Train our managers in gender bias – and give girls female role models

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There’s no dialogue about gender at AU, men have an easier time gaining a network in the research world, and female researchers need to take the lead as role models for girls to show them that research isn’t a ‘guy thing’.

2019.04.10 | Miriam Brems

From the left: Ashley Pearcy, Mathilde Cecchini og Anna Gerstrøm Rode. Photos: Pure/AU Kommunikation.

THEME: Gender equality at AU


Research can’t be just a guy thing


What’s unique about the project Building Platforms for Women and Girls in Science is that it’s not a research project. It’s an example of how we can take concrete action to promote gender equality in science.

Since 2016, postdoc Ashley Pearcy has organised a Women in Science conference every year at which female researchers present their work, inspired by the UN’s annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

“It’s to promote women’s research, give girls role models and demonstrate that through small actions, we can make seeing women as researchers more normal, “ Pearcy explains about the conference, which has become a lot more visible since AU decided to support it.

Until this year, she worked on the project in her free time, but this year, funding from AU has allowed her to spend work time it, in addition to bringing the conference a lot more attention.

“The departments and faculties, even Hans Brix (head of the Department of Bioscience, ed.) have nominated female researchers to participate and shown their support for the conference. Colleagues nominate each other to give public talks on Women in Science day, and I’ve never had so many nominations before.”

In fact, Pearcy has received so many nominations that she can organise an extra conference day in the spring if she likes. “And that’s quite a change.

It used to be like pulling teeth to get people to come and speak at the event,” she laughs.”

The dolphin seal of approval makes a difference

She believes that part of the explanation is that by supporting the project, AU has assumed ownership of it, and that makes backing the gender equality agenda more attractive for researchers.

She has seen the same tendency in relation to another project of hers, Biology Week, which gives girls between the ages of 7 and 13 a chance to join female researchers at AU in the biology labs after school.

“More people have signed up as mentors and lab hosts,” Pearcy says – though she could certainly use even more.

So many local girls are interested in participating that she has had to limit participation to twenty girls.

Biology Week was previously funded by the Royal Society of Biology in Great Britain. Now AU has also decided to support the project, stamping it with the dolphin logo seal of approval.

“It makes a difference that it’s the university that’s the host, and not just me as a researcher,” Pearcy says.

AU has to inspire girls to become scientists

She believes that it’s important for the university to inspire girls and young women to choose a career in research.

“We have to support their passion for their subject while they’re young so that they can resist when they’re told that research is a guy thing, or that they’re not good enough. It helps them stand firm when they encounter resistance, regardless of whether it’s sexism or just general competition in academia.”

The funding from AU is only for this year, but she hopes that AU will decide to support both projects permanently.

“But no matter what, I’ll keep on running these events, because I believe that universities have an obligation to their local communities.”


Men have an easier time getting into the network


Mathilde Cecchini is a postdoc, and together with four other researchers, she set out to understand whether differences in professional networks can help explain why women give up research careers.

According to the researchers behind the project, networks are important because they mean access to information, visibility and introductions to other members of the research community.

They performed 19 qualitative interviews with both men and women in PhD, postdoc and assistant professor positions. And they conclude that while many male junior researchers are absorbed into existing networks, this is more difficult for women and international researchers.

“Something that’s quite evident that there are a lot of men in people’s networks. A lot of young men have said ‘Wow, there are only men in my network, I’ve never thought about that’. I think that’s a general tendency. You don’t think about this absence of women, and it’s more something women than men think about,” Cecchini observes.

A researcher is a man in a slightly baggy suit

The same tendency was apparent in the respondents’ conceptions of what a typical researcher looks like.

“One of the male researchers said that he worked in a female-dominated environment, but ‘if you asked me to close my eyes and imagine a researchers, I would still see a man in a slightly baggy suit’,” Cecchini says.

She believes that the results of the project suggest that it’s not enough to focus on what happens in connection with the appointment process itself.

“People often join the world of research because the Master’s thesis supervisor (for example) encourages them to apply for a PhD. We have to look at the processes leading up to someone applying or not applying for a position and at what determines whether people come on board in a research project.”


People believe that the gender battle is over. But they’re wrong.


The Gender Bias in Research Project: C3 – Course, Coaching and Conference mixed research with courses and coaching on how to deal with gender bias.

Nineteen female academic staff members from AU participated in the course and shared their experiences with how gender influences their professional lives. This dialogue made it clear to the researchers behind the project that many of these women encounter discrimination on a daily basis that they generally brush aside – but that taken as a whole, these experiences amount to a more global problem, Anna Gerstrøm Rode explains. She’s a postdoc involved in the project.

One kind of discrimination the women described is the experience of being sidelined at meetings.

“Some had the experience of being interrupted at meetings, or of expressing an idea and then having it repeated by a man who then gets credit for it,” Rode says.

There is a lack of dialogue about gender at AU

On the basis of the women’s experiences, the project’s researchers have pinpointed a number of problems that need to be addressed at AU. For one thing, there isn’t a dialogue about gender at AU. And what’s more, discussions of ‘gender’ tend to give rise to a number of negative associations.

“Most people’s immediate reaction is that the bra-burners fought that gender battle in the 70s, and it’s over, and that idea is also prevalent at AU,” Rode says.

One sign of this, she believes, is that AU’s general strategy for women in research from 2016 hasn’t yet made a real impact at the faculties.

“The current strategy is a bit peripheral – in any case, there’s no trace of it in our strategy at BSS. If you read through the strategy document, there’s no mention of gender.”

In addition to the course, at which participants could get individual coaching from gender bias expert Sharon Elliot, managing director fo the company the Researcher Development Partnership, the three researchers behind the project also held a conference on gender equality. Over 100 AU employees and students participated, and interest was so great – including from male employees – that the researchers had to close registration.

Train managers in gender bias

The researchers propose that AU should set up a ‘Gender Office’ tasked with improving gender equality at AU.

Employees should be able to contact this office for help in dealing with gender discrimination.

“It can also offer gender bias courses to train all managers at AU who are involved in hiring. It’s common knowledge that people hire people who resemble themselves, and four out of five professors are men,” Rode says.

The office could also resuscitate the FRAU network (Female Researchers at AU), the researchers propose.

Translation: Lenore Messick.

THEME: Gender equality at AU

  • In spring 2018, AU granted a total of 650,000 kroner to five research projects aimed at investigating gender bias and gender equality issues at the university.
  • Omnibus has interviewed researchers from all five projects to find out what they’ve discovered – and what can be done to improve gender equality at AU.
  • In this article, we’ll present the results of the last three projects.
  • Read all the research reports here
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