Formal qualifications not always enough for a career in academia

2014-11-10 08:13

Thirty-seven gender equality projects in academia received SEK 47 million from the Delegation for Gender Equality in Higher Education. The final report of the programme, discussed at a conference held 5 November 2014, shows among other things that the common self-image in higher education as being strictly meritocratic is incorrect and presents an obstacle to gender equality.

Jämställdhet i högskolan – ska den nu ordnas en gång för alla? (Equality in higher education – once and for all?) is the title of the report where the Swedish Council for Higher Education assesses the experiences from the projects funded by the Delegation for Gender Equality in Higher Education. Thirty-seven gender equality projects in the Swedish higher education sector, from Lund in the south to Luleå in the north, successfully applied for a total of SEK 47 million in funding in 2009 and 2010.

The report is summarised in 19 points. One reads: ‘It is important to question academia’s self-image as a strictly meritocratic organisation.’

‘This may actually be the most important point: that the higher education sector must understand that it is not entirely meritocratic. We need to burst the bubble,’ said the author of the report Aleksandra Sjöstrand from the Swedish Council for Higher Education when the experiences from the projects were discussed at a conference in Stockholm on 5 November.

Focus on quantitative gender equality

The results of the projects are disappointing in many ways, Sjöstrand concludes. Overall, they clearly show that higher education is a sector characterised by unequal conditions for women and men. A majority of the reviewed projects focused on differences in career development between women and men.

Aspects that have received particular attention include norms and values, hidden gender-based discrimination and privileges, and informal decision-making structures. Many projects also looked at the quantitative gender distribution in the context of the academic career ladder.

One risk with finite projects of the type studied is that the results are never fully utilised afterwards, said Sjöstrand. It is therefore important that a plan for how the results will be administered and put to practical use is established from the beginning.

Dual power structures in academia problematic

The importance of gender mainstreaming in academia, meaning that the gender equality work must be integrated in the regular operations and not carried out as separate activities, was emphasised repeatedly at the conference.

Kerstin Alnebratt, director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, concluded that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the decision to gender mainstream Swedish public authorities. Yet, precisely due to the fact that the gender mainstreaming has usually taken the form of temporary projects, the progress has been limited. When a project runs out of funding the issues discussed often go into hibernation, and when they eventually are revived the key persons have moved on, which means the knowledge is gone and everything has to be started from scratch again. Thus, Alnebratt is hoping to see more long-term, systematic initiatives in the future.

The tension between the hierarchical power contained at the management level and the inherent independence of teaching staff and researchers is well-known. This type of dual power structure can make work of change more difficult, not least when the change concerns norms and the organisational culture.

Yet the difficulties must not be exaggerated, or else they may be used as an excuse for inactivity, said Fredrik Bondestam, also from the Secretariat.

‘A lot in higher education can be gender mainstreamed without any risk of conflict,’ he said.

The higher education institutions can do more

Sjöstrand said that one weakness found in the projects is that they often lacked intersectional perspectives – they rarely linked gender with ethnicity and other power structures. She also saw it as a problem that so many projects targeted the same problems, with a majority of them focusing on the universities as a place of work for their employees.

Only a few projects focused on student-related factors, such as gender differences in the students’ choice of education, interest in higher education, rate of study and drop out pattern.

Malin Wreder, former Delegation secretary, confirmed that applications for these types of projects have been rare. A recurring argument in the discussion on gendered educational choices is that ‘we can’t fix what went wrong at much earlier ages’, but Wreder disagreed with this attitude.

‘That’s what employers say about the universities, the universities say about the upper secondary schools and so on, and finally you end up in a discussion about the maternity wards not being gender equal. The truth is that there’s so much the higher education institutions could do better. It’s about which images they convey and which types of behaviour they tolerate.’

Rebecka Stenkvist from the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) said that the key to making higher education more gender equal is found at programme level.

‘Start with the students! They are the ones who will eventually take over. Make sure that all students are given the opportunity, and are required, to critically reflect over gender equality,’ she said in the final discussion of the Conference.

Author Anders Nilsson. Translation: Debbie Axlid
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