Tackling gender inequalities at universities in Poland

Polish universities are slowly becoming a space for implementing gender equality policies.

The legal solutions are most often limited to the national provisions in force, they do not go beyond the conventional solutions of committees dealing with selected cases. Read the analysis carried out by Patryk Sierpowski from the ACT team in Kraków.


The GEinCEE Community of Practice (@ACTonGEinCEE) is the first gathering of gender equality experts from Central and Eastern Europe, therefore during the ACT project (#ACTonGender), we try to gather the knowledge about the region’s activities in regards to structural change in relation to gender equality. As a member of CoP #ACTonGEinCEE, I carried out desk research regarding legal and policy provisions of gender equality in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Poland. I would like to present my tentative conclusions stemming from the analysis of legal acts, gender equality bodies and good practices at Polish universities. In this entry, I will focus on legal issues, while the next one will focus on the functioning of relevant institutional bodies and good practices present at Polish universities.

Data was collected between July and September 2019, a specific time for Polish universities as the new legislation – called Ustawa 2.0 – was being implemented at that time. According to a new law, universities had to accommodate their structures and legal acts to the new national requirements till October 2019 so I tried to use only the new versions of documents during my research. However, this was not possible in some cases, for example it was not yet possible to access the Gender Equality Plan of the University of Warsaw that had to be prepared and published by October 2019 (but it did not happen).

I have chosen 22 Polish universities for my analysis, following the criterion of the highest position in the Perspektywy ranking[1] in 2019 (it is the most popular and prestigious Polish academic ranking). In my research I was focused on legal acts available online, information about the institutional structures of the organization (searching for bodies working on gender equality), gender researchers working in the institution, presence of HR Excellence in Research logo and measures or actions tackling gender inequalities.

The first dimension of my analysis concerns existing legal solutions in regard to gender equality. The most important university act – the Statute - includes issues that could be associated with gender equality only in case of 6 universities (the Gdańsk University of Technology, University of Gdańsk, University of Łódź, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, University of Warsaw, Medical University of Warsaw). These universities refer to the equal treatment or non-discrimination principle but it is mentioned only in short paragraphs. Only the Medical University of Warsaw deals with equal rights directly pointing out gender issues. The Statute of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, on the other hand, contains only one sentence regarding equal treatment – a possibility to appoint the Proxy for Equal Treatment. As for September 2019 no such position had been established.                                    

Staff rules are more promising – they highlight gender equality in employment, non-discrimination and antimobbing rules. It should be however noted that these regulations are required by the state law as an obligation of every employer to provide non-discriminatory conditions of work. Universities have transferred directly the state regulation by quoting the articles of Labour Code which are related, sometimes located these paragraphs in separate appendixes. An example of extension of these regulations is the University of Gdańsk which provided more detailed and broad definitions of equal treatment in employment, discrimination, mobbing and sexual harassment in the Staff Rules, describing them in distinct paragraphs.

My analysis proves that Codes of Ethics can be also used to provide regulations to advance gender equality. They were implemented among others by medical universities - out of 6 universities with Ethics Committees, 3 were medical universities (which in the case of 4 analyzed medical universities may indicate the more frequent presence of these bodies there). In most cases, the Codes are dedicated to general groups (like students and academic teachers) but only the Code of Ethics implemented in the University of Gdańsk (that mentions „equal treatment” there) included non-academic staff – a group of employees who are not usually considered as a part of Academia. The existing Codes of Ethics usually mentions „dignity” or „tolerance” - often these were the only records that I could logically link to gender equality issues indirectly. In none of the universities, there are direct procedures regarding the implementation and protection of those values (except for Ethics Committees at some universities, but their impact is often limited to giving opinions). I have found a recommendation mentioned in one of the Codes of Ethics about non-discrimination: „Be kind to the others”. It raises a question about the politically aware interpretation of those acts. However, it should be stressed that these regulations are often the only legal path available at the university that can be used efficiently in cases of gender inequality.

Some universities refer to gender equality in their strategies too. For example, the Jagiellonian University writes about equal treatment of men and women in its strategy for 2014-2020 and the University of Łódź highlights the issue of diversity and equality in its plan for 2019-2020.

The last legal acts are connected with internal antimobbing policies present at half of the analyzed universities (sometimes, like in the University of Gdańsk, anti-discrimination policy too). They are usually enforced by the national labor law or through HR Excellence in Research requirements. The implementation of anti-mobbing policies is most often handled by specially appointed committees, which carry out the procedure of analyzing a given report and issue an opinion. The functioning of these bodies, however, involves many problematic aspects, which I will discuss in more detail in the next post.

HR Excellence in Research award conferred by the European Commission is undoubtedly a very important factor intensifying actions aiming to gender equality. Universities that aim to reach the possibility to affiliate themselves with this logo can count on priorities in grant programs and other advantages. But to obtain it, they have to adapt their structures and practices to some regulations of the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers. Three of the requirements, namely non-discrimination, gender balance, and working conditions, are crucial in case of implementing gender equality. The problem is that some universities (like the University of Warsaw) conducted a range of diverse activities regarding these three dimensions but some wrote in reports that their existing regulations are enough (but these acts are often vague and therefore - hard to enforce). So even HR in Excellence forces superficial reforms and does not lead to structural changes. It shows that even in this context gender equality is not taken seriously and only existing - insufficient - regulations are shown to demonstrate that the conditions of the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers are met.

Legislation can be both a field of action and a framework that limits the possibilities to fight for gender equality. In the absence of other provisions, even vague references from codes of ethics appear to be a foothold for dealing with discrimination. But the lack of a comprehensive approach to gender issues is a huge problem. Without an appropriate legal framework, systemic handling of inequalities in institutionalized universities is limited to random solutions that are a drop in the ocean. Gender equality is not an important factor in the quality of the workplace and science. In the cases analyzed, it is rather a problem that is approached reactively (due to top-down or bottom-up pressures) rather than proactively.

Summarising, Polish universities are a slowly becoming a space for implementing gender equality policies. The legal solutions are most often limited to the national provisions in force, they do not go beyond the conventional solutions of committees dealing with selected cases. There is a lack of a comprehensive view on gender equality that combines dealing with discrimination with a focus on recruitment, promotion of female researchers, support in care, gender balance in decision making or integration of gender issues into research and didactics. Nor is the approach to gender equality facilitated by European recommendations such as HR Excellence in Research, which are often treated in a very superficial way. Instead of comprehensive gender equality plans, there is often a fragmented approach to the implementation of gender-sensitive policies, which are the result of the hard work of those involved in the struggle for gender social justice at Polish universities.


[1] http://ranking.perspektywy.pl/RSW2019/ranking-uczelni-akademickich [access: 14 January 2020]
In the Academic HEIs Ranking 2019 there are institutions inlcuded „with a right to confer at least one doctoral degree and with minimum 200 enrolled full-time students” that means more than 90 HEIs; source:
http://ranking.perspektywy.org/2019/methodology/11-metodologia-rankingu-uczelni-akademickich [access: 14 January 2020].