As coordinators of the concluding H2020 project SPEAR, we had the great opportunity to use the occasion of SPEAR’s final conference to make a dream come true: gather what we have come to appreciate as a growing and steadily strengthening community of Gender Equality (GE) practitioners, scholars, leaders and policy-makers for a meaningful exchange of experiences and direct our joint attention towards how to place the work we do in a larger societal context, anno 2023.
To our unfailing delight, it seems we succeeded on both counts.
125 people from all over Europe made their way to a gloriously sunlit, bright and beautiful Copenhagen in the transition from February to March 2023. And a further 80+ attended the first morning session online.
The sense of purpose and happiness at meeting old and new colleagues, contacts and friends was palpable already on February 28th, the evening before the conference, where most of the invitees had found their way to Thorvaldsen’s Museum, and a veritable buzz of greetings, introductions and conversations between participants spun out among the marbled halls and huge statues. Smiles and deep engagement all around. For us as hosts, this was the real deal: people and minds meeting and mixing – something that during the recent extended lockdowns seemed but a distant memory, almost a fata morgana.
The day of the conference itself, March 1st, started auspiciously with high bright sunshine, and already from the SPEAR bus-transportation, the exchanges and conversations were in full swing.
Professor Yvonne Benschop, moderator of the day, welcomed us all to a day of celebrating and inspiring our daily work – and acknowledged the nature of this daily work by comparing the rough and raw and hands-on environment of the industrial halls that made the venue. We are used to hard work – that is what we do!
After an important introduction to why working for gender equality in European Academia is still a necessity in 2023, first by President of YERUN, Rector of University of Rijeka, Croatia, professor of Philosophy, Snježana Prijić-Samaržija and next by the European Commission's Deputy Director General Ms. Joanna Drake, we dove into a presentation of SPEAR’s objective, aims, design and impact.
We next moved onto a kaleidoscopic view of GE-initiatives throughout Europe, with 25 sister projects and initiatives presenting their main achievements and/or plans – each in surprisingly informative three minute-pitches. Such a high number of presentations could easily have become tedious, but we were delighted to see instead that the presentations were engaging, lively and interesting: what to an outside observer could have seemed like repetitive variations on the same theme were instead important amplifications, against which variations and specifics stood out all the clearer. What a privileged view to the extent of activities and creativity put to the task of tackling inequality in Europe! The audience was held captive for more than the hour these presentations lasted and through which, Yvonne Benschop, gently, warmly but firmly guided the presenters on and off the little stage and through their sweet, sharp and often funny and very personal pitches. Following the presentations, the hall seemed alive with an intense hum of focused engagement around the project-stalls and in the center of the hall and outside in the sun where it was possible to deepen the engagement and conversations all through lunch. It was like basking in meaning.
The afternoon started on a different note, with a deep dive into the future of (gender)equality, inclusivity and democratic values in European Academia to place GE work in the larger societal – and political – context in Europe. A disturbing but relevant picture of the antidemocratic forces at play was drawn up by three different voices: Gionathan Lo Mascolo, an independent researcher into the far right, fundamental Christian political movements in Europe; Mieke Verloo, one of Europe’s most eminent and accomplished GE, intersectionality and anti-gender scholars; and Mateja Medlobi, a driven and eloquent special advisor to an EU parliament member whose clear precise focus and urgent call to action and need for the academic community to step up, take on the strategic task of qualifying and challenging the political debate to a much larger degree than hitherto was not to be mistaken.
During this panel discussion, we learnt about the nature and extent of a very real, very extensive, very effective and very well financed and organized movement to destabilise democracy and how a central strategy is to systematically target gender, equality, reproductive and human rights and freedom of expression – the very agendas our work focuses on. Among the audience a sense of urgency spread. It was described to us by one of the participants at the end of the conference: I knew this existed, but even so, I have a feeling of a great big wake-up call – waking to the sheer scale and depth of this.
After this stark situational perspective, four workshops were held in parallel, two on practices and prerequisites for GE work; and two on pushback and prospectives for GE work. Each of the four workshops had expert input by senior and expert scholars, leaders and practitioners as a point of departure for dialogue and discussion:
- Gender Dimension in (all) research – always there, often forgotten: Challenges and possibilities
- Martina Schraudner, Professor, Doctor, chair of Gender and Diversity in Technology and Product Development at Technical University of Berlin, DE
- Tomas Brage, Professor of Mathematical Physics, Lund University, Sweden
- Sexism in Academia: recognizing, responding, resisting
- Dalia Leinartė, Professor of History, Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania, and Fellow Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, UK
- Liisa Husu, Professor of Gender Studies, Örebro University, Sweden, and Hanken School of Economics, Finland
- How does the policy apparatus work in Europe & how can we become a part of it?
- Mateja Medlobi, Policy Advisor/Accredited Parliamentary Assistant to MEP Predrag Fred Matić, Croatia
- Gionathan Lo Mascolo, Independent Researcher, Project Manager and editor of the forthcoming volume "The Christian Right in Europe: "Movements, Networks and Denominations"”
- Creating a future for inclusive gender equality in times of multiple crises: learning from past experiences to better respond to changing and declining opportunity structures
- Jeremy Sanders, Professor of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, UK and Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Royal Society, UK
- Mieke Verloo, Professor of Comparative Politics and Inequality Issues, Radboud University, Netherlands, and Non-Residential Permanent Fellow at the IWM, Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria
The day concluded with a variation of the classic round-table discussion, where once again Yvonne Benschop gently, expertly and warmly led the entire audience through four mini-dialogues, based on and engaging each of the four workshop perspectives and expert presenters and connecting up with the larger agenda of the societal and political context within which GE-work is placed. Given that this was at the end of an intense and packed day, we were especially delighted that this final session proved to be a fiery, lively and meaningful exchange.
To us the conference had two highlights: The late morning sister-project kaleidoscope session and the hum of exchanges and conversations during the ensuing networking. And the final round-table session with its deep and lasting sense of focus and raw and honest exchanges that brought everyone (it seemed to us) to the edge of their seats.
Judging by the feedback we have later received, the day has left deep impressions.
To us the day sharpened our focus and the knowledge that the Inclusive GE agenda requires bold and focused action. It also gave us clarity in the face of a stark and sinister reality and coupled it with hope and strength: for the community which was represented in Copenhagen is alive and well. And strong. And crucial! Crucial for qualifying the debate, crucial for informing policy makers, crucial for keeping all of our senses and visions sharp and clear and trained on the right objectives. Together.
Let us keep up the momentum.
Liv Baisner and Eva Sophia Myers, University of Southern Denmark