Gender researcher: "Gender equality is not just a question of staff policy"

Women are underrepresented among the academic staff at AU, and a new action plan adopted by the senior management team will now try to rectify this. Gender equality researchers welcome the initiative, but also underline that words need to be turned into action if the plan is to impact on the skewed gender balance. They also think the plan lacks measures to better incorporate gender into research.

The higher you are in the hierarchy, the more skewed the gender balance among the academic staff at Aarhus University. Graphics: Astrid Reitzel

The higher you climb up the academic career ladder, the fewer women you find among your colleagues. Currently, slightly more women than men take a Master’s degree programme, while a more or less equal number of women and men take a PhD – but once you get to assistant professor level, the proportion of women falls significantly. In 2015, only 35 per cent of associate professors and almost 19 per cent of professors at AU were women. 
The senior management team think this is problematic, and in March they adopted a new action plan which will attempt to attract and retain women in research. Departments and faculties must set binding targets for the period up until 2020 and create funds for maternity (and paternity) leave. In addition to this, the management proposes that the departments themselves should select the tools from the action plan that they find most relevant.

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Implementation is crucial

Omnibus has asked two researchers with gender equality in academia as their research area to assess AU's action plan. The first is Evanthia K. Schmidt, associate professor and research director at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy at the Department of Political Science at AU, while the second is Professor Bente Rosenbeck from the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Both researchers believe that efforts to ensure a more equal gender balance in research are really required. Both therefore welcome any initiative to improve gender equality in the world of research.

"It’s an ambitious plan, but the crucial question is, how will it be implemented? The key will come to lie with the departments and the department heads," says Evanthia K. Schmidt, who has come with input to the action plan together with her research group.

The previous policy was less binding

In her view, AU's approach to the issue of gender equality has previously been more non-binding. For example, departments and faculties have not been required to set binding targets for their efforts to attract and retain women in research. They will now have to do this and the figures will be published on an ongoing basis.

"AU's last gender equality plan, which was completed in 2014, didn’t lead to much progress being made. It’s important that we now have management's attention. Not much is going to happen as long as management doesn’t have focus on the problem," says Schmidt.

Anne Marie Pahuus is vice-dean for research and talent development at Arts and has been one of the driving forces in the working group that has designed the action plan. She does not wish to criticise the old gender equality plan, but acknowledges that there is a general sense that it has not worked, and that the new plan must therefore be seen as an attempt to do something different.

"The old plan was also full of targets, so that’s not where the difference lies. But in the new action plan, the staff managers are responsible for this task. The senior management team assumes responsibility, but the actions are located in the environments," says the vice-dean.

No financial penalties

Together with the individual department heads, the senior management team will conduct an annual follow-up of how the local action planes have fared in reaching their specific target. According to the vice-dean, possible sanctions if a department fails to live up to its own targets have been a topic for discussion, but no agreement on actual forms of sanctions was reached.

"It could be that maybe we won’t approve next year's action plan if someone has totally missed their target and want’s to carry on in the same old way," says Pahuus.

However, she does not personally believe in management by means of financial sanctions:

"I would rather that the people in these environments think that they cannot afford to continue along the path we’ve taken up to now. We must act if we want to avoid becoming a strange, conservative institution in the midst of a society that’s constantly developing."    

Call for gender perspectives in research

Bente Rosenbeck agrees with Evanthia K. Schmidt that implementation is essential for the success of the action plan. She would also like to see AU use the action plan to address the question of becoming better at thinking gender perspectives into research.

“Gender equality at the university is more than just staff policy. It’s also about to changing the teaching and the research," she says.

She refers to gender equality not only being a question of the number of men and women in specific job categories. It is also about working actively to avoid gender bias in both research and teaching activities.

As an example, she points out that a few years ago female literature was absent from of syllabus lists in comparative literature at the University of Copenhagen, which led to criticism from the students and others.

Health research is another area in which there is a growing awareness that men and women do not demonstrate the same symptoms of cardiovascular disease. This is something that people have not always been aware of in the healthcare system, and according to Rosenbeck it underlines the point that gender is also a factor which should be incorporated in research.

"If you alter the academic content, then you will also increase the number of women," says Rosenbeck.

Up for debate in the next action plan

Vice-dean Anne Marie Pahuus agrees with Bente Rosenbeck that the university and society have much to gain by incorporating gender perspectives into research.

"The action plan should have a chance to work until 2020, but we must also begin thinking about the next catalogue soon. I would be very happy to take a discussion with her on how we can illustrate and clarify the issue for the environments. It’s an interesting exercise – how can we translate this issue into something that we can really get into the heads of the responsible managers," says Pahuus.

Open and broad calls for applications to attract women

A statement from the Ministry of Higher Education and Science shows that many vacant research positions are filled without receiving applications from both genders. Bente Rosenbeck therefore thinks that AU’s action plan takes an important step by recommending that all positions at assistant professor, associate professor and professor level should now, as a general rule, be open.

"That will create more competition and you can only hope that this means more women will be employed," she says.

It is a recommendation that was also made by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science’s Task Force for More Women in Research in its report from April 2015. The report highlights that it is more difficult for women to obtain employment as a professor when the position has not been advertised, and that during the period 2011-2013 AU employed almost a third of all professorships without advertising the position. 

More radical than the University of Copenhagen

Another detail in the action plan that Bente Rosenbeck has noticed is that it encourages the departments to weigh consideration of a balanced gender profile highly, if there is no clear difference in the qualifications of the most qualified applicants.

"Here Aarhus University is more radical than the University of Copenhagen. The management make appointment, just as they have for a long time, so this is something they also could have done previously. As management, you appointment the manpower you need and which is best qualified. But it’s a signal to send to the local management: Use this tool.”

Maternity and paternity leave deducted from research time

AU's action plan has been prepared on the basis of input from many forums and councils at AU, and the list of tools is, as already mentioned, long. One of the initiatives that the senior management team have themselves highlighted in the action plan, is the creation of maternity/paternity pools at department and faculty level. Anne Marie Pahuus explains that some areas at AU have long had a practice of having the departments pay the expenses in connection with maternity or paternity leave on external research projects.

"In some of the basic research centre environments this has been an issue. Some have refrained from employing female postdocs because external projects wouldn’t have enough money to cover their maternity leave. But all the departments must solve this problem. It mustn’t be anything to prevent women being employed," she says. 

According to Evanthia K. Schmidt, this is also a crucial area to focus on:

"Postdoc to associate professor level is typically the age where women start a family and it’s important to take the time that they’re away from the labour market into consideration," she says.

She points to the maternity/paternity pools as an important instrument in covering possible additional expenses incurred by researchers in connection with maternity leave.

Departments, centres and faculties have until 26 September to decide which initiatives from the action plan they wish to get initiate, and they must draw up targets for the gender balance in the various academic job categories. The faculties must also decide how they want to manage the maternity/paternity pools – and whether this is to be done at department or faculty level.

Translated by Peter Lambourne