The road to the STAGES project at UMIL

The STAGES project at UMIL is coordinated by the Interdepartmental Centre “Women and Gender Differences” which was funded in 1995 as one of the first Italian university centres on gender studies. The Centre introduced in 2006 a specific Section called “Women and Science” in which framework three main projects were developed and coordinated: Universidonna, PRAGES and WHIST. During Universidonna (2006-2007 - founded by the European Social Fund) some initial actions addressing the issue of gender equality in science were completed: mapping of training and education offer, dissertations and researches carried out using a gender perspective; the setting up of a gender observatory; the establishment of a Help Desk. The Centre subsequently took part to two important 7FP European Projects - PRAGES (2008-2009) and WHIST (2009-2011).
The project PRAGES - Practising Gender Equality in Science pursued the objective of collecting, analysing and benchmarking programmes and initiatives oriented at gender equality in research institutions, singling out the most successful and providing recommendations through a set of guidelines regarding their possible adaptation and transfer to other contexts [PRAGES (2009), Guidelines for Gender Equality Programmes in Science, Rome, at:].
The project WHIST - Women’s Careers Hitting the target: Gender Management in Scientific and Technological Research started implementing change by putting collected knowledge at work and applying the PRAGES guidelines as a tool for designing and steering relevant initiatives in partner research institutions.
The very ideas STAGES is based upon come from the experience matured by most of the STAGES consortium partners within the project PRAGES and WHIST. More generally, the awareness of the necessity for a systematic and all-compassing structural change within research institutions is the result of a long path of research and policy-making strongly supported in the past ten years by experts and institutional actors especially at the European level. Precisely for these reasons, STAGES also represents for UMIL and other consortium partners a proper watershed. The project, indeed, has been designed with the general aim of making the most of the unprecedented opportunity, provided for by the Commission, to finally leave the logic of pilot projects behind and launch structural change strategies addressing the many and interconnected layers of the problem of gender inequality in science from an integrated perspective. In this vein, partners institutions are implementing self-tailored action plans which address, at once, many dimensions and sides of the problem of gender inequality in science.

Drafting the UMIL’s Action Plan

In the process of drafting a tailored action plan and imagining useful and viable actions to be applied within the institution the UMIL’s team proceeded not only by carefully taking stock of previous initiatives in order to locate those areas and/or levels where further/different interventions appear meaningful, but it also took into account some contextual opportunities and constraints related to the structure of Italian research and, especially, to the legislation regulating the functioning of Italian universities. As to the latter, a general reform of universities and research that substantially modified funding processes and hiring, for instance, was passed in 2011. Despite some operational boundaries linked to the reform (competitive examinations for selecting faculty members for instance have been moved to the national level), the team nonetheless was able to identify several possible realms and levels where tailored actions not yet introduced or systematically applied could be implemented in order to stimulate structural, long-lasting change. In particular, in the action plan it was decided to target mainly two Faculties - the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Science and the Faculty of Medicine - which exhibit some peculiarities that make them ideal settings for intervention and experimentation.
The Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences is a relatively small Faculty which was selected in 2009 by the Italian Higher School for Public Administration jointly with the Ministry for Equal Opportunities to implement a pilot project for the establishment of new courses on “Equal Opportunities and Scientific Careers” in S&T Faculties. This characteristic of the Faculty, allowed the team to envisage the possibility of operating in an environment where negotiation had already proved constructive.
The Faculty of Medicine is the biggest and, historically, the first UMIL Faculty. It has a very complex and articulated internal organization where women are largely present. Horizontal segregation in both faculties, appears to progressively decrease (nowadays women are often the majority also in traditionally male disciplines).
Vertical segregation, however, represents in the aggregate a persisting and crucial problem. At the Faculty of Medicine, for instance, at the time in which the Action Plan was drafted almost half of the researchers were women vs. less of 20% of women full Professors (the trend was the same at the University level).
Data on access to funding at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, moreover, showed that women have less access to external funding. In a period marked by progressive cuts in the public internal funding, however, external funding grant those resources that are necessary in order to carry on researches and be competitive on the international scale.
Considering these data, it was decided to include in the action plan tailored actions such as “Crash Courses to the UMIL’s Top and Middle Management on the Impact of Gender Stereotypes in Academic Careers”, a “School on European Projects Drafting and Management” and a “School for Improving Publishing” for early career researchers at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences.
Besides their internal characteristics, the choice to target the Faculties of Agricultural and Food Sciences and Medicine also related to the unique opportunity to link our activities to the Milan Expo 2015, receiving its support, having as broad theme the issue of sustainable development and the slogan Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life ( Expo 2015, indeed, will be an extraordinary international event in which the role of tradition, creativity and innovation in research, technology and business practices will be discussed and negotiated. It will thus represents an ideal “stage” where the crucial role of women in the many layers and realms of the field of Nutrition and, more broadly, in Science can be addressed, articulated and conveyed to the larger public.

The objectives of the UMIL’s Action Plan

The UMIL’s Action Plan, named Advancing Gender Equality: How to Enhance Change in Scientific Careers, has the general aim of enhancing structural, long-lasting change in the two targeted Faculties and in the entire University, well beyond the duration of the project, by creating a women-friendly environment, supporting early-stage career-development, favoring gender-aware science and promoting women’s leadership in the practice of research.
The main expected results are:

  • Institutional changes (equal opportunities in the agenda and university practices; direct commitment of senior managers and leaders; equal opportunities issues and gender studies included in S&T curricula);
  • Support to young women researchers (increased professional development; increased writing and publication capacity; enhanced international social capital; increased participation as research coordinators; enhanced competitiveness in the international scale; increased professional mobility);
  • Cultural changes (raised students’ awareness; increased visibility of women’s contribution to S&T among students, personnel and top-managers; increased visibility of women as role models; increased debate within UMIL on equal opportunities; increased awareness on gender stereotypes);
  • Knowledge generation (production of evidence-based data on women’s condition at UMIL);
  • Changes in work environment (creation of a more women-friendly environment; dissemination of best practices).