How can we improve the gender balance in academia?

01.12.2017
In what is referred to as the Nordic gender paradox, the Nordic region is on the one hand a leader in terms of gender equality overall, while, on the other, women are strongly underrepresented in senior positions in science and research. During a recent Nordic conference in Oslo we met two well-known voices in the gender equality debate with strong opinions about what needs be done to increase gender equality in academia: Riitta Maijala (Vice President for Research at the Academy of Finland and NordForsk board member) and Curt Rice (Rector at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA) and chair for the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF)

The Nordic region is the European leader in gender equality, but when it comes to leadership positions in research and innovation, men dominate just as widely here as in the rest of Europe.

To learn more, NordForsk has established the Gender in the Nordic Research and Innovation Area programme, which seeks to enhance gender equality in research and innovation by looking at why the general trend towards gender equality in society is not reflected in this area, and to offer answers to how this can be resolved. Research activities are being carried out in two Nordic Centres of Excellence: Beyond the Gender Paradox: Women's careers in technology-driven research and innovation in and outside of academia and Nordic Centre for Research on Gender Equality in Research and Innovation (NORDICORE).

Looking exclusively at the Nordic region, Finland is the leader when it comes to gender equality in academia. One of the explanations, according to Riitta Maijala, is that the Finns have worked with equality and gender equality initiatives since the 1980s. In addition, Finland has operated with a dual focus when it comes to promoting women in management and the general representation of women in research and science.

“In Finland, we look both at who is awarded research funding as well as at the decision-making itself. In this context, we also examine who is behind and responsible for the evaluation of applications and decision-making processes” states Riitta Maijala, before explaining further:

“By taking a broader approach already during the evaluation phase,” she continues, “one can ensure that the applicants awarded funding are selected from the whole pool and not just from the people we already know or who resemble the decision-makers. Conscious decisions taken in the recruitment process of external evaluators, where we choose the best experts and base this selection on a much broader foundation, opens the door to more difference in opinions and expertise. It ultimately enhances the quality of research,”.

Negative impact of the career structure on women
According to Curt Rice many women leave academia because the career structure is based on publication. More specifically, the number of articles published early in one’s career exerts a huge influence on the rest of one’s academic career and advancement opportunities.

“Women academics often carry greater administrative burdens than their male colleagues. They are expected to carry out many more administrative tasks at the expense of their scientific tasks. This means that male researchers have far more time and are thus able to publish many more scientific articles than their female colleagues,” states Curt Rice.

Dr Rice goes on to explain: “Early on in their careers, women generally take more leave than men, primarily because they are starting a family. For instance, women often take parental leave within the first five years of defending their doctoral dissertation. We have developed a career structure where women pay the price for that choice for the rest of their academic career.”

A better alternative would be to assess recruitment for leadership positions and allocation of research funding on the basis of more than just the overall number of articles published.

“One solution to the problem could be to ask candidates to submit their three best articles instead of looking at their whole portfolio. Another idea was put forward by the Norwegian Minister of Education and Research, who proposes giving paedagogical expertise a much larger role in the appointment of professors.”

Enhancing women’s self-confidence
Dr Maijala points to a number of other factors behind the uneven distribution of men and women in academia.

“The Academy of Finland is making a major effort to reduce any obstacles and to encourage women to join the panels evaluating the applications. When women hesitate, it often seems to be because they think they may not be qualified. If, for example, I contact women to take part in a panel they often ask, ‘Why are you calling me? Are you sure I fit the panel?’, etc, whereas men reply, ‘OK. That date works fine. I’ll be there.’”

This is a fundamental problem which she believes can be solved by training women to believe more in themselves, for example. And by increasing the awareness of the credit obtained from serving the scientific community as an evaluator of the funding applications.

“It’s natural to feel that you aren’t suited for a particular job or task. This is when we need to step in and say, ‘Yes, you are.’ It is also important to increase the visibility of women serving as role models for others, proving to them that it is fully possible to succeed in the academic world.”

Nordic visions
Riitta Maijala believes strongly in moving the discussion on women as leaders and women’s representation in the academic world up to the Nordic level.

“I think that the Nordic countries have very many similarities and we copy each other in many, many things. I would like to see us collect the best practices, ideas and proposals because I believe these would all be suitable for each Nordic country. In my opinion, there is Nordic added value in what we learn from each other intentionally,” she says, going on to explain that one action to take at the Nordic level would be to increase the visibility of this issue and propose specific activities.

Curt Rice also believes that the solution to the Nordic gender paradox may lie in learning from one another and exchanging experiences and ideas.

“Of course, there are cultural differences between the Nordic countries, and divergent ideas regarding how to solve problems relating to women’s representation in academic leadership positions. We have to study which solutions can work in a given cultural context. At the same time, not everyone is even aware that this problem exists. This is why we in the KIF committee visit the various research and education institutions throughout Norway to draw attention to this issue. We are not trying to monitor them, but rather to have a collegial dialogue in which we exchange our experiences and discuss what works and what doesn’t work,” explains Curt Rice.

“Many rectors tell me that our visit was what triggered their interest in the issue. Thus, even with the cultural differences, I find it hard to imagine that other rectors and leaders would not be interested in sharing experiences with other institutions,” he adds.

Curt Rice recommends establishing more national committees such as KIF to improve gender balance in academia.

“The Norwegian presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2017 is promoting greater focus on these issues. I think it’s very exciting that this focus could lead to the launch of committees similar to KIF in all five Nordic Countries. As soon as that happens it would be completely natural for the individual committees to start a dialogue,” he says.

Riitta Maijala voices similar views, and hopes that increased visibility of this issue can lead to planned actions.

“In order to increase visibility in this area we have to have the facts right in the form of proven knowledge, research and examples to spur discussions that can ultimately lead to concrete actions,” says Riitta Maijala. She continues by sharing part of her vision and objective for the future.

“I hope we achieve a 40–60 per cent distribution, which could go in either direction. Finland already has rules in place for this in appointing the members of Research Councils, for example, and the results show that there is a genuine impact behind this type of legal regulation. My vision is it would be natural to see more female rectors and more leaders in the research sector. You can look at it as a kind of holistic ladder, where women reach a certain qualifying rung and are appointed to higher positions. At the moment, I think we are missing something before they get to this qualifying rung. Of course, we can’t appoint a candidate just because she is a woman. But we have to adapt this ladder so that women have an equal chance,” she concludes.

 


'Creating a competitive edge through diversity – leadership for Nordic research excellence towards 2030': A conference held recently, arranged by the KIF committee and with the support of, among other, NordForsk.

Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF)

The KIF Committee was appointed by the Norwegian Government. The committee provides support and recommendations on measures contributing to gender balance and diversity in the Norwegian research sector. In the current working period, diversity is defined as ethnic diversity. The purpose of the committee's efforts is to contribute to gender balance and diversity among employees in the research sector.

Text: Jakob Chortsen
Photo: Terje Heiestad


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