Different paths to gender equality in Nordic academia

The higher the level in the academic hierarchy, the fewer the women. Several campaigns to increase the gender equality in academia are now underway in the Nordic countries.

It takes a long time to become a professor. But this fact alone cannot explain the remarkably slow development towards gender equality in academia, according to Curt Rice, chair of the Norwegian Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF), a government initiative aimed to promote diversity and gender equality in the academic community.

‘Other important factors are structures and hiring procedures. It is in the very last step of the ladder, the move from being a senior lecturer to becoming a professor, that most women disappear,’ says Curt Rice.

At PhD level, the distribution of men and women is fairly equal both in the Nordic region and in several EU countries. However, if we look at professors, research directors and high-ranking research officials, the balance vanishes entirely.

In Norway and Sweden, only 25% of all professors are women. In Denmark, the share is 20% with a downward trend. In fact, 90% of all professors appointed at the University of Copenhagen from 2011 to 2013 were men.

‘It looks terrible, regardless of from which angle you look at it,’ says Tine Jess, adjunct professor at Aalborg University and head of the Institute of Preventive Medicine in Denmark.

Main causes of gender inequality

Photo Tine Jess

Tine Jess. (Photo: © Claus Boesen/ Media Press)

Tine Jess is also a member of a group of experts that the Danish government last year commissioned to develop measures to increase the gender equality in academia. She sees three main causes of the gender inequality. The first has to do with the unequal gender distribution of parents’ time spent taking care of children. Danish women are much more likely than Danish men to take parental leave, and a woman’s parental leave often coincides with the years in her life when researchers typically begin applying for major research grants and their careers take off.

‘It’s like a snowball effect. Once you get into the swing of things and get a grant, you soon get another and another and another. But if you miss the beginning, you risk missing the whole thing,’ says Tine Jess.

Moreover, the fact that the parental benefit in Denmark is taken directly from the research grants also means that an absence for a year or so can have detrimental effects on a scholar’s research budget. This can in turn lead to discrimination of women in the recruitment process.

Tine Jess calls the second main cause of gender inequality in academia unconscious gender bias. This bias makes recruitment officers and HR units demand better CVs from women than men, a view that Curt Rice from the Norwegian KIF confirms.

However, female academics meet the strongest resistance in the actual appointment procedures. In Denmark, 25% of all appointments to academic posts are ‘peer recruitments’ and therefore are never advertised, and a large share of the remaining 75% are strictly specified positions that in practice target only one predetermined candidate.

‘People tend to hire those who are similar to them, which conserves the system. The Danish higher education sector is totally old school,’ says Tine Jess.

Thus, Tine Jess says it is not a coincidence that 70% of the board of the Danish National Research Foundation, which is a major Danish research funder, are men.

Different paths to gender equality

The expert group that Tine Jess was part of has proposed a review of all academic appointments, a so-called talent barometer. The proposition was presented by Danish Minister of Education and Research Ulla Tørnæsden on 11 October this year. According to the minister the central idea of the initiative is to ensure that the best researchers are appointed.

‘Denmark has an ambition to compete with other countries through innovative ideas, and to be able to do that we need to involve all of our very best researchers. What we are doing now is an important step in the mission to put all of the most talented minds to work and make Danish research even stronger,’ says Ulla Tørnæs in a press release.

The talent barometer will enable anybody to follow the development of the gender distribution in various staff categories at both university and faculty level. All hiring decisions, including the qualifications of those hired, will be made transparent. This will help prevent peer recruitments and thereby ensure that female academics are not treated unfairly. In addition, the minister will contact the university managements once a year to discuss the results.

‘The expert group thinks it is a good thing to do. We don’t believe in quotas,’ says Tine Jess.

Photo Curt Rice

Curt Rice. (Photo: Benjamin A. Ward / HiOA)

In Norway, the KIF committee has been active for 12 years. Their work consists of for example guidance, dissemination of research and political advocacy work. At present, Norway does not allow the use of gender quotas, but Curt Rice would like this to change.

‘We tried to formulate a professorship so that it would target female applicants. But the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg stopped the attempt,’ says Curt Rice.

Even if gender quotas are not possible, there are other ways to increase the share of female professors, Curt Rice believes. One is to ensure that female senior lecturers get the research time they need to gain the qualifications required for a professorship.

‘That’s one of the tools we’re using. Although the first few years are of course important, the largest numbers of women are lost in the transition from senior lectureships to professorships,’ says Curt Rice.

It is hard to say how successful the KIF committee has been in its efforts to change the prevailing attitudes and structures. However, the number of female professors in Norway has doubled since the KIF committee was formed in 2004. Curt Rice hopes that the committee will be able to continue its work for another few years.

Swedish focus on gender mainstreaming

Photo Fredrik Bondestam

Fredrik Bondestam

Also Sweden has measures in place to increase the gender equality in academia. Fredrik Bondestam from the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg is in charge of a support function for a government project titled Gender Mainstreaming in Academia (GMA).

‘There are many challenges. Recruitment processes, career paths and the study environment are some areas in which gender often plays a key role. We need to work against the existing inequalities between men and women, but also against other types of inequalities, since gender and other power structures are always connected,’ says Fredrik Bondestam.

Compared with prior initiatives, the GMA project signals a rise in ambition and a more long-term approach to the gender equality problem in academia. The project started at the beginning of this year and will end in 2019. Its overarching aim is to change the present structures in the sector.

‘The share of female professors will not change dramatically between now and the end of the project, but what the academic institutions can do is organise their work to change the underlying structures for appointments of professors,’ says Fredrik Bondestam.

According to Fredrik Bondestam, gender equality work must reach beyond the mere counting of women and men. What is more important, he says, is what knowledge is produced, what the study programmes look like and how resources are allocated.

‘Gender inequalities in research and education don’t automatically go away just because of equal representation of males and females,’ he points out.

The Secretariat supports the higher education institutions involved in the project for example by providing guidance and information, creating meeting places for cooperation, and disseminating results and best practice. The responsibility to ensure progress lies solely with the respective institutions.

This autumn, the Secretariat will visit the management teams of all institutions involved in the project to discuss their specific challenges. This is a first step in the work to define the problems in the field and to set the priorities for the coming development work. The higher education institutions have been asked to present plans for their gender mainstreaming work by May 2017. All other work must also be reported to the government.

According to Fredrik Bondestam, the ambitions are set higher than for several previous Nordic initiatives. The GMA project aims to change the existing formal and informal power structures in the academic culture.

‘We need the support of teachers and researchers and of the technical-administrative staff. And it’s very important to have the students on board. They make up a big majority and comprise tomorrow’s professors and senior lecturers,’ says Fredrik Bondestam.

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