Equal distribution requires fair assessment

2015-06-01 13:07

Support of young researchers, broader recruitment and equal distribution of research funding. These are some of the measures proposed by the Swedish government to achieve gender equality in academia and research funding. Can position explain gender inequality?

‘To become a leading nation in research, Sweden needs gender equality in academia. Anything less is a terrible waste of the competence we know is equally distributed across the population,’ said Helene Hellmark Knutsson, Swedish minister for higher education and research, at a seminar on the allocation of research funding in Stockholm 23 April.

Swedish higher education institutions are not gender equal. The research councils are struggling with gender equality in their processing of research proposals. Although we have high expectations that the best research should be granted funding, the system is full of weaknesses. More men than women pursue a research career, while more women than men teach. More men than women become research leaders and professors, and men also have better access to funding from the research councils.

Louise Grip, project assistant at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg, reported preliminary results of a research review on gender, gender equality and the processing of research proposals. The review shows that many studies analysing the distribution of research funding between women and men indicate that the allocation is not gender equal. Other studies, however, have found gender neutrality in the allocation. In these studies, academic position has often been used to explain gender differences in funding outcome. But the question is, said Grip, whether academic position can be considered a neutral variable explaining the gender inequality in funding.

‘We know that the academic world is far from gender equal. A person’s position in the academic system is largely determined by gender. So we need to ask: Can a system for research funding be considered gender equal if it sustains, rather than counteracts, the highly gendered structures that we know are all too common in academia,’ she said.

Gender mainstreaming is the way forward

The development of the Swedish government’s next research bill is underway. As part of this work, the government has asked an expert group to suggest how academia can be made more gender equal. The government sees a dialogue with the higher education sector as important, said Hellmark Knutsson. In order to deal with the problem, she also pointed to the importance of funding sources and higher education institutions continuously working with gender mainstreaming, and also of continuous provision of knowledge about gender and gender equality to the field.

‘The higher education institutions have already been told to work with gender equality, but we need to get better at informing them that gender mainstreaming is the method they need to use and that we are following up and evaluating their progress,’ said Hellmark Knutsson in an interview after the seminar.

She said that although the distribution of research funding technically is gender equal when the actual outcome is, we still need to eliminate all gender prejudice from the assessment processes.

‘Knowledge about how preconceptions about for example gender affect the assessment of both qualifications and research ideas is also an important part in ensuring gender equality. You need to free yourself from irrelevant gender biases in the assessment of a researcher or a research idea,’ said Hellmark Knutsson.

Higher education institutions have the main responsibility

In the concluding panel debate, the participants agreed that the higher education institutions need to become better at recruiting researchers and supporting new researchers in their careers. They also agreed that researchers need better opportunities to conduct research within the framework of their employment, and therefore not be entirely dependent on funding from the research councils.

‘We need to provide sufficiently good conditions for women. Most students, including at PhD level, are women, but then something happens. It is important that we have clear tenure track positions and clear funding opportunities. And this will require increased base funding to the higher education institutions, this can’t depend on external sources,’ said Pam Fredman, chair of the Association of Swedish Higher Education and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Gothenburg.

Also Sven Stafström, director general of the Swedish Research Council, said that it is mainly the responsibility of the higher education institutions to ensure gender equality in all parts of the system, through gender-equal recruitment processes.

‘The research institutions are in charge of the recruitment of researchers, which means that they have the power to change the imbalance,’ he said.

Better research with diversity

Mats Benner, professor of research policy at Lund University, returned to the issue of quality several times during the panel discussion. Diversity in the backgrounds and expertise of recruited researchers makes for higher quality research, he said, adding that Swedish universities need to get better at, and invest more in, recruitment, mobility and leadership.

‘These factors tend to spark a reassessment of who we are, what we do, who we do it with and in what context. Look at the world’s most outstanding universities and you’ll find that the things researchers are unfamiliar with, and therefore get stimulated by, are extremely important driving forces,’ said Benner.

As a participant in the Swedish national project Gender Mainstreaming in Government Agencies (GMGA), the Swedish Research Council is working actively with gender mainstreaming. Stafström has already seen positive effects of the efforts. He would like to see the Swedish higher education institutions, in their capacity as government agencies, work this way too and was disappointed that none of them are involved in the GMGA project. The Swedish Research Council’s biggest problem when it comes to gender equality, said Stafström, is that men submit a majority of all research proposals.

‘As for our main instrument, the project research grant, only about 30 per cent of the applicants are women, and within the natural sciences the share is only 20 per cent. So this is a tremendous problem, to create a better quantitative balance,’ he said.

Today the Council’s aim is to have the approval rates for women and men mimic the respective application rates. Kerstin Alnebratt, director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, points out that this strategy is problematic, since the allocation of grants should be guided by the principle of meritocracy. With a meritocratic system, gender equality in the processing of applications implies that the allocation of grants can very well be unequally distributed between women and men.

‘There may be perfectly valid reasons to give men more funding. It could also be that women should have more in certain sectors, years or allocation rounds. But we have to ensure that the process is free from irrelevant preconceptions about gender or other factors that keep well-deserving applicants from getting the grants they are qualified for.

To achieve gender equality, it’s not enough to make the approval ratio mimic the application ratio, said Kerstin Alnebratt.
‘To get a truly meritocratic system, we need to deconstruct the system and make sure we eliminate irrelevant factors in the assessment process,’ said Alnebratt.

Author Inga-Bodil Ekselius
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