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Barriers for women in both USA and Sweden

Helén Persson, 3:e. ordförande för SULF
Helén Persson, 3:e. ordförande för SULF

It is useful to change perspective sometimes. What if it were the opposite? John W. Curtis at the American Association of University Professors has written a report entitled Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment. It is not the opposite in the United States, but it is different.

As in Sweden, the majority of university students in the US are women. Curtis asks the question: “When these high-performing women look around on campus for academic role models and mentors, what will they see?” In 2013, 45% of the faculty and 31% of full professors were women. The corresponding figures for Sweden in 2014 is 44% and 25% respectively, according to the Swedish Higher Education Authority.

In the United States, as in Sweden, it appears that women in academia reach some sort of career glass ceiling. Gender and Media Studies expert Wendy Hilton-Morrow, Associate Dean of Augustana College in Illinois, says that it may be due to cultural attitudes and personal commitment; that women to a different extent to men are expected to be team players and perform tasks that are social but not highly valued. At a university this could be anything from teaching to student counselling or campus service.

The men find it much easier to say no to such divisive commitments and to focus on serious scholarship. Curtis notes that women are teaching more than men, particularly in undergraduate education. Women in the United States, as in Sweden, work at home to a greater extent than men. It not opposite to Sweden. Quite the opposite.

Stating that women “choose” these tasks as an explanation for their lack of career development is problematic, says John W. Curtis. The word choose is in quotes because it is just as often about gender stereotypes and social pressure. It is not always and only freedom of choice that leads women to take care of home and children, or to specialise in subjects that do not pay off, or not to spend the necessary time on their academic careers.

Women who make their careers in academia encounter barriers in the form of unspoken beliefs, stereotyping and socially-constructed expectations. It is not the opposite in Sweden. Quite the opposite.

One of the reasons given for women in Sweden being awarded a lower proportion of grant funding is that they often work in the not-so-well-established research areas. Males, on the other hand, form the majority of the group older and more experienced researchers. Somewhere here we are coming full circle.

It is vital that academia works actively for gender equality, otherwise others will do it for us.

The elite programme for young researchers, Wallenberg Academy Fellows, is doing what academia itself is not able to do. The Board made the decision that ideally 50% and at least 40% of candidates selected will be women. Unless at least 40% of the universities’ nominations are women, quotas may be discussed.

It is unworthy of a meritocratic knowledge organization to be threatened with the imposition of quotas for such a fundamental issue as gender equality. A well-functioning meritocracy implies a gender equal academia and a well-functioning meritocracy is the future of academia. This is why SULF works to achieve higher basic grants, transparent career paths and good employment conditions.

Helen Persson, 3rd Deputy President SULF

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