Debate: It is high time that we responded to the real barriers stopping women from making it to the top of the academic world. We do not lack knowledge, but we lack the courage to do something about a culture that acts as a glass ceiling for women, say Vice-Dean Lise Wogensen Bach and head of the Department of Biomedicine, Thomas G. Jensen, in a comment to the Education and Science minister’s proposal for a task force on gender equality in research.
We are pleased to see the Minister for Higher Education and Science Sofie Carsten Nielsen once again wave the flag in the gender debate and problematise the fact that there are far too few women in top positions in the academic world. It is a fact that led to the minister announcing a fast-acting task force before Christmas which will gather knowledge and make recommendations for how to get more women higher up on the academic career ladder.
May we suggest an even faster model that the minister could use? That is using the knowledge which is already available both internationally and in Denmark, where we have spent years gathering experience, data and knowledge, most recently the report by MSc in political science and PhD student Matthias Wullum Nielsen al. from the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University.
The knowledge gathered points unanimously to the fact that women are first given the room to compete in a very competitive research world if there is a focus from management on culture, work environment and clear career paths. We take for granted that we live according to common universal norms.
But the truth is (as shown by ample research) that the norms we believe to be common are to a high degree defined by a masculine culture with stereotyping and an unconscious suppression of women's experiences, perspectives and opportunities. We do not acknowledge how significant this factor is. So there is a reluctance to address the norms and the language that is associated with this masculine culture.
One example could be that self-confident men are perceived as dynamic and good representatives of their gender, while self-confident women are often perceived as dominant. Another could be that a man with greying hair is seen as clever and wise, while a woman of similar age finds it difficult to get speaking time. The classic example is that angry men are perceived as dynamic and bold, while angry women are just objectionable, power hungry or even hysterical.
There is also a reluctance to address the fact that at university level it is still the case that research-related activities and publications are not assessed in relation to the actual research time. And if that is not being done than women are losing ground from the beginning.
Everybody knows that profiling your CV is important. Nevertheless, research has shown that there is a discrepancy between the number of women who appear as final authors on scientific publications and the composition of researchers. Why? Do women have a management style with more delegation?
Or is this due to a well-known phenomenon from other organisations, where it is expected that in small and large male hierarchies, women will support and cement male realisation so that men advance in relation to other men. Another interesting aspect in this context is the question of why women often feel at home in a network in which they have transverse relations, while men orientate themselves up the ladder as quick as lightening and thereby look after their CV.
Men and women are met with different norms and expectations and their premises for choosing a career path are therefore also different. If we are to take advantage of the large unexhausted research potential found among women, we must move away from meeting men and women with different norms and expectations. We need to work to ensure that the impact of research activities and the ability to disseminate knowledge and responsibility come to count just as much as performance at an individual level which can be quantified in a bibliography and H-index. There must be rewards when you are able to creatively get more people to take part in dynamic research groups and it is important to focus on research potential in early career paths.
The solution for the female void at the top of the academic world is therefore not to create a new task force or to "fix" the women so they become just like men.
The solution is for all of us to decide to take the problem seriously and to start working in a targeted way towards a change of the individual institution's organisation and culture.
This is a lengthy process, it requires the attention of management on all levels and it takes courage and strategic research management.
So let’s get to work immediately!
The debate was published in Danish newspaper "Weekendavisen" January 30, 2015.