DEBATE: Does gender play a role in how much time we spend on our research?

Gender equality in academia is not just about the number of males and females in the research spaces or in the laboratories. It’s also about having the same opportunities to conduct research – and the way it is now, write four female researchers at the Department of Clinical Medicine, female researchers have less time for their research compared with their male colleagues.

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[Translate to English:] Anne-Mette Hvas (øverst til venstre), Kamille Smidt Rasmussen (øverst til højre), Ida Vogel (nederst til venstre) og Signe Vogel (nederst til højre) Foto: Privat
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Signe Vogel, anthropologist; Kamille Smidt Rasmussen, associate professor and Head of Graduate Programme; Ida Vogel, clinical professor. Anne-Mette Hvas, Deputy Head of Department for Research and Talent and clinical professor.All are from the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University and they are members of a group Linje X (Line X), which works to ensure that women are given the same working conditions for a career in research as men.

In some respects, time has been a factor for positive change in gender equality at Danish universities. Ever since Nilsine Nielsen became Denmark’s first female university student in 1877 and following this became an academic and doctor, the number of women at university has increased steadily. Today, women make up more than half of the graduates from Danish universities, and almost as many women as men pursue a PhD. But despite this positive development and a step forward, a report published in 2019 (in Danish) shows that there are still a lot fewer women than men among researchers at Danish universities. And typically, the further up the career ladder you look, the fewer women you see amongst university researchers.  

Female researchers still have time working against them – literally speaking 

Female researchers still have time working against them – literally speaking. Most people know that maternity leave, children and household duties set women back in their careers, because they have less time for their work. But an analysis based on answers from the WPA (Workplace Assessment) survey from 2012 and a supplementary survey from employees at Aarhus University (in Danish) shows that female professors and associate professors work longer hours each week compared to their male colleagues. The analysis also shows what researchers do during their work hours.  And the female researchers use fewer hours than their male counterparts on activities that are directly related to their research. 

Difference between how many hours a week male and female researchers spend on their research 

A study conducted at the University of Copenhagen in 2020 also shows a significant difference between how many hours a week male and female researchers spend on their research. Both genders work approximately the same number of hours a week, but female researchers spend, on average, almost seven hours fewer a week on research than their male colleagues.

According to the leader of the Gender Equality Team at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), Eva Sophia Myers, researchers carry out a range of small and large tasks, in addition to research and teaching, which she calls ‘academic citizenship’. This includes, for example, being a member of a committee and planning seminars and conferences. Eva Sophia Myers points out that there is often an expectation that female researchers will take on more of these kinds of tasks than their male colleagues. Thus, these women have fewer hours for the kind of work that is accredited: publishing articles in renowned journals that are cited by other researchers. This means that it’s ultimately more difficult for women to advance in their careers than for men.

Female researchers have to use more time than men do to achieve the same results

This point is reinforced by the fact that female researchers – as a result of an unconscious bias both in the recruitment and employment processes, and for publication purposes – have to use more time than men do to achieve the same results. This has been shown for example in a Swedish study, where female biomedicine applicants who applied to the Swedish Health Sciences Research Council for postdoctoral funding were deemed to have inferior research qualifications than the equivalent male applicants. The study showed that in order for the Research Council to arrive at the same assessment for equivalent male and female applicants, the female applicants needed to have 2.5 times as many points on the study's scientific productivity and impact parameters.  

Gender equality must also apply to timetables not just floor plans 

Ironically, we can conclude that on the one hand female researchers have less time to conduct their research than their male counterparts, and on the other hand they require more time than their male colleagues to achieve the same results.  Nilsine Nielsen is perhaps a symbol of the fact that the Danish universities opened their doors to female students and since then universities have given office space to female researchers. But until gender equality also applies to timetables and not just floor plans at the universities, there is still a long way to go. 

Translated by Marian Flanagan