Seminar on gender balance: Too few women in senior-level positions in academia

The Nordic countries are the shining stars in Europe when it comes to efforts to promote gender equality and gender balance in society. In academia, however, the situation is different. Here the Nordic countries lag behind. The speakers at the seminar “Gender Balance in Research in the Nordic Countries” concluded that while willingness is high and visions regarding gender balance widespread, there has been insufficient follow-up of practical action plans.
Seminar on gender balance: Too few women in senior-level positions in academia

Photo: Richard Dunstan

More women than men are now pursuing higher education. In the first half of 2012, the number of women registered as doctoral students exceeded that of men for the first time. The proportion of women in post-doctoral research positions is slightly under 50 per cent. However, the percentage of women in senior-level positions within the sector is substantially lower. Here, 80 per cent of university professors are men, and 87 per cent of those in leadership positions at the elite research centres are men. About 70 per cent of researchers in the Nordic region are men. The issue discussed at the seminar was what it will take to improve the gender balance within the sector.

More words than action

There is no shortage of well-formulated political visions. It is the implementation of measures and the practice of these that are lacking. As Director at the Academy of Finland and vice chair of the NordForsk Board Riitta Mustonen described it: We have been seduced by all the important words. But words must be translated into action. A majority of men in the Nordic countries would agree that gender equality is important, but even with this genuine willingness in place, gender equality targets are little achieved in practice. Many of the presentations stated that cultural factors in the workplace are preventing gender equality from being realised. If we look at the statistics, there are plenty of competent women who qualify for senior-level positions. Dr Solveig Bergman, Senior Executive Officer at the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo, points out that while the requirements regarding research results in publication are quite formal, the recruitment process at the universities is much more informal. Networking is crucial, and there is an informal socialisation process that has a major impact on who is recruited to senior-level positions. This is often a process that benefits men, both because men are in the majority in these circles and because they tend to be more comfortable marketing themselves. The experts at the seminar also emphasised that the role of caregiver often gets in the way of a career in research or academia, leading many women to choose a different career path.

Great need for more research

The participants at the seminar indicated that there is a great need for more research in the field. Liisa Husu, a professor of gender studies at Örebro University, provided a long list of measures that are important to focus on in future efforts to improve the gender balance in research. The research activity should quantify the differences as much as it attempts to explain them, and it should encompass not only the research and university sector in general, but also the criteria used to select research projects for funding.

NordForsk was held up as a constructive potential initiator for a project on gender balance in research. Guðrún Nordal, professor at the University of Iceland and the chair of the NordForsk Board, responded that the input from this conference forms a good foundation for such a project and that preparations could begin as early as 2013.


Text: Marius Hagen