“The academic world needs the best brains, and these are not solely found in male bodies” – so thinks Liisa Husu, who is professor in gender studies at Örebro University.

Equality targets futile without incentives

Svenska 2017-09-19

Sweden is at the forefront of gender equality. But equality in the proportion of female professors remains a long way off. Sociologist Liisa Husu wonders why Sweden has done so well in so many other areas but not in academia.

Having attended a conference in Brussels with Ewora – the European organisation for female vice-chancellors – Liisa Husu is at home in Finland for a few days before returning to Örebro University, where she is professor in gender studies and leader of the Centre for Feminist Social Studies.

When we spoke to her, she was considering why it is such a difficult process to recruit women to leading positions within academia. At a doctoral student level, the gender balance is fairly equal in many parts of the world – in Sweden, approximately half of all those presenting and defending their doctoral thesis are women. After the public defence, however, women are failing to advance as quickly as men.

According to the She Figures report, which is published by the EU every third year, only 21 percent of university professors are female. Sweden performs a little better, with 26 percent. Liisa Husu is surprised that the difference isn’t greater.

“Although, for decades now, Sweden has demonstrated a political willingness to achieve equality in academia, the proportion of female professors is approximately the same as the overall average in the EU”, she says.

The proportion of female professors in the EU increases by one percentage point per year, although this trend isn’t going in the right direction in all countries. New data shows that there has been a decrease in the proportion of female professors in one third of higher education institutions in the United Kingdom.

Greater diversity results in greater quality

Liisa Husu sees both scientific and non-scientific arguments for increasing the proportion of women in leading positions.

“The professors lead research and tuition and create future knowledge. This can become very one-dimensional if we only have male professors, or if there is a significant dominance of male professors. The academic world needs the best brains, and these are not solely found in male bodies.”

She believes that research will be both more innovative and of a higher quality if there is greater diversity within the research leaders. There is also a need for students to have both female and male role models.

“If academia fails to recruit more women, we will lose talents that would otherwise contribute to improved scientific knowledge.”

Variations between fields of research

The awarding of a professorship constitutes the pinnacle of a long career, spanning being a student, a doctoral student and a subsequent range of post-doctoral positions. Much can happen along the way.

The pattern varies between different fields of research. Women are in the minority at all levels within the natural sciences and engineering and technology. In Sweden, this is an area with many professorships.

Within the social sciences, there is an equal balance between the numbers of female and male professors. This, however, is a field that contains only 14 percent of the country’s professorships. Liisa Husu thinks that these figures are extremely interesting:

“In the areas where the most women are to be found, the competition for each position is greatest.”

Call for rewards or sanctions

Since 1997, Sweden’s governments have established recruitment targets for gender equality in the academic sector. In this year’s public service agreement, the requirements have been increased significantly. By 2030, half of all newly-recruited professors shall be women. All universities are required to appoint female professors to the extent that reflects the proportion of women with a doctoral degree within each field at that particular time.

The number of researchers and teachers with a doctoral degree has increased dramatically since 2001. Women dominate in certain areas, primarily within medicine and health studies, social sciences, humanities and art. There is a greater number of men within the natural sciences and engineering and technology.

Liisa Husu finds it positive that the powers of government impose demands for gender equality but, at the same time, she would like to see the results being met with some form of either reward or sanction.

“We need more effective methods to achieve change – such as, for example, financial incentives. Equality targets can end up being seen as ineffective, empty words if they are not followed up properly. They can very easily be reduced to a form of political grandstanding.”

Give women and men the same chance

All state-run higher education institutions, together with Chalmers University of Technology, have also been commissioned by the government to produce a plan for their work to ensure the integration of gender equality during the period 2016 to 2019. Previously, an additional 60 or so government authorities had also been charged with the same task of providing women and men with the same power to shape both society and their own lives.

Within the educational sector, for example, this could include providing equal opportunities for career paths and working to counteract gender-restricted study choices. The educational institutions presented their individual plans in May this year.

Liisa Husu observes variations in the level of ambition.

“Research into gender equality in the academic sector shows that the support provided by the university leadership is crucial to the achievement of positive and sustainable change.”

Sweden’s equality paradox

A comparative European study showed that many male professors have a stay-at-home wife who takes care of their private affairs. It is more common for female professors to be single. There is, however, no Swedish data for this.

“It appears to be the case that parts of the academic world will continue to remain a male bastion, adhering to old, established patterns”, says Liisa Husu.

Science Europe, which is an interest group for research financiers within the EU, has recently published practical guidelines aimed at making it easier to combine a family life with an academic career. One of the organisation’s recommendations is that researchers of both sexes should have a break factored into their funding to give them the opportunity to take parental leave. They should also have the option to work on a part-time basis.

Much of this is self-evident for us in Sweden but – even here – women still encounter obstacles. When Liisa Husu took part in a UNESCO workshop in Argentina concerned with gender and science, colleagues from other countries were asking about the Swedish equality paradox. Why is Sweden so successful in so many different areas, but not within the academic sector?

Competition benefits women

No distinction is made in Sweden’s official statistics between those who have been promoted to a professorship and those who have fought off competition from other applicants. The positions can, however, offer quite different conditions for conducting research. Some promoted professors have only 20 percent of their working hours dedicated to research, whilst others are able to research on a full-time basis.

There still exists an opportunity to appoint a professor that circumvents the regular system. Liisa Husu has shown that the equivalent procedure in Finland of offering a professorship tends to favour men.

Women are more successful when faced with open competition. Additional studies have also shown that competition and transparency are beneficial to women.

In her research, Liisa Husu is interested in the invisible obstacles. Women are more seldom invited to hold the opening address at conferences and symposiums, they are more seldom recruited to research groups and informal networks, and their articles are less likely to be referenced.

Own career as an atypical example

Liisa Husu does not regard her own career as being representative of the typical pattern. She spent 15 years working for Finland’s equality ombudsman and the Finnish government’s council for equality, with responsibility for issues concerning research and higher education. It became apparent to her that there was a lack of in-depth knowledge about the conditions facing female researchers.

“I wrote a sociological treatise about gender discrimination in academia in Finland, became a research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, and was subsequently invited to become a guest professor in Sweden. When the regular professorship was advertised, I applied for it and was successful.”

Text: Carin Mannberg-Zackari
Photo: Ulla-Carin Ekblom