The University of Warsaw has become the first higher education institution in Poland to adopt a Gender Equality Plan. It aims to increase awareness of equality issues, support women in their academic careers, and improve the gender balance in various disciplines.

In response, a conservative legal organisation has labelled the new measures as discriminatory, and begun to prepare a legal analysis of them.

Gender Equality Plans (GEPs) are described by the European Commission as a set of actions aiming at conducting impact assessment to identify gender bias, implementing strategies to correct such bias, setting targets and monitoring progress.

Work on creating one at the University of Warsaw began in 2017, and involved research carried out in three faculties, a survey conducted across all faculties, a number of consultation meetings as well as study visits to other universities.

The University of Warsaw’s outgoing rector, Marcin Pałys, signed a resolution last week to implement such a plan, which will be take place over a three-year period.

“The research and consultations undertaken show that some people encounter both prejudices and various kinds of institutional obstacles that mean that not all are able to benefit from academic development equally,” the introduction to the university’s GEP reads.

“These barriers often take the form of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and difficulties combining professional work with family work.”

New legislation aims to close gender pay gap in Poland

The five aims of the plan are to: increase awareness of the importance of equality and strengthen positive attitudes towards diversity; support development of women’s academic careers; increase gender balance in recruitment of employees and doctoral students; facilitate combining work with family life; and increase balanced gender representation in management and expert positions.

Among 20 specific actions outlined in the GEP are policies designed to help students and staff to combine academia with family life, for example by increasing daycare facilities, facilitating working from home, and offering flexible timetables.

It also foresees lectures and training on equality for all members of the academic community, monitoring of numbers of men and women receiving funding and participating in projects, and streamlining of anti-harassment and discrimination policies.

Julia Kubisa, the chief equality specialist at the university and one of the plan’s authors, told Notes from Poland that the University of Warsaw is one of many higher education institutions in Europe implementing similar strategies.

She says that universities are increasingly aware of the mutual benefits of taking action to address the so-called “leaky pipeline”, by which talented women are lost to academia as they advance in their careers, dropping out as they struggle to cope with the demands of combining work with family commitments.

As a result, not only the women concerned, but also universities and the wider development of academic research in Poland suffers, according to Kubisa.

“It is well documented that between completing their PhD and the next stage, the habilitation [a qualification between a doctorate and professorship], women’s careers are likely to slow down,” she says. “This is a combination of family concerns and the specific nature of doing science, which is not comparable to other spheres.”

According to Eurostat data, Poland fares well compared to other European countries in terms of representation of women in science and engineering, with 49% of women, compared to the average of 41%. Some 60% of students in Poland are female, reports Polityka.

However, the percentage of women decreases in the course of the university career. Just 40% of people reaching senior academic positions are female, and only 27% of professors. In STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subject, women account for around 10% of professors.

The disparity is even more pronounced in university managerial positions. Since 1990, women have served as university rectors in just one in every 45 terms of office at wide-profile Polish universities, reports

But there are signs of change: in the new four-year term, which started this week, there are 14 female rectors at public higher education institutions, as opposed to just five in the previous term, according to

Following the adoption of the GEP, conservative legal group Ordo Iuris announced that it was preparing a “critical legal analysis” of the document, saying that it was discriminatory as recruitment would be based on a candidate’s sex.

By trying to create a gender balance in all departments, the plan “will lead to discrimination against both men and women”, claims Tomasz Zych, vice president of Ordo Iuris.

“This restricts the freedom to decide on one’s own educational path and career…[and] very clearly contradicts the prohibition of discrimination expressed in the Polish constitution,” he added.

In response, the University of Warsaw has issued a statement denying claims of discrimination, and saying that the GEP will in fact ensure that men and women are treated more equally.

It argues that in certain situations different treatment is necessary in order to eliminate existing social inequalities. But it emphasises that the solutions applied in the GEP do not involve “positive discrimination”, but aim to promote awareness of the criterion of diversity: “this is not an order or a prohibition, only an encouragement.”

The university notes that it still does not have gender equality in academic positions and managerial structures, pointing out that in the last term there were only six female deans out of a total of 21, and 156 women professors compared to 347 men.

It adds that in 2014 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women raised concerns about “the low number of women in management positions in educational institutions and in professorship positions” and recommended “temporary special measures to promote girls’ take up of technical subjects and to accelerate the appointment of women to the highest positions in academic institutions”.

The GEP is the latest in a series of initiatives undertaken by the University of Warsaw to introduce equality practices.

This has included appointing an equality ombudsman to deal with conflicts and discrimination, an anti-discrimination commission, various steps to counteract workplace harassment, and online courses and training in gender equality.

“It is amazing to see how much is going on in Poland,” Kubisa says. “Things that just five or seven years ago would never have happened are becoming the norm. The University of Warsaw is the first such institution with a Gender Equality Plan, but it will not be the last.”

“We are also observing a new generation of students with different expectations and attitudes, and universities have no choice but to respond,” Kubisa adds.

Earlier this year, the University of Warsaw published a guide on how to use non-discriminatory language, recommending avoiding certain terms in order to avoid offence, especially as the academic community became more diverse.

Warsaw University issues guide on how to use “non-discriminatory language”

The University of Warsaw, founded in 1816, is today Poland’s biggest university, with around 50,000 students in more than 100 programmes.

In the recently published Shanghai Ranking, it was the top-ranked university in Poland, moving up into the band of institutions ranked between 301st and 400th in the world. In Poland’s own latest league table, released in July, it was pipped for top spot by the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

Jagiellonian overtakes Warsaw to top Polish university league table

Main image credit: Paul Sableman/Flickr (under CC BY 2.0)

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