Framing STEM Gender Equality Initiatives

Posted by Dr Lynn Farrell on 03 February 2021

Dr Lynn Farrell at QUB discusses how to increase support for Gender Equality Initiatives (GEIs).

Dr Lynn Farrell discusses the EPSRC Inclusion Really Does Matter project. The research is one of 11 Inclusion Matters projects funded by EPSRC that aim to incentivise behavioural and long-term culture change on topics from disability inclusivity to more inclusive STEM communities for LGBT+ people in both academia and industry.

GEIs, such as Athena SWAN, have been adopted across UK academic institutions to address gender inequality in STEM. But how often have you heard GEIs referred to as box-ticking exercises, or for women only? Perhaps you’ve had these thoughts yourself?

Research suggests these are common perceptions of GEIs, with men particularly less supportive of diversity initiatives. It is important to address these negative attitudes as they can adversely impact GEI effectiveness. GEIs need widespread buy-in for effective culture change that supports gender equality work.

Framing GEIs to increase support

So, what can we do to reduce negative GEI attitudes? Our recent paper published in BioScience from the EPSRC funded Inclusion Matters project at Queen’s University Belfast (in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and the University of Warwick) suggests that how we frame or describe GEIs is important.

Across two studies, we asked STEM academics to read an email describing a fictitious GEI about to be rolled out at a University.

In Study 1, the GEI was described as either providing opportunities for both women and men, or women only (Focus), and either led by a man or a woman (Leadership).

Study 2 framed the GEI as having senior management support or not (Management Support), and being either motivated internally (e.g., emphasising value of diversity) or externally (e.g., compulsory; Motivation).

The importance of GEI Focus, Leadership and Motivation

Our findings suggested men were more supportive of GEIs framed as benefitting both men and women due to fewer concerns of unfair treatment and more internal motivations to engage with these initiatives.

When the initiative was led by a woman, both men and women had less concerns of anti-women discrimination. Internal motivation was particularly effective at increasing positivity towards and support for GEIs among both women and men.

The impact of Management Support, however, was influenced by academics’ previous experience with GEIs – those with little/no experience showed more support for GEIs with senior management support, while this support did not significantly influence participants with more GEI experience.

What does this mean for GEI implementation?

The positive message is that GEI attitudes can be influenced by how initiatives are framed. Key practical suggestions from our results are:

  • pressurised framing should be reduced. Emphasising GEIs’ intrinsic value in relevant communications will likely increase positivity and support among both men and women
  • an inclusive framing (i.e. highlighting benefits for all) should engender greater support from men, and lessen the perception that GEIs are only a ‘women’s issue’. However, it is important to note that GEIs must still focus on addressing the needs of minority gender groups. To invest men in these issues, it may be important to increase their awareness of the negative consequences of gender inequality for women and science itself
  • no “one-size-fits-all” for framing GEIs. Framing of GEIs should be nuanced based on the target population. For example, female leadership may be important for engaging women, while management support may appeal to those with little GEI experience.

Additional research

  • Gender diversity. Further research should determine whether our results generalise to gender diverse individuals and GEIs framed as benefitting all genders, not just binary genders.
  • Intersectionality. Future research should consider other important social identities alongside gender, such as race/ethnicity to explore further potential nuances.

Next steps

Our next steps involve developing and evaluating a resource toolkit informed by our empirical findings to improve GEI attitudes. These resources will be made available to academic institutions to help inform the design and implementation of GEIs in STEM.

Our research highlights the importance of how GEIs are framed to generate support among STEM academics. Greater support should engender greater buy-in which is necessary for crucial systemic and cultural change in institutions.

Further Information

Thanks to our project representatives from our three partner institutions for their invaluable help with participant recruitment: Dr Miryam Arredondo-Arechavala, Prof Gavin Brown, Dr Susan Burrows, Dr Sarah Croke, Dr Ann Dixon, Dr Caroline Gauchotte-Lindsay, Dr Charles McCartan, Dr Helen Mulvana, Dr Sree Nanukuttan, Prof Vivek Ranade, Dr Sandra Scott-Hayward, and Prof Su Taylor.

For more information about these studies see our paper in BioScience. For project updates follow us on Twitter @QUBIncMatters.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

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Name: Dr Lynn Farrell
Organisation: QUB