New programme for gender equality in Swedish higher education

2016-03-18 16:10

The Swedish government is investing SEK 25 million in making the country’s higher education sector gender equal. Thirty-three universities and university colleges will receive gender mainstreaming support from the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research. The four-year programme was officially launched in Stockholm on the 16th of April.

‘There are structures in higher education that make women systematically disadvantaged. Male and female researchers don’t face the same conditions, and men are awarded a larger proportion of the available internal and external research funding. This has consequences for one of the issues of particular interest to the government: gender-unequal career paths in academia,’ says Kerstin Alnebratt, director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research.

The Secretariat has already supported the gender mainstreaming work in 60 government agencies within the framework of a similar programme launched in 2013. Some agencies targeted in that programme are connected to the higher education sector, including several research councils, the Swedish Higher Education Authority and the Swedish Council for Higher Education. Now the government wants to transfer the experiences gained by those agencies to the country’s universities and university colleges. It also wants to see stronger interaction between the higher education institutions and the government agencies connected to the sector.

‘Although no situations are identical, there’s always a lot to learn from each other when it comes to gender mainstreaming. For us as a support function, it means that we are able to customise the support. In this way, I hope that the work in the higher education sector can contribute to the overall development of gender mainstreaming,’ says Kerstin Alnebratt.

The gender equality work must be integrated into the core operations

Previous gender equality projects in the higher education sector have often focused on increasing the share of female professors or on dealing with problems in the work environment. Moreover, many projects have lacked a long-term perspective, and the consequences of not meeting the declared objectives have been mild.

The point of gender mainstreaming is to explore what it is in the regular processes that gives rise to gender inequality. To this end, the work with the higher education institutions has to be focused around their core activities – research, education and outreach – and there must also be a clear connection to their control and management systems. This means that the organisation of the gender mainstreaming work at the higher education institutions is critical to the prospects for success.

‘Two things in particular are needed to make this work. One is to focus on actual problems, to define what the problem is and what to do about it. Interventions not grounded in problem analysis risk being left hanging without any practical value. The other thing that’s needed is whole-hearted engagement from the management, engagement beyond words and promises, and that the management is willing to do whatever it takes,’ says Kerstin Alnebratt.

On 16 March, the coordinators from the higher education institutions will convene for a first meeting to share experiences. The meeting is arranged by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research.

In the development of a support structure, the Secretariat has identified a number of strategic areas to guide the higher education institutions in their analyses.

The five areas are:

  • The content, delivery and development of the education provided.
  • The structures around and organisation of the education
  • Academic leadership and management
  • Career paths and assessment
  • Work environment and strategic HR work

The University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology breaking ground

From 2016 to 2019, all Swedish state-funded higher education institutions, plus Chalmers University of Technology and Jönköping University, will raise their ambitions significantly when it comes to their gender equality work. The University of Gothenburg has decided to lead the way.

The University of Gothenburg began organising a pilot project already in 2014, and in 2016, one department in each faculty will intensify its gender equality work by selecting certain focus areas, such as the structures around education, the working conditions for teaching staff or how the basic funding can be used strategically to promote gender equality. Gender and gender equality analyses of a number of control and follow-up processes at management level will also be conducted. Vice-Chancellor Pam Fredman expects the project to make gender mainstreaming a natural part of her university’s daily operations.

‘I really hope we’ll figure out how to work systematically with this and that we can bring attention to where we consciously or unconsciously are hampering the development of gender equality. We want to get the people who work here to see it as an integral part of everything we do, that it is not a project that we can close after a while. This is the beginning of working differently to improve the gender equality in all of our operations.’

Also Chalmers University of Technology is launching a pilot project. It will focus on recruitment processes and a gender equality analysis of the departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Computer Science and Engineering.

‘This issue has been discussed here for several decades but not much has happened, although the internal culture has indeed improved in the last 10 years. I believe gender mainstreaming is a great strategy since it connects directly with our regular processes and continuously creates awareness of these issues – it keeps us on our toes. I hope to eventually ensure that women and men face equal conditions at Chalmers,’ says Stefan Bengtsson, president of Chalmers University of Technology.

Author Inga-Bodil Ekselius
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