Interview with Sara Falcão Casaca

Professor of Sociology at the Lisbon School of Economics & Management, and resource person for the Centre’s activity on “Gender and organizational change”, 31.3 - 4.4.14.

Your background is as a researcher on gender relations in the labour market, new forms of work organization, gender and wellbeing, and work and employment flexibility. Can you tell us a little more about this work?

This is indeed my main area of research. I am a sociologist and teach at the School of Economics and Management at the University of Lisbon, so my specialization is in areas that have some relation to the core academic work of my own institution. My PhD was in Economics and Organizational Sociology. In 2000, when I started the process, I decided to analyse the key dynamics in the Portuguese labour market from a gender perspective. Portugal is really fertile ground to explore gender issues. Female participation in employment is relatively high, much higher than in other southern European countries. Participation rates are significantly high when women working on a largely full-time basis become mothers and have small children. However, the welfare state benefits they received specifically at that time in terms of childcare facilities were very low (and it is still below family needs). The dominant models of work organization are far from being family-friendly (except in some exceptional cases), and most women are still the ones bearing the burden for caring and domestic activities. Therefore, the well-being of women is very much affected by these multifaceted dimensions of their lives. Moreover, the quality of their employment is very low, and the trend towards greater labour market flexibility has given rise to new forms of labour segmentation across gender lines too. This means that, despite their over-qualification compared to men and high levels of labour market participation, they are found in the most precarious occupations that are less challenging, lower paid, and in less protected jobs. These are the issues I have been exploring, and the gender-sensitive perspective has always been there…


What are your thoughts on gender-focused research in the future?

Taking, for instance, the areas in which I have been more involved, there are many issues to be explored. In addition to the ones I have just mentioned, in the very short term it would be necessary to fully analyse the impact of current reforms and austerity packages on gender relations, and women’s labour and living conditions. In the future, I am afraid, we will still be dealing with a wide range of issues, covering topics such as the gender pay gap and the underrepresentation of women in senior management positions, as well as issues related to the conflicting pressures between professional and family responsibilities. A more recent topic that is very promising and needs greater attention in years to come is new masculinities and parenting roles, emotional bonds and care practices of fathers. It may shed light on a great potential for change, challenging stereotypes and may deepen our reflections on egalitarian gender roles and relations.


You are a professor of sociology of work, organizational models and human resource management and research methods.  Wearing your “gender lenses”, how do you see these subjects correlate with national gender policies?

Among other strategic areas of intervention, national policies have been oriented to promote women’s economic independence under conditions of equality (equal opportunities and equal treatment), as well as promoting the reconciliation of professional and family life. National action plans for the promotion of gender equality have incorporated these issues as strategic points. Like other scholars, I have been working to provide a detailed diagnosis (scientific evidence) that may provide the grounds for specific policy measures geared towards gender equality. In addition to this, as I teach future managers and economists at my university, I try to design programmes that emphasize the importance of gender equality, human dignity, inclusive and family-friendly organizational models, decent work and so on. By the way, all my students are encouraged to get to know the main dimensions of this core ILO concept that is so human-centred. This job is also very challenging. I have no idea of the actual impact on their future professional lives. But I always have hope that the key seeds of a human-centred perspective on work, the organization of work, men and women as equals in rights and dignity, remain with them in their ideas and actions.


Can you tell us about your experience as an expert advisor on public policies related to gender and nondiscrimination issues for national and international public agencies?

As far as public policies are concerned, my experience has been double-edged. On the one hand, it has been one of my most challenging and enriching experiences. It means that all the knowledge gathered throughout very demanding intellectual activities (extremely time-consuming as well) may have some utility outside academia, beyond all the paperwork, articles and reports. It may have an impact on real life. In addition, such knowledge can be reflected in designing better policies that can support non-discrimination, the modernization of gender relations and gender equality in my own country or in other societies. On the other hand, the suggestions and recommendations made during the consultation process do not necessarily mean that policy-makers will take them into account. Moreover, even when it is not the case and policy leaders are sensitive to our suggestions and support them, the effective impact of policy changes has quite often fallen below our expectations or the pace of change has been incredibly slow. That, of course, can be quite frustrating.

In general, other experiences outside academia have been very rewarding, professionally and personally. I have collaborated with some NGOs, social partners, government institutions, mainly by providing concrete support for the promotion of gender equality, either through the design and preparation of the required instruments and tools or the provision of the main training content. This is actually the scope of my collaboration with the ITC-ILO, in particular with International Labour Standards, Rights at Work and Gender Equality, through some training programmes. Here, my support has been through designing training content on Gender and Organizational Change. Fortunately, I have also had the opportunity to work as a trainer during the workshop on the topic. This experience has been absolutely extraordinary. In addition to the amazing feeling that the whole world is really there at the ILO campus, participants have been very knowledgeable and really interested in learning and sharing. I always go back home with the extraordinary feeling that, together with the team responsible for training and all the participants, we have managed to join forces to advance gender equality. I usually say that I recharge my motivational batteries at these times. This cooperation has been a really inspiring and uplifting experience.


Gender policies encompass a broad range of approaches and interventions, but to date it seems they have largely been associated with programmes established by women for women. What’s your opinion on that?

This has been the classic pattern, as women have been the key players in the process; firstly, because they are the ones that recognize the existence and reproduction of the main sources of gender inequalities; secondly, because they have collectively developed a vision of the intervention required to bring about more social justice, dignity and equality to women in different societies. However, one of the most recent changes has been the involvement of men in the design of gender equality programmes and also as a key target group. I think this has to do with the fact that more men are now aware that the dominant structures of power and domination, rooted in dominant/hegemonic representations of masculinity, have also been oppressive to many of them. Such traditional representations have prevented them from fully realizing themselves as human beings by constraining their emotional and affective expressions and bonds, their caring roles, parental rights or even their genuine career options, and, of course, such constraints have prevented them from exercising their full citizenship as well. More and more men, for instance, are now attending training courses focused on gender. Ten years ago, the picture was completely different. So I would say that there are signs of change in the gender equality agenda and in the profile of its players.


You were also the head of the national mechanism for gender equality (CIG), under the presidency of the Council of Ministers.  Identifying a problem is not enough to resolve it.  What, in your opinion, are the best strategies for the future?

Incredible progress has been made in terms of policy and the legislative framework. There is always room for improvement, of course. In Portugal, the action plans for gender equality are coordinated by CIG. However, the areas of intervention are very diverse and really demand a strong commitment to gender mainstreaming at the highest political level in different policy areas. As the national mechanism for gender equality, CIG needs to work in effective partnership with many other institutions responsible for implementing different kinds of policies, ranging from education to the health sector, including many other policy areas. This atmosphere of effective partnership needs to be consolidated and stimulated by the respective government representatives. In my understanding, the best strategies for the future also require suitable means (human, financial resources) for work in the field with the main players, NGOs, social partners, schools, universities, and so on, by providing training, supporting change and a sustainable multiplier effect in different walks of life. There are many challenges to deal with. The current financial, economic and overwhelming labour crisis, along with the austerity programme, is very critical for the gender equality agenda too. Facing a severe deterioration in labour and living standards, the main concerns for people revolve around issues such as how to make ends meet and provide for their families, at the expense of the priority given to issues related to gender equality. This, of course, may compromise all the achievements already made.


…and, if I may, how do you balance your demanding professional tasks with your private life?

I am very fortunate because I teach, research, advise and try to bring about change in a field that is an integral part of my life and myself as a person (not only as a professional). Therefore, the professional and personal boundaries are somewhat blurred. Contrary to many situations of conflicting demands and poor balance between the two spheres of life, what is important to point out is that my dedication goes beyond my strict professional duties. So, it is not an issue of obligation, it is my decision to invest so much of my time and energy in attempting to advance gender equality, and I keep doing so with a great deal of passion.

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