The Faculties of Natural Sciences and Technical Sciences: Women strongly outnumbered in permanent research positions in 9 of the 13 departments

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The vast majority of natural sciences departments are struggling to employ more female researchers. And several departments are also struggling to attract more female students onto their degree programmes. To achieve a better gender balance, the department heads are trying to make employment more secure and posting job advertisements within disciplines with qualified women.

2021.01.15 | Miriam Brems og Marie Groth Andersen

THEME: Gender (im)balance at AU: Omnibus will focus on gender balance at AU’s departments and schools over the coming weeks. Over the next four weeks Omnibus will look at statistics from all the departments and schools spread over four articles: one for each faculty. This week we will focus on Natural Sciences and Technical Sciences collectively, because the numbers are from before the faculty was divided into two separate faculties. Graphic: Astrid Reitzel. Illustration: Louise Thrane Jensen.

When you look at the gender distribution at the majority of natural sciences departments, from the students in the lecture theatres to professor level, one question immediately comes to mind: Where are the women?

Because compared with the other faculties at AU, the gender distribution at Natural Sciences/Technical Sciences is particularly biased towards men. 

This bias is particularly visible at the Department of Computer Science: During the last five years, only almost 1 in ten graduates from the department has been a woman. And this imbalance makes its mark on the gender composition of the department’s staff members.

The numbers are taken from the end of 2019. Head of Department Kaj Grønbæk explains that since then the department has employed a male associate professor and a male professor as well as two male and one female assistant professors. In addition, the department now has two more female postdocs, while the distribution among PhD students is currently 54 men and 10 women.

A little bit on our data:

  • Omnibus received data from Analysis and Policy under the remit of the university management. The data show the gender distribution among academic employees at all of AU’s departments and schools.
  • The numbers are from the end of 2019. They are the same data that are used for the yearly evaluation of AU’s action plan for gender equality.
  • In addition, we supplemented the data with the numbers of Master’s graduates during the period 2016-2020, taken from AU Student Administration and Services.
  • We have chosen 3-5 departments and schools from each faculty, which are either representative of the faculty or stand out in one way or the other. For each of these departments and schools, we have asked the head of department/school to answer 3-5 questions via email.

Head of Department Kaj Grønbæk adds that the department hopes to have a greater number of women among the permanent research staff members.

READ ALSO: Arts: One School is top of the class concerning gender balance – the other two are on the right track

“And we’re succeeding in recruiting talented women, slowly but surely. But we receive so few applications from female researchers, even though we use active search committees to seek out potential female job candidates,” he said and suggested reasons for this:

“The competition for good researchers within Computer Science is incredibly tough across the board, and this is probably especially so for the few female researchers within the discipline.”

Few women in the supply chain

The department isn’t only focusing on employing more female researchers, but is also interested in ensuring the supply chain.

“We would really like to have more female students at the department, and we’ve come up with lots of great initiatives to encourage more women to apply for our programmes,” said Kaj Grønbæk.

He highlights the IT-camp for women, which the department has been running during the autumn holidays for more than 15 years.

“We are delighted to see a gradual increase in computer science admissions both in Copenhagen and in Jutland. In 2020 at AU, we had a record number of female applicants,” the head of department said.

Of this year’s cohort, 16% of those studying computer science are female, while 18% of those on the IT product development course are female.

Department of Engineering: It’s difficult for a department to change all by itself

The Department of Engineering has 45 associate professors, of which only 6 are women. Of the 17 professors and professors with special responsibilities (MSO), none are women. Acting Head of Department Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen is not happy with this statistic. But he also believes that it’s difficult for the department to do something about it all by itself.

 

“For example, when we’re filling an associate professor or professor position, the assessment system we use today measures researchers on a few tough performance parameters. It looks at who has published the most and who has brought in the most funding. And this favours certain profiles,” said Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen.

READ ALSO: Faculty of Health is a magnet for women, but there are few at the top of the career ladder

He believes that it isn’t just about the balance between men and women – it also impacts diversity in general:

“We’re also losing many talented men based on this assessment,” he said.

It permeates the entire industry

Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen is calling for other criteria to be assessed when filling positions at associate professor and professor levels.

“If there was a model that would also take into account the researcher’s performance in other areas, such as being able to contribute effectively to a research group, and to make the organisation run more smoothly, the gender composition of researchers might then look a little different,” he said.

Can’t you just do this at your department?

“Yes, and that’s what we’re doing. But we have to consider that the performance parameters play a decisive part in determining where the department will sit in the international ranking tables. And that means something when we apply for funding. It’s like this throughout the entire industry, and that’s why it’s difficult to change as a department all by itself.”

Research and family must be compatible

Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen’s department is still trying to get more women employed in permanent academic positions through various measures.

“We’re working on the culture at the department with a focus on work–life balance. It should be possible to have a family and work life. We shouldn’t compete based on who can tolerate to work the most and the hardest, and who sits in the laboratory the longest. Likewise, meetings shouldn’t be scheduled for 5.30pm,” he said.

It’s not just about achieving a better gender balance:

“It’s also about the fact that people have different approaches to work and family life, and we don’t want to push talented researchers away because of an unfortunate working culture,” said Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen.

He also highlights that the gender distribution at the department’s higher positions reflects the gender distribution of the PhD students 15–20 years ago.

“I’m very confident that if you ask again in 15 years’ time, women will make up a larger number of associate professors and professors at the department, because the young female researchers will have moved up the rungs of the career ladder,” said Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen.

Department of Chemistry: Only four women have been employed in permanent research positions during the past 20 years – but things are improving

And time itself has also worked in favour of the gender balance at the department of chemistry, yet the numbers at this department still don’t look too good. But if you look at the numbers in a historical context, the development over the last 20 years has gone in the right direction. This is the belief of Birgit Schiøtt, who in 1990 was the department’s first female ‘licentiat’, which is nowadays the equivalent of a PhD graduate.

Up until 1980, women made up slightly less than 10% of the department’s graduates in chemistry, and no women were pursuing a PhD. Only two women were employed in permanent research positions – compared with 30–40 men.

 

But at the turn of the millennium, this changed and since 2001, women make up over half of the Master’s graduates and one in three PhD students.

“Those high numbers are up within the ‘traditional’ science subjects. We’ve had a high increase in women taking our courses and doing PhDs,” said Birgit Schiøtt, who sees this development as a success story.

She believes that the change is related to the general tendency that more women choose to study science at university. And she adds:

“It’s a slow process, so it takes time before changes can be seen at the higher levels,” she said, referencing the low number of women in permanent research positions.

Man or woman – it’s the talent that counts

You could argue that there should be more than 1 in 3 women pursuing a PhD degree, when they occupy half of the seats in the lecture halls. Do you believe that you should actively work towards attaining a 50/50 distribution among PhD students, which would match the number of graduates qualifying from the department?

“I don’t want to insist on a particular distribution – the most important thing is that the young talented students choose to pursue a PhD if they have the motivation. Their gender, nationality or the like are not really important in this instance. Experience shows that motivation, naturally in addition to academic talent, is essential to successfully complete a PhD and we shouldn’t pressure anyone who doesn’t have this motivation. This applies to both men and women. However, we work continuously to motivate the talented graduates and provide them with good career guidance.

Husbands of female researchers don’t want to travel

According to Birgit Schiøtt, the biggest problem – regarding the statistics – is the relatively few female postdocs compared with the number of female PhD students. 

“We can’t change these numbers, since we can’t employ our own PhD students straight after they get their PhD degree. It’s the policy of the university that the PhD graduates should have international experience before they can be employed as assistant professors. Therefore, we’re reliant on the international field of applicants when we want to fill postdoc positions,” she said.

And according to Birgit Schiøtt, the department notices that it can be difficult for a partner to travel with a female research to another country for her to pursue her career:

“We’ve noticed that we typically receive 5–10 times more applications from men than from women for our postdoc positions.”

Only 4 female academics employed in the last 20 years

As the statistics show, the department has two female associate professors and one female professor – in addition to Birgit Schiøtt who is also a professor. These four women are the only ones to be employed in permanent research positions in the last 20 years.

Do you consider this a problem?

“Yes and no. I see it as the circumstances that we now have to work under. There’s nothing we can do about it in the short term, because on average we employ maybe one permanent staff member each year. Each time a new appointment is made, someone at the department must retire or resign first. Therefore, it’ll take a long time before we can achieve a more equal gender distribution.” 

Do you want to do anything that will increase the number of female employees?

“Definitely – it would be a very natural thing since we have so many female PhD graduates. Men and women should have the same opportunities, which we constantly strive for.”

Birgit Schiøtt explains that the department soon plans to start a more focused guidance programme for PhD students. In addition, they have increased the number of tenure-track positions (which is a position at assistant professor level with the opportunity to progress to a permanent associate professor position). She expects that this will help, because it reassures the young researchers that there are real prospects of securing a permanent position in the future.

Department of Geoscience: The aim is three female associate professors and three female professors by 2025

Also at the Department of Geoscience, permanent female researchers are few and far between. At the end of 2019, the department had only one female professor and no female associate professors. During 2020, one female associate professor has been hired.

 

Note: The numbers are taken from the end of 2019. Today, the department has 11 associate professors, of which one is female, and 7 professors, according to Head of Department Jan Piotrowski.

Head of Department Jan Piotrowski believes that the trend is moving slowly and is limited for two general reasons.

“The first reason is that we are hiring fewer people due to the current economic situation. The second reason is that there are very few or even no qualified women, who apply for advertised positions – especially at associate professor and professor level,” he said.

The biggest success has been job ads for tenure-track assistant professor positions: the department now has two men and two women employed in this type of position, said the head of department.

Long way to go

However, the department is still a long way from its goal to have three female associate professors and three female professors by 2025.

READ ALSO: Aarhus BSS: The common trait of five departments is imbalance – while the Department of Law has found a gender balance without putting in place active measures to achieve it

“But we can still reach our intended goal for the number of associate professors, if the female assistant professors are successful in their tenure-tracks – one of them became associate professor in 2020. And at the same time, it’s quite realistic that women will be hired in the new round of tenure-track positions,” said Jan Piotrowski.

Job vacancies will be posted within subject fields with qualified women

Jan Piotrowski says that on several occasions the department’s research committee has discussed this problem and there is general support for three initiatives.

“The first is a greater prioritisation of women researchers – for example, posting associate professor and professor positions within subject fields where we know in advance that there are many qualified potential applicants of both genders,” he said.

The second initiative is that the work of the search committees should be underway before the vacancy is advertised. And the third is that when vacancies are advertised, the criteria for the desired group of applicants may outweigh the department’s academic strategy, for example. 

“Finances – or more lack of finances – has been the biggest stumbling block in starting these initiatives,” said Jan Piotrowski.

Department of Food Science: Imbalance in favour of women

At the Department of Food Science, the gender statistics are not balanced, but the pendulum is swinging in favour of women. A tendency that applies to only two of the faculty’s 13 departments.  At the Department of Food Science, women account for more than 70% of the PhD students and are also in the majority among postdocs, assistant professors, associate professors and professors. However, the department has a low number of employees, meaning that one new hire or retirement/redundancy will adjust the statistics significantly.

Omnibus asked the Head of Department Michelle Williams some questions in relation to the data: whether the large proportion of women is the result of targeted work to hire more women, what does an ‘ideal balance’ look like from the head of department’s viewpoint and whether the department is working towards hiring more men. Omnibus hasn’t yet received a reply from the head of department concerning these questions.

Department of Animal Science Gender balance among associate professors and professors

The Department of Animal Science is the second of the two departments in Natural Sciences/Techncial Sciences, where women are in the majority. Women account for 80% of the PhD students, and they are also in the majority among the department’s assistant professors and postdocs. The distribution is more even among associate professors and professors, where men and women are almost equally represented. The numbers at this department are also sensitive to fluctuations since there are relatively few staff members.

Department of Physics and Astronomy: Internal critique of the skewed gender balance 

At Physics and Astronomy, women are not exactly in the majority. In fact, in all positions apart from assistant professor, achieving the goal of breaking the 20% barrier is proving difficult. At the end of 2019, the department had only one female associate professor and one female professor. In 2020, one woman became an associate professor, which means that 3 of the department’s 39 permanent researchers are women.

READ ALSO: 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 fact, the clear gender imbalance at the department – and the lack of gender equality in general – resulted in one of the department’s assistant professors, Carolina von Essen, writing a critical article in Omnibus last autumn about what it’s like to be a female researcher at the department.  Among other things, she described the few opportunities available to climb the career ladder. 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. 

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

But afterwards the Head of Department Ulrik Ingerslev Uggerhøj declined to introduce quotas because the men at the department would interpret this as discrimination. However, the head of department is open to other measures such as pay compensation in connection with maternity/paternity leave and exemption from teaching after this leave.

Department of Agroecology: 1 female professor and no women in management

There was also internal criticism of gender balance at the Department of Agroecology this month, when associate professor in Agroecology Sabine Ravnskov criticised the fact that in her 20 years at the department, she had never worked under female management. This lack of management experience means that it is more difficult for women to be considered for professor positions.

Head of Department Jørgen E. Olesen explained that male researchers stood at the front of the queue for professorships when the department was merged with AU. But he would also like to see more women in the department’s management positions. He suggests among other things fixed-term leadership positions, which would make it easier to replace people at management level. He also expects that in the coming years the department will appoint more female professors, because there are strong internal and external female candidates within the areas where the department wishes to fill professor positions.

Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO): Nanoresearch at AU still doesn’t have a female professor

At the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre, women are very visible in the classrooms and at PhD level, where they make up around 40%. But at associate professor level, women only account for a third of associate professors, while the department has no female professors. However, iNANO is a small department and the numbers should therefore be read with caution since a single appointment at the top positions can result in a significant change.

Department of Mathematics: Fewer women than men in all job categories

At the Department of Mathematics, the story is very similar – the number of men and women is in no way equal. Women account for just over a third of the Master’s graduates, but only 2 of the department’s 27 associate professors are women. One of the department’s 8 professors is a woman.

Department of Bioscience: The gender balance stops at associate professor level

Biology is one of the science programmes where there’s a majority of women among the graduates. At PhD, postdoc and assistant professor levels, there’s a balance among genders, where women account for between 40 and 50% of staff members.

But when associate professor positions are brought into the mix, they tip the balance in favour of men.  Only one in five associate professors is a woman, and the department has only three female professors in contrast to 25 male professors.

The Department of Bioscience was divided into two departments following the division of the Faculty of Science and Technology. The numbers for academic positions are from before the division of the department, while the number of graduates reflects the number of newly qualified biology students over the past five years.

Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics: Women account for 70% of graduates. But 70% of associate professors are male

More women than men also obtain a Master's degree from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. In fact, women account for more than 70% of the Master’s degree graduates.

At PhD, postdoc and assistant professor levels, there’s a balance between the genders. But at associate professor level, the percentage rates are swapped in relation to the number of graduates qualifying. Men account for more than 70%, women almost 30%. Women are still waiting to enter the doors to the professors’ corridor – the department doesn’t have a single female researcher in the highest job category, which includes 15 professors.

Department of Environmental Science: The classic distribution

At the Department of Environmental Science, the gender distribution is very much about the nationwide balance between men and women at Danish universities.

The department has about the same number of men and women enrolled on the PhD programme. But for each rung on the career ladder, the share of research positions held by women becomes less, and it’s at just over 20% at professor level.

Translated by Marian Flanagan

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