Three out of 29 permanent members of academic staff are women. But the head of the department isn’t prepared to introduce quotas – that would discriminate against the men at the department

In an op ed in Omnibus, Assistant Professor Carolina von Essen criticized what she describes as a lack of progress in improving gender equality at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. She encourages the department’s management team to hire more women. Department head Ulrik Ingerslev Uggerhøj agrees that the department needs to hire more female researchers, but he’s not prepared to introduce quotas, as von Essen proposes.

Only three of the 39 permanent members of academic staff at the Department of Physics and Astronomy are women. One is a full professor, and the other two are associate professors, one of whom was appointed as recently as October this year. The other women researchers at the department are all on temporary contracts.

If department head Ulrik Ingerslev Uggerhøj had any doubts about what it was like to be a women at his department, the past month has given him plenty of opportunities to raise his awareness. First, five of the department’s female employees and PhD students put their names to a statement that they had either experienced or witnessed sexism in academia. Then Carolina von Essen, a female assistant professor, wrote a decidely un-rosy account of what it’s like to be a woman researcher at a department where the gender imbalance is so pronounced. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: Female researcher’s piece on gender equality at AU was deleted: I didn’t want to paint a rosy picture. On the contrary

In her op ed, Von Essen describes how she has fought to advance professionally in a career that so far has consisted of short-term contracts interrupted by two periods of maternity leave. And how in an attempt to compensate for the negative impact of maternity leave on her career,  she busted ass all hours of the day and night to keep producing: for example, she was main author of four publications written in just five months. And how she worked online at the hospital right up to the birth of her second child. 

This is a debate we need to have

Department Head Ulrik Ingerslev Uggerhøj stresses that he fully supports van Essen in raising the issue.

“This is a debate we need to have. All sides need to be heard, and what she describes here is her experience. The picture she gives of the department is by no means rosy, and we need to do something about that,” he said.  

When asked what particularly struck him when he read the op head, he hesitated for a long time.

“I don’t know if there’s one particular thing that struck me. But I understand her proposals and the feeling that nothing’s happening career-wise,” he said. He explained that he had the sense that this was a widespread feeling among postdocs and assistant professors on short-term contracts at the department– both men and women. 

“It’s hard to figure out what you need to do to become a permanent staff member, and it can take anything from 7-8 to 10-111 years before you get a permanent position. And this is the same period when people typically start a family. In this connection, we make a point of harmonizing expectations with temporary staff members and informing them about their real chances for a permanent position at the department,” he said, and pointed out that one reason change is slow in coming is that on average, the department only advertises one new permanent position a year. 

Five researchers promoted to full professor – all men

Von Essens’ op ed comes at the end of a year full of missed opportunities to change the gender balance at the department.

This year, the department succeeded in promoting five of its five associate professors to full professor, after two positions were advertised internationally in 2019 and 2020 at associate professor and professor level. The five new professors are all men. In addition, the department has hired a male associate professor, while one associate professorship is still unfilled. 

“There were very few female applicants to these positions, and we didn’t find any qualified for the promotions,” Uggerhøj explained, when asked why the department hadn’t taken advantage of this opportunity to hire more female professors. 

“Typically, we get 50-60 applications, and 10-15 percent of these are typically from female applicants, which is between six and seven women,” Uggerhøj said.

In fact, there was only women at the department who would have been eligible for one of these professorships. Because until October, she was the only female associate professor at the department. Since then, that number has increased to two, because a woman was promoted to associate professor from a tenure track assistant professorship (if you have a tenure track assistant professorship, you are hired with the prospect of performance-based advancement to a permanent associate professorship ,ed.)    

The competition for women is fierce

Why do you think so few women have applied for these positions?

“It reflects the fact that there aren’t many women in the field, and that there’s fierce international competition for the few female candidates. We aren’t the only university that would like to have more women in this field. In Germany, for example, universities use big financial incentives to attract women, so they get millions for the research, and we can’t offer that. The competition for women is really fierce in our field,” Uggerhøj explained.

One reason there are so few female applicants is that there are fewer female students  than the department head would like to see. 

“The department admits 85 students a year, and 10-15 of them are women. We’ve tried lots of different initiatives to get more girls to apply to our degree programmes, but without any success.”

Men against quotas

But back to von Essen’s op ed and – not least – her proposed solution. With appointment committee exclusively composed of men, she doesn’t believe that the gender balance will change unless the department intervenes more decisively. Von Essen’s solution is for the department to hire more women until a minimal critical mass is reached, after which it will be possible to let developments take their course with less drastic measures. 

But that’s simply not in the cards, according to department head Uggerhøj:

“If we were to hire women in that way, what you’re talking about is quotas, and as we know, the rector has stated that we haven’t gotten to that point yet.” 

Uggerhøj was referring to a statement the rector made in an Omnibus article last year: the university needs to take stronger measures to correct the unequal gender balance between men and women in research positions. But he also stressed that he is extremely reluctant to introduce quotas. 

“But if it keeps on developing too slowly, it may be necessary for us to take that road,” Rector Bech Nielsen stated at the time.

But the rector himself brought up quotas in that interview, where he said that if progress  it may be necessary to take that road if AU continues to make such slow progress in reaching a more equitable gender balance. So do you think he would dismiss the idea if you went to him and said that this is what needs to happen to make real progress at your department? 

READ ALSO: AU’s rector: Gender quotas may become necessary

“I can’t answer that. But I do know that there would be men at the department who would feel discriminated against if we introduced quotas. It would meet resistance,” Uggerhøj said, and stressed that a lot of staff – including men – felt that gender balance was an urgent problem that needed to be dealt with.

But not so urgent, at the end of the day, that they’re willing to give women an advantage to get a more equal gender split at the department?

“No, I don’t believe the majority is in favor of quotas yet.”

Open to giving preference to female applicants

Instead of quotas, Uggerhøj said that he would be open to giving preference to the female candidate in the employment process when trying to choose between two equally qualified candidates.

“In that case, I would let the decision fall to her advantage,” he said. 

But that isn’t really committing to anything, though, is it, in light of how few female applicants you get?

“Well, you’re asking me a question of principle, so that’s not at all how I see it.”

Salary compensation in connection with maternity leave

Uggerhøj also listed other measures that he expects will make a difference by improving working conditions for female researchers. 

“As recently as last week, we discussed the possibility of some kind of pay compensation in the form of a pay increase in connection with maternity leave, because we know maternity leave costs women in terms of their lifetime wages. At the same time, we’d like to make it possible to be exempt from teaching or administrative tasks for six months or a year after returning to work after maternity leave, so women can focus on their research and catch up on some of the things they have to put on hold to take maternity leave,” he said.

“I’d like to stress that we don’t expect anyone to do research during their maternity leave.”

The goal is for women to make up 18% of permanent research staff 

You called this an urgent problem. So when would you as department head like to see a significant change in the gender split at your department?

“I’d like to see a higher percentage of female professors and associate professors than we have now within the current strategy period, which runs through 2025.”

Would you like to put an number on that?

“Under current conditions, we’re not going to achieve 50/50 balance. But if we hire one or two female professors and associate professors in addition to those we have now, our staffing at professor and associate professor level will reflect the intake of female students to our degree programmes, which is 16-18 percent of total applicants. This means we would reflect the level of interest in the field among women in society in general.”

As mentioned above, the department admits 85 students a year, of whom 10 or 15 are women. To achieve a comparable ratio among permanent academic staff, the department needs to hire an additional four or five women. 

NAT Dean: We’re starting to understand the issues

Kristian Pedersen, dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, re-tweeted von Essen’s op ed along with the comment that these are important issues to discuss, reflect and act on. 

Issues the petition on sexism in academia has also helped bring into focus, the dean pointed out.

“At NAT, the issues of equality and sexism are on the agendas of the faculty management team, the academic council and the liaison committee – and of course, in the informal chats around the coffee machine, in the canteens and wherever we run into each other. We’re in the phase of getting a better understanding of what the problems are and how widespread they are.”

Here he wasn’t referring to the gender imbalance at several of the faculty’s departments in particular. 

“Well, it’s completely obvious from our statistics that the gender balance is skewed at our faculty. A challenge that’s particularly pronounced at the Department of Physics and Astronomy.” 

On the contrary, the dean pointed to problems like sexism and offensive behaviour that are linked to workplace culture.

“We still don’t understand the issues that have to do with workplace culture, and which is what a number of the stories that have come out recently are about.  We don’t know enough about this yet. I’m sure there are some people who haven’t been sufficiently aware of the problems that arise from the culture before now,” Pedersen said. 

Translated by Lenore Messick