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Why is achieving a more equal gender balance at AU so hard?

Postdoc Ea Høg Utoft’s research interest is gender equality. And she can help us understand why AU has been having such a hard time achieving its goal of a more equal gender split on all rungs of the academic career ladder. It has to do with a deeply rooted conviction that we’ve already achieved equality in Denmark. And faith in meritocracy. And choosing solutions that are more convenient than effective.

[Translate to English:] Ea Høg Utoft er postdoc ved Dansk Center for Forskningsanalyse ved Institut for Statskundskab på Aarhus Universitet. Foto: Jesper Voldgaard og Ida Jensen/AU Foto

Gender equality at AU

Why is it so hard to make progress on gender equality in academia? To make changes that actually move the needle in the right direction? And to debate the issue without getting confrontational – in fact, to debate the issue at all? Ea Høg Utoft, a postdoc at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy at the Department of Political Science, is attempting to answer all of these questions.  

Aarhus University is a prime example of just how knotty this problem is. For a number of years, AU has attacked it with a variety of initiatives aimed at creating more equality at the university, for example in relation to achieving a more equal gender split at all levels of the academic career hierarchy. But the higher you climb on the academic ladder, the fewer women you’ll meet: at AU, only one in five professors is a woman. After all this time. 

As AU’s latest effort to address the problem, the Action plan for diversity and gender equality at AU 2020-2021, openly admits: “despite many initiatives over the years, diversity and gender equality remain an area with considerable shortcomings”.    

The Danish paradox: We celebrate and denigrate feminism at the same time

In her article, Ea Høg Utoft investigates the scope for action available to staff tasked with implementing equality-promoting initiatives – typically middle management, HR staff or other administrative staff). And it’s quite narrow. According to Utoft, his is due to the fact that most Danes believe that we have already achieved equality and that we’re progressive in this area. This is despite the fact that statistics and comparisons with other Nordic and European countries tell a very different tale. 

“The Danish approach to gender equality is paradoxical. We celebrate and denigrate feminism at the same time, “ explained Utoft. 

“Gender equality is celebrated as a fundamental Danish value, for which we are indebted to the Danish feminist movement of the 70s in particular. But at the same time, contemporary feminism is rejected: there are strong biases against feminists, and there’s a lack of political will to implement gender equality-promoting policies.”  

How can we explain the gender gap?

In this sense, Denmark is characterised by what Utoft has termed ‘post-feminism’. This is the idea that feminism has already delivered the goods in the form of gender equality – and thus no longer has a role to play. For the same reason, some Danes find gender equality debates tiresome or even passé whenever they pop up again. 

Ea Høg Utoft, postdoc at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy at the Department of Political Science. Photo: Jesper Voldgaard

But the idea that we’ve already achieved gender equality sets limits on how we can address the problems that are reflected by the statistics, Utoft pointed out.

“Because if we say that gender equality has been achieved, which means that gender isn’t a factor in relation to how our lives play out today, how do we explain the gender imbalance that exists at the universities, in politics and in industry?” 

She added:

“The typical feminist analysis would be that this imbalance, for example the underrepresentation of women in research and management, is due to social or organizational structures anchored in our history. But if we reject the structural explanation, then we have to understand this inequality in an individual context, which means that the imbalance is not perceived as the expression of inequality or injustice.” 

And this is the stance that has characterized the Danish approach to gender imbalances, including within academia. As a result,attempts to solve the problem – including at AU – are also individualized: mentor programs, career development programs and research support programs aimed at women. One example of the latter is the Ministry of Higher Education and Science’s Inge Lehmann program, which Utoft called “a convenient ad-on to a funding system that, as things stand now, creates inequality.”

Both men and women reject affirmative action  

But both men and women in academia tend to oppose the kind of affirmative action (or positive discrimination) represented by the Inge Lehmann program, said Utoft. Initiatives that give the underrepresented gender an advantage – usually women – are criticized for discriminating against men and undermining the quality of research and teaching. Utoft does not agree with this critique.

For women, affirmative action entails the risk that they will be criticized for not being hired on the basis of their qualifications, but rather on the basis of their gender

“And for women, affirmative action entails the risk that they will be criticized for not being hired on the basis of their qualifications, but rather on the basis of their gender, so they often oppose these kinds of initiatives.”

A strong faith in the meritocracy 

Utoft also pointed out that affirmative action is seen as a breach of the ostensible neutrality of the academic system, in which – at least in theory – you advance solely on the background of your qualifications. 

“The meritocracy ideology is so pronounced in academia. In the private sector, it’s legitimate to use bureaus and personal networks in recruitment, but drawing on your network instead of qualifications alone clashes with the academic tradition.”

Nonetheless, Utoft thinks it’s legitimate to question the neutrality of the academic system: for example, she pointed to a number of studies that have shown that gender bias does play a role in recruitment in academia.  

“The structure of the academic system isn’t neutral”, she said.

“Beyond a doubt, network means a lot for junior researchers’ career prospects in academia. It’s crucial to have access to a senior academic who can act as a sponsor by actively opening doors for you by bringing your name and your qualifications into play.”

‘Empowerment’ doesn’t get to the root of the problem

Utoft offered a possible explanation for why Danish universities have made such little headway in achieving better gender balance, despite the many initiatives:

“What I try to demonstrate in my article is that the people who are supposed to implement the gender equality initiatives at the universities have an extremely narrow scope for action. Because on the one side, you have management, and they want to see results fast. On the on the other side you have the staff, who to a great extent buy the premise that the university is a neutral system based on meritocracy and scientific objectivity.” 

She added:

“This leaves very little scope for action, and so unfortunately, you’re often left with the kinds of equality-promoting initiatives that can slip through without generating a lot of protests and opposition. The more convenient initiatives that are aimed at the individual rather than at the organization.”

“The individual woman who participates in a mentorship program might feel more empowered, but that doesn’t remove the structural and cultural barriers that exist in academia for all of the others. And it’s not something that gets to the root of the problem, as long as the universities continue to hold on to a deeply individualized approach to the problem.”

Sexism is not addressed 

AU’s most recent action plan for diversity and gender equality attacks the problem by proposing activities within four focus areas: recruitment, career development, leadership and workplace culture. And according to Utoft, the action plan is a step in the right direction. But she still thinks it lacks more potent initiatives – and it still fails to address sexism and harassment at the universities.

“Neither sexism or harassment is mentioned a single time in the action plan. Is that a mistake?” 

It certainly is, if you ask Utoft. 

AU has addressed the issue of offensive conduct and harassment, and has made an effort to communicate where people can get help if they’re subject to abusive or inappropriate behavior at AU, and has also given managers and counsellors training. 

“Yes, but I have the impression that this has mostly been focused on students who experience harassment, and not on employees to any great extent. 

She added:

“And sexism is interesting in this connection, because it can be a factor in why women abandon a career at the university. We can’t take it out of the equation. The experiences with harassment and sexism you have throughout your working life stick with you: some may become immune to it over time, while others may buckle under from having to justify their right to be part of the research world and over-performing to be accepted. In this light, I think it’s striking that it isn’t mentioned in the action plan.”  

She also pointed out that the many examples from different industries that have surfaced in the #metoo debate – most recently in academia – indicate that the problem is about structures in society and organizations, not just about individuals.

“As we see, it’s not just about one individual woman who encounters one individual idiot. It’s virtually the rule, not the exception, for a woman to experience or witness sexism in the course of her life.”

But she’s also aware that many people – including women – deny that sexism exists in academia. 

“And to a high degree, it’s about the fear of being seen as a victim. This is considered almost a declaration of bankruptcy: it’s seen as a lack of drive and a failure to take responsibility for yourself, despite the fact that sexism and harassment are structural conditions, which means they’re not the fault of the victim herself.”

We need to rethink recruitment  

She then considered the issues the action plan does tackle. Such as recruitment. According to the action plan, academic positions should be re-advertised if not enough women apply in the first instance. Promoting diversity should also be included in the assessment criteria when evaluating applications, and the wording of job ads should be checked to ensure gender neutrality: negative gendered language and stereotypes should be weeded out.  

“But that’s not enough. We need to completely rethink recruitment. If we keep on doing things more or less in the same way, nothing is going to change.”

Utoft said that she’s often heard the statement ‘Women don’t apply’ in different contexts in which the question of gender equality in academia has arisen. 

“And at my workplace, I was asked for advice on what they should do differently to get more female applicants. And I replied: ‘But what have you done differently to reach women?’

What have you done differently to reach women?

One idea might be to focus more on what applicants can achieve in a position rather than listing ten job requirements. And to make a greater effort to locate qualified women, Utoft suggested.  

Where are the bottom-up initiatives? 

Utoft said that the action plan focuses too heavily on the role of managers – although it does propose systematic career development and involving staff in analyses of what issues are most pressing for the individual department or school to address.  

“The focus on management is very characteristic for the action plan. And training managers is fine, as well as a greater focus on creating results. But this won’t make a real difference unless staff are also on board.”

She described an example of a concrete initiative involving the entire staff. 

While I was doing research in the States last year, I visited the University of Washington in Seattle. Here everyone had to take a four-hour course on gender and harassment. It was mandatory for all employees.” 

“I think the action plan lacks a bottom-up perspective that gets staff involved. And not least the individuals and organizations at the university that are particularly passionate about diversity and inclusion. For example, LGTB organizations or disability organizations. I see a huge potential in mobilizing and acknowledging these forces as well.”

“And as an AU employee, I think the action plan is extremely disconnected from my level. I have a hard time seeing how it will affect me or when I’ll feel its effects.”  

Will management stand firm on unpopular decisions?

Finally, Utoft said, she thinks it’ll be interesting to witness whether the executive management will stand firm on decisions that will be unpopular at the university. 

“The rector’s announcement that introducing gender quotas could be an option if necessary was striking. But does management mean it? The opposition to dramatic initiatives is clear, and is management prepared to push through measures like that even when they’re not well-received?”

3 prevalent discourses in the gender equality debate outside academia

In her article, Ea Høg Utoft identifies three discourses that dominate the gender equality debate outside academia. While there are others, these three are particularly prevalent.

1. Gender equality has gone too far

We have achieved gender equality in Denmark, so measures to promote gender equality are viewed as superfluous or even unjust and discriminatory.

2. Belief in freedom of choice 

Women and men are equal, it’s assumed. Feminism has given women an equal choice when it comes to education, family and career. So when a women decides to abandon an academic career, this is not problematic: rather, it reflects her freedom of choice. The consequence of this discourse is that no attempts whatsoever should be made to encourage women to continue their careers. It erases the fact that the decisions we make are framed by the opportunities that are available to us. If we don’t have equal opportunities, it doesn’t make sense to describe the decision to end a career as a free choice, regardless of how active it might be.

3. Gender essentialism 

This discourse regards it as more natural for women to choose family over career, and women are perceived as fundamentally less equipped to thrive in a competitive, high performance work setting such as academia. This means that the failure to retain women in research careers is unavoidable. Another side of gender essentialism which is especially common in the private sector is that certain characteristics are defined as particularly feminine, and women are thus described as assets to the company on those grounds. For example, women are considered better communicators or more empathetic. And this is considered a legitimate motivation for working to attract and retain more female talents. In this sense, this discourse can be used as an argument for and against including more women in research. 

Translated by Lenore Messick

Gender equality at AU