‘Sick’ work environment at AU scares off female researchers

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Power games, gossip, nepotism and theft of research results. Interviews with 25 former and current female researchers at AU suggest that a ‘hazardous’ and ‘sick’ work environment is the primary reason many women decide not to pursue a research career at AU.

2019.04.10 | Miriam Brems

‘Harsh’, ‘sick’, ‘unhealthy’ and ‘brutal’ are some of the terms the women use when they describe the work environment at AU. Some described how senior colleagues had stolen some of their work or results. Photos: Colorbox og AU Photo.

THEME: Gender equality at AU

Sara Kier Praëm, postdoc at the Centre for Science Studies, interviewed 25 women in connection with a research project aimed at understanding why women at AU decide not to pursue a career in research.

And the reason is clear:

“The great majority of the 25 women pointed to the work environment as the decisive factor in relation to losing their desire to be at AU,” Praëm says.

Most of the women are or have been employed in academic positions at AU within the past five years. Most of them have switched jobs or are in the process of doing so. And many describe this move as motivated by a deliberate rejection of AU.

Although many name the pressure to publish, the heavy teaching load and temporary contracts as a source of stress, the academic work environment is not the only problem. To a high degree, the problem is also social.

Lack of basic respect

“The women describe their work environment as very lonely. Some even used terms like ‘hazardous to your health’, ‘harsh’, ‘sick’, ‘unhealthy’ and ‘brutal’,” Praëm says, quoting from her interviews with the 25 women.

“A lot of them described their daily lives as filled with stress, power games, backbiting and gossip, and lacking basic respect for each other as people,” she adds.

The research-based interviews were performed individually, and although she only spoke with 25 people, Praëm thinks that there is reason to believe that these kinds of experiences are widespread among women researchers at AU. In other words, the problem is general.

“There is a surprisingly large degree of similarity in the 25 responses, even across all four faculties.”

READ ALSO: Five new research projects aim to create more gender equality at AU

Hung out to dry

According to Praëm, the interviews indicate that the brutal work environment the women encounter may be one of the primary causes of the phenomenon known as ‘the leaky pipeline’ – we find fewer and fewer women the higher we climb the career ladder.

And for some of the women in the survey, the brutality of the work environment has damaged their academic careers in very direct ways.

“Some described how senior colleagues had stolen some of their work or results, which has had major consequences for them,” Praëm says.

At the same time, the 25 women have a general sense that they’ve been left hung out to dry by management.

“A lot of them said that they didn’t feel that they could speak to their manager about these problems. A few even said that their managers had used the problems they had told them about against them,” she says.

The old boy’s club

According to the project’s findings, management also fails these women when it comes to recruitment of new academic staff. Because even though a minority report direct sexual harassment and gender bias, according to Praëm, the women describe situations that actually do qualify as sexual harassment or discrimination in connection with appointments.

“In general, the women’s perception was that new hires were agreed in advance. It was often decided in advance who would be hired, and then a job advertisement was written that was so specific that only that person could get the job.”

One of the women she interviewed told Praëm of a case in which a long tradition of exclusively hiring male assistant professors was finally broken – but not until a female union representative put her foot down.

Several of the 25 women also said that they perceived that there were different requirements for men and women.

“When the women confronted their managers with the fact that only men succeeded in converting their postdoc positions to assistant professorships, they were presented with a number of requirements that had to be met to get an assistant professorship. But they could see that the men who had gotten the assistant professorships didn’t meet those requirements,” Praëm says.

The research project

  • Sara Kier Praëm’s research project was aimed at identifying the factors that contribute to women’s decision whether or not to purse an academic career at AU.
  • The project is based on 25 qualitative interviews with 25 women, the majority of whom are or have been employed in academic positions at AU within the past five years.
  • All four faculties are represented.
  • The 25 women are at various stages of their careers, but with an overrepresentation of temporary positions (PhD, postdoc, assistant professor, part-time lecturer and research assistant).

You have to be ‘masculine’

Despite all this, none of the 25 women cited gender or gender bias as their reason for leaving AU. But Praëm thinks that their experiences tell another story.

“When they explained why some people stayed in research, according to the women, it was a question of personality type. The women who succeeded did so because they were ‘masculine’, and the men who didn’t were ‘sensitive’.

By the same token, all of the interviewees felt that they were academically qualified for a research position, but that they didn’t have the right kind of personality, Praëm explains.

Children aren’t the stumbling block. Your husband is.

The research project also punctures the most common explanation for why women choose not to pursue a career in research: children.

In any case, children aren’t the deciding factor on the home front.

“What’s decisive is not so much whether you have children, but rather who your partner is. What’s important is whether you have a partner who helps out at home with the housework and the children,” Praëm says.

On the other hand, children are a challenge for single mothers in relation to doing research abroad, which is a requirement for PhD students.

“It’s hard to bring your children with you, because grant money can’t be spent on the child’s expenses, and so it gets very expensive.”

‘More women in research’ is empty rhetoric

In 2016, AU adopted a plan for steps the university should take to attract and retain more women in academic positions. But according to the 25 women, the plan hasn’t changed anything.

“When asked about AU’s initiatives for women, none of them could really spot any of them. One of the women described it as ‘empty rhetoric’ – more something you said than something you did,” Praëm says.

She hopes that can be changed. Her survey is one of five research projects that received a total of 650,000 kroner to come up with ways of getting more women in research at AU. The results will be used to develop a new strategy.

On the basis of her findings, Praëm has a number of proposals.

First and foremost, she says, what’s needed is a massive effort to improve the work environment. She also thinks that the university should also drop the research abroad requirement for PhD students or allow students to spend grant money on child-related expenses.

“In addition, recruitment practices need radical revision – maybe even temporary gender quotas should be introduced,” she says.

The rector himself brought up this idea recently – as a last resort if the gender balance at AU isn’t rectified within the foreseeable future.

Translation: Lenore Messick

THEME: Gender equality at AU

  • In spring 2018, AU granted a total of 650,000 kroner to five research projects to study 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.
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