission for Citizenship and Gender Equality (CIG) [1], and policies addressing these issues have been in place since the publication of the 1st Global Plan for Equal Opportunities in 1997, although the kick-off for social change occurred in 1975 with the new Constitution. Nevertheless, Portugal still has a long way to go in terms of gender issues and gender equality and is still below the European average.

And this is where Higher Education Institutions, like NOVA, can make a difference and be part of the change. NOVA positions itself as a civic and global university focused on society and the future and demonstrates a clear commitment to the United Nations Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The impact that a GEP will have in an institution like NOVA is immeasurable, and one of the main objectives is to present solutions or viable alternatives to NOVA’s community. Our professors and researchers will be able to face many of their daily challenges in a more supported manner and our students will also have more inclusive opportunities. It is key measures, such as creating favourable conditions for a more stable career progression for academic and non-academic staff and developing the necessary skills to create a safe environment for all, that will enable us to assume our role as a University of the future. The pandemic has brought us new challenges and, as a community, NOVA has the possibility to be the differentiating factor, which stands aware of its social impact locally and globally. The intervention should not focus on public health and social issues only. NOVA's role during this last year-and-a-half has been of utmost importance in response to the pandemic, with several projects in different scientific areas and several social initiatives [2]. And since the pandemic affected everyone's life, this role was only possible because there was a clear bet on multidisciplinary and multi-layered teams whose aim was to respond to the new challenges and present effective solutions.

We all already know that multidisciplinary teams get better results and perform better when facing more complex problems, but if we add to these the diversity and gender balance dimensions, the effects of these more plural and diverse teams can be enhanced [3][4]The different perspectives may bring a more balanced, tolerant, and consistent solution to the system. The impact of the proposed measures/solutions/objectives is as significant as their impact on the university, NOVA’s community, and society at large. This way, a more equal and diverse community will leverage NOVA to assert itself on different fronts.

NOVA has assumed a strategic commitment in which gender equality and equal opportunities are fundamental parts. We can be the drivers of a change that starts in our teachers and researchers and goes over towards our students. We can create differentiated tools focused on the necessary transformations to overcome the technological challenges and the changes that distance implies. The mitigation of the pandemic’s negative effects requires a continuous commitment from the University, even after it is over. There must be close monitoring in all sectors. It is necessary to identify the challenges and the impact that the pandemic had on the careers of teachers, researchers, and administrative staff, and how the experiences and perceptions of each can contribute to the design and implement activities and initiatives focused on gender equality and equal opportunities.

The pandemic has brought the problems related to gender issues back into the spotlight by exacerbating situations of inequality. And since it is impossible to predict the future, we can only ensure those disparities are mitigated. Therefore, our proposals and recommendations focus on defining guiding principles, with a perspective to monitor and implement policies at the institutional level and promote more flexible and family-friendly working conditions for both women and men. Identifying priorities and short- to medium-term needs is essential for planning action strategies and the containment of the effects felt not only by all academic and non-academic staff but also by the students. Furthermore, it is crucial to ensure that working conditions at the institutional level are equally sensitive to gender issues and the needs of women and men.

No matter how many studies are done in any area of knowledge, the simplest path will not, most likely, be the answer to the most complex problem there is. First, we need to identify the size of the problem, to then often realise that it is only the tip of the iceberg (this analogy always works for more complex issues). So, the best approach is usually to take things one step at a time, try to manage each challenge in the best way possible, keep ones’ attention high and keep the ability to adapt towards the unexpected and adopt answers accordingly. These sound a lot like clichés – and they are! – but they all fit perfectly in the reality we currently live in. We do not know if it is because society seems to be more and more polarised or if it is the eagerness to create the necessary tools to respond properly, but we cannot continue to act as bystanders and just watch! NOVA’s community is engaged and wants to be part of the solution. We all have our individual roles in this play, but without everyone, the story will remain untold because it cannot unfold by itself. We all need to realise that Gender Equality is part of the solution to move forward and create a brighter and sustainable future!

[1] NOVA in the news (in PT)

[2] Commission for Citizenship and Gender Equality (in PT)

[3] Beilock, S (2019) How Diverse Teams Produce Better Outcomes, Forbes