Gender issues at universities revisited

The online newsletter Curie, which is issued by the Swedish Research Council recently highlighted research by Mikael Hjerm and Rickard Danell of Umeå University. The two scientists found that female researchers are discriminated even at Swedish Universities. Their results, published in Scientometrics (Vol 94, pages 999–1006; DOI 10.1007/s11192-012-0840-4) are surprising, given the efforts that have been made in recent years to increase the number of female researchers and to ameliorate the often difficult situation for both women and men in academia.

Hjerm and Danell (2013) write that the low numbers of female professors (21%) as opposed to male professors (79%) at Swedish Universities is often explained by a lack of equal opportunities, while the increase in female professors during recent years is used as an argument that universities are becoming more gender equal. Since both arguments can be correct or may be wrong, Hjerm and Danell (2013) took a closer look at the situation and analyzed whether the chances for women and men to become professors has changed over time and whether gender differences depend on early career events. The study concludes that “women are significantly less likely than men to become professors and that this situation is not improving over time. In spite of policies that have tried to increase the proportion of female professors, the chances of a woman becoming a professor do not change over time. We also show that these gender differences in promotion rate can be attributed to early career events” (Hjerm and Danell 2013, page 999).

Hjerm and Danell’s (2013) analysis of the situation at Swedish universities shows that gender equality is in place, when male and female careers start for example with a postdoctoral fellowship. In contrast, if the career path is different, gender inequality becomes obvious. It is not clear, however, if this difference is due to discrimination of female researchers, or if it is due to certain factors that affect male and female research career paths in different ways. Which type of factors and processes that may play a role is not clear, but it is obvious from Hjerms and Danell’s research, that it is important to look more closely at informal processes and factors.
Interestingly, although Swedish society is moving forward towards minimizing the gender gap, the probability for women to obtain a university professorship remains the same. The argument that the situation at Swedish universities more or less mirrors the situation in society thus does not hold anymore.

Hjerm and Danell’s (2013, page 1005) concluding remarks are so well written that I cite them here in full:
Fair play and respect for the scientific ethos within academia is not only a question of justice and gender equality, it touches the core of scientific endeavor. If women’s career prospects at universities are affected by the mere fact that they are women, it is a clear breach of the principle of universalism. Such practices will also damage the long-term development of science. It is obviously damaging to the collective quest for knowledge due to the wasteful management of scientific talent. It is also damaging to the public trust in science, since the foundation for this trust is the ethical standards of researchers and university organizations. So, unless universities, faculty, and departments fundamentally change how they organize networks and resources, women’s transition from PhDs to professors will continue to look bleak in comparison to men’s. As a large share of men who have not held tenure track positions are successful while women are not, it is evident that important human resources are not being used to their full potential.
Measured as chances of advancing to the position of full professors, the career prospects for female university researchers are as bleak today as they were 20 years ago, despite increasing gender equality within society as a whole and in spite of policy programs aimed at promoting female professors. From a research policy perspective, the crucial point is whether the differences in promotion rate is caused by factor external to the university organization, or factors internal to the organization.

My own conclusion is that universities need to take things more seriously again, and that strategies need to be put in place to arrive at real gender equality at some point in the near future. The large bias of 21% versus 79% in respect to female and male professors speaks for itself and shows that despite some efforts, not much has changed. Following Hjerm and Danell (2013) the situation will not change either in the same pace as society changes. The question then is, do we want a modern and equal university, or do we want an old-fashioned institution?

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