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Anja C. Andersen: »We are in a society where it is just a little bit easier to be a man«

Feminism — »So just fix it,« Anja C. Andersen often thinks. She sees progress in the university's efforts to achieve gender equality, but she is »mega frustrated« over the pace of change.

International Women’s Day is a double-edged sword. It’s great to be able to use 8 March as a kind of thermometer that assesses how far we are from our goal of gender equality, and what we need to do to achieve it.

But I also find the day a bit depressing. Newspapers and cultural institutions can suddenly find plenty of female journalists, artists, business leaders or whatever on 8 March. Then they can tick it off the list: ‘Now we’ve promoted women, and now we can go back to doing what we usually do.’ But now you’ve just shown me that you could do something different, so why not just keep it up!

I see myself as a feminist. In fact, I’m always surprised when people say that they’re not feminists, because I see it as quite extreme to be against equal rights for men and women.

The debate has become a lot better in the 20+ years since I’ve been involved in it. It used to be very personal. I discussed it with men who felt personally affected by it and who said: ‘I don’t beat my wife, and I pick up my children twice a week,’ where you thought: Congratulations! That’s not what we’re discussing. It’s not just about you and me. It’s about the structures of society! Today, I find that people are good at keeping the debate at a less personal and more academic level, where we look at the numbers and have a common understanding that this is a complex problem.

At the university, there are some things that are going fantastically. And then there are things that are going really, really slow. It’s good that we’ve started to take the problem seriously, but I’m also really frustrated and annoyed that things are going so slowly. I sometimes think: Well, why don’t you just fix this! It is not very difficult. If you want more women at the university, you have to hire more women. This is not a complicated equation.

We are in a society, and a culture, where it is just a little bit easier to be a man. Danish universities are not full of people thinking ‘let us barricade the doors, so women don’t get in’. There is no active resistance to hiring women. But there is an unconscious bias that we are all subject to.

The competition in getting from a PhD level to permanent employment at university is better suited to men than women. Men may be better at selling themselves than women – or maybe they are slightly less self-reflective. Men are perceived as a bit more courageous, maybe a bit more edgy. There are no limits to men’s positively assessed qualities. While women are a bit more cautious and often face scepticism: Does she have what it takes?

I was surprised to see how many people were sceptical when I, as an upper secondary school student, said that I wanted to study physics and astronomy at the university: Is this not difficult? Are you smart enough for this? Is this something for girls?

When I started my study programme, there was an instructor that scolded me and a fellow student during lab exercises: »Girls like you are just not suited for physics,« he said. We just stood there, looked around, and thought: Is he talking to us? I hope things have changed for women who study physics today. Now I’m one of the instructors myself. And you probably do think that everything has all become fair and square when you yourself are on the other side of the table.

But I do think it’s important to ensure that there are inclusive study environments for everyone, regardless of gender. Because if you as a student are exposed to more criticism than praise, and are told that you ought to be doing something else, then you have to be unusually tough to think that ‘I just have to continue in this line of business.’

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