What should be considered for the architecture of a Europe-wide gender equality scheme?

By Charikleia Tzanakou, Kate Clayton-Hathway and Anne-Laure Humbert

In the past two decades, several Certification and Award schemes (CAs) on gender equality and diversity have emerged in the European research landscape and also more generally. Existing CAs have provided an opportunity for systematic efforts in promoting gender equality as a structural issue in Research Performing Organisations (RPOs) including universities. The most prominent and well-known certification system for RPOs is Athena SWAN in the UK, while other schemes extend beyond research organisations by also considering, or focusing exclusively, on industry. This is the case, for example, of the German Total E-quality Award, the French Label Diversité, or the Catalyst Awards or EDGE Certified which target large corporations and have a more global geographical scope. CAs have been promoted more broadly in higher education to assess and standardise quality and excellence such as the HRS4R (Human Resources Strategy for Researchers) is promoted and directly managed by the EC. While it touches HR-related issues such as recruitment, talent management and work-life balance, gender is not the main focus of the scheme.

Based on the assessment of these existing schemes and many more, the CASPER produced a report which provides an overview of the ‘’. This report was led by a team of researchers at the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice , Oxford Brookes University with contributions from partners in Yellow Window, Knowledge and Innovation and FUOC. Relying on interviews with 74 participants including stakeholders involved in 31 existing CAs, across Europe, the US and Australia this report includes lessons learnt from existing CAs and insights of stakeholders envisaging the architecture of a Europe-wide CAs.

A key point to consider before exploring the architecture of a Europe-wide scheme is to understand the grey boundaries between definitions of ‘certification’ and ‘award’ due to inconsistent use of the terms. In CASPER, we consider ‘certification’ as the process of structural change, and the developmental work associated with it. Therefore, certification assesses the intention to improve and advance through progressive approaches and renewals/re-audits and is ongoing. In contrast, an ‘award’ refers to a point in time at which a token of recognition is obtained to recognise achievements in the process of structural gender change. An ‘award’ can be a one-off, or be subject to renewal. In CASPER, we found a few cases where existing certification schemes were combined with one-off awards.

In terms of the architecture of a Europe-wide scheme, we identified four key components:



A Europe-wide scheme on gender equality was considered necessary to:

  1. put gender equality issues more into focus and ensure real gender mainstreaming in RPOs so that gender equality work becomes not only more visible and legitimate, but more recognised and sustainable.
  2. drive towards a unitary common framework for gender equality and a standardised approach. A Europe-wide scheme would facilitate the creation of a common basis across diverse national situations and regulatory frameworks, bringing together a coordinated set of interpretations, guidelines, indicators and benchmarks, within a singular framework for gender equality work.
  3. address divergences and establish an EU minimal standard of academic working conditions and values across RPOs (that would facilitate academic mobility).

However, there are operationalisation caveats of a Europe-wide scheme in terms of: a) diverse landscape of gender equality work and resources across organisations and countries and b) engagement by organisations. RPOs would be willing to engage with a Europe-wide scheme if it demonstrated added value compared to existing schemes and /or if it was less resource intensive. Added value was translated as 1) provision of mutual learning and support; 2) increased international recognition and attractiveness; and 3) linked with incentives e.g. access to funding.



  • A Europe-wide scheme needs to define gender equality, diversity, inclusion and related concepts to ensure that there is common discourse and cultural understanding across national contexts. This would be invaluable for ensuring clarity and consistency since stakeholders in various countries may not share the same understanding of the requirements or have the same cultural contexts, for example about what gender equality means.
  • A Gender+ approach was preferred since it allows focusing on gender with sufficient depth along with other axes of inequality (such as race, ethnicity, faith, LGBT inclusion etc. where possible). This approach ensures that gender is foregrounded rather than targeting simultaneously diverse issues in a potentially superficial way and thus overcomes complexities in the operationalisation of the scheme.



  • A key debate was harmonisation vs tailoring to the geographical context. A combined and flexible approach was favoured highlighting the need for harmonisation, yet building in a degree of flexibility to adapt to different contexts where necessary. This flexibility would ‘encourage institutions to work on their specific weaknesses’.
  • Regarding assessment, study participants favoured a combined approach where self-assessment should be followed by external assessment to ensure veracity, robustness and more critical approaches.
  • A progressive approach (e.g. bronze, silver, gold) along with a time-limited character are required to provide incentives for organisations to progress and work towards gender equality. A renewal system would enable organisations to regularly monitor change and ensure commitment is maintained but also allows to investigate whether measures are implemented, and objectives are fulfilled.
  • Using a combined approach of quantitative and qualitative indicators was favoured to enable understanding the bigger picture of gender equality complemented by situated lived experiences and contextualised information.
  • The operationalisation of a Europe-wide scheme, according to participants, should be characterised by flexibility, clarity, consistency and simplicity wherever possible.



  • Regarding responsibility for a Europe-wide scheme, a combined approach was suggested where a scheme should be owned by the European Union but managed by a third party that was an accredited certifying body with expertise on certification and awards. This approach would bring all the legitimacy and prestige benefits from the EU involvement but would mitigate bureaucracy risks and ensure flexibility, operational capacity and agility in the management of the potential Europe-wide scheme.
  • Asking who should be certified, stakeholders favoured focusing on RPOs – at least in the first instance – since there is better comparability across countries in terms of working conditions and the scheme would be tailored to the sector and its particular characteristics.
  • A shared funding approach about who should pay for a Europe-wide scheme was favoured, where both applicants and a third-party contribute towards the cost to ensure both commitment from RPOs and a level playing field.


In conclusion, this report suggests a dynamic architecture for a Europe-wide scheme foregrounded by a Gender+ approach, underpinned by a process that would enable organisations in developing realistic, meaningful and transformative GEPs. The dynamic architecture might combine a horizontal modularity (comprising different building blocks and modules corresponding to different gender equality areas) with a vertical progressive approach that would enable not only a level of harmonisation (establishing a minimum standard) with contextualisation requirements but would also facilitate engagement from organisations at different starting points of their gender equality work.

In 2020, the European Commission announced that institutions without a GEP would not be eligible to apply for EU Funding (European Research Innovation Days, 22/09/2020). This requirement needs to be accompanied by a dynamic and flexible framework (that a potential Europe wide scheme could provide) with a comprehensive and standardised (where possible) process, time transition points and support mechanisms to develop a robust and appropriate GEP. This would ensure that this criterion will not lead to unintended consequences such as box-ticking exercises (Tzanakou,2019; Tzanakou and Pearce, 2019) and developing off-the-shelf GEPs.

Insights on gender equality certification and the CASPER project can also be accessed in organised by Dr. Charikleia Tzanakou at the Centre for Diversity, Policy and Research Practice at Oxford Brookes University.

You can download and cite the report:

Tzanakou, Charikleia, Shireen Chilcott, Kate Clayton-Hathway, and Anne Laure Humbert. 2020. “Key Prerequisites for a Europe-Wide Gender Equality Scheme,” December. 



Tzanakou, C. (2019) Unintended consequences of gender-equality plans. Nature 570, 277.  Tzanakou, C., & Pearce, R. (2019). Moderate feminism within or against the neoliberal university? The example of Athena SWAN. Gender, Work & Organization. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gwao.12336

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