How to move beyond policy to reach gender equality in research,  innovation and business

Gender equality does not happen on its own.

The Nordic gender equality paradox refers to the mismatch between the high rating of the Nordic countries, for instance in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) and continuous patterns of gender segregation in the same countries. Thus, while Iceland, Finland and Norway are on top in the GGGI, there are still notable patterns of gender difference – a horizontal gender segregation between disciplines and a vertical gender segregation with few women in top positions.

These differences generate effects throughout the research and innovation system. International studies such as She Figures, show that more men than women participate in innovation. This is also the case in Norway. About 30% of startups in Norway are led by women which is lower than, for instance, in countries such as Canada, Portugal and Slovakia. Technology is often at the core of innovation projects, many green transition projects included. The male dominance in most fields of technology thus also represents a significant challenge to the goal of gender balance in many innovation projects.

Menon Economics suggests several strategies to promote increased participation by women. These include establishing an investment fund targeting female entrepreneurs and removing competitive disadvantages in industries where women often operate as entrepreneurs. Such industries typically include personal services provisions in health care, welfare services and education – fields that have often been targeted with less innovation funding than the more traditionally recognised technology-driven fields.

In Norway, despite a widely accepted gender equality norm, there is still a long way to go here in the move from political aspiration to practical implementation. In some fields, however, there have been notable improvements. For instance, the law on gender balance in public limited company boards in Norway, in operation since 2006, has delivered good results. Sixteen years later, 42% of people on public company boards are women. Private company boards, not subject to the same requirement of gender balance, saw little progress over the same period in this regard, with still only 20% of their members being women.

This example illustrates the positive effect of measures to promote gender equality. The example also shows that gender equality does not happen on its own. The fact that Norway is perceived as a ‘world champion’ in gender equality has had little effect on the boards of private limited companies.

Figure: Women in private (AS) and public (ASA) limited company boards 2004-2010. Source: SSB:

The Research Council of Norway wants to be a driving force for gender balance

The Research Council of Norway is a national strategic research agency responsible for strengthening the knowledge base and helping to meet society’s need for research, investing around NOK 11 billion per year in research and innovation projects on behalf of the Government. The ambition is to be a driving force for gender balance and gender perspectives in research and innovation. The purpose is to ensure high-quality research by nurturing the best research talents, to facilitate well-functioning research environments and to ensure that a diversity of perspectives exists, providing good explanatory power and innovative solutions.

Several measures have already been taken to increase diversity in research and innovation. These measures include supporting projects that increase access and opportunities for women, raising awareness, implementing concrete measures such as guidelines and mentorship programmes, addressing unconscious biases and evaluating and improving the Research Council’s own practices. One such example is the follow up to The European Commission’s introduction of a Gender Equality Plan (GEP) requirement at the organisational level for applicants and partners in Horizon Europe calls. The same requirement was introduced for national calls for proposals from 2022 in Norway.

The BALANSE programme, established in 2012, has funded projects aiming to create new knowledge, learning and innovative measures to promote equality and gender balance in top positions at research institutions. Based on the experiences generated by the BALANSE programme, 12 recommendations and measures for improving the gender balance at Norwegian research institutions were forwarded in 2019. The recommendations are subsequently reported to have had a positive effect in the research organisations that implemented them.

The Research Council recently decided to continue funding the BALANSE programme as BALANSE+. The scope has been expanded to include diversity in addition to gender balance. While the previous initiative aimed at research institutions, the targeted audience for BALANSE+ is all Norwegian research activity, including the business sector, following up on the European Union’s concept of “inclusive gender equality”.

An overarching goal in the strategy of the Research Council is that the gender distribution in funded projects should not be more skewed than 40/60 (female/male). A look at the gender balance in project management for research and innovation projects in the period 2015 to 2022 shows, on average, that 40% of the management positions in research projects and 30% in innovation projects are currently held by women. The number of female project managers increased steadily from 26% to 36% in terms of innovation projects during this period. This was mainly due to the increase in the number of service, health and welfare innovation projects started in the period, triggered by the Covid pandemic.

We need more knowledge

The reasons for these numbers need to be better understood. As such, there is clearly a desire for answers. The need to generate more knowledge and create greater understanding around the issues of gender and innovation in business and the public sector was also one of the findings in a systematic mapping of Norwegian research, covering the period 2010-2021, conducted by Kilden. Kilden is a national knowledge centre for gender perspectives and gender balance in research, organised as an independent department within the Research Council.

While gender equality policy is vital, it is concrete measures and practices that produce change. We want to thank the Nordic AGDA project for posing important questions about strategies on gender equality in research and innovation. 

Hilde G. Corneliussen and Merete Lunde

6 March 2023

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