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Comment: A genuine meritocracy supports qualified women

Response to Hans Bonde and Jens Ravnkilde: You need to fact-check and address the historical disadvantage experienced by women

The comment by Bonde and Ravnkilde is regrettably thin on fact. What fact there is, is taken to suit the argument at hand rather than being a real academic analysis drawing on all the available data to reach a fair conclusion.

A good example is the comment “the DFF success rate in the category Top Researcher is twice as high for women as for men”, which is based on the Sapere Aude TopForsker program success rates for 2012 only, which has a statistically unreliable sample size (7 successful applicants). But the numbers for 2013 and now for 2014 are available, so why not quote those?

In fact, women have a success rate of 0% and 8% respectively compared to about 18% for men in each of 2013 and 2014. Over the three years Sapere Aude TopForsker has been in existence (2012–2014) the total number of successful candidates starts to reach statistically meaningful numbers in aggregate (though still small and to be treated with caution): the success rate for TopForsker was about 15% for men and 8% for women” . But this more correct analysis doesn’t suit Bonde and Ravnkilde’s point and is consequently ignored.

They also state that we “lament the demise of the YDUN program”. We don’t state this. Neither is it correct to refer to YDUN’s demise, since it was designed as a one-off, single-year program in the first place. We urge Bonde and Ravnkilde to fact-check and to read the existing literature on inequality and on gender in academia. It would save a lot of fruitless discussion.

Dissecting Bonde and Ravnkilde’s response, and leaving aside the legalistic point, his remarks are as follows. First, that we live in a meritocracy and that funding is allocated on the basis of individual merit and not on other qualities such as gender. The idea that we live in a pure meritocracy with no history and no baggage is laughable. No social scientist with a knowledge of the literature would claim such a thing.

Second, they argue that had the YDUN money been open to men, the competition would have been greater. We can test this hypothesis empirically by looking at a pool of money that is open to both genders. The DFF money is open to both genders and the success rate by number has been on average about 25%, compared to 3% for YDUN. Clearly, many more women applied for YDUN than is normal under DFF, making the competition far harder than for a typical DFF grant. If Bonde and Ravnkilde want to argue that the quality of YDUN applications was vastly inferior to typical DFF applications from men, I would like to see their statistical evidence for that assertion. That would be an important contribution to this debate. Neither of their points, therefore, have any factual merit.

However, Hans Bonde has a bigger axe to grind and perhaps it’s worth looking at the starting point.

Bonde has argued in other places that the current absence of women in the most senior academic positions is down to women’s inability or lack of interest. But to draw the conclusion that men and women are fundamentally different intellectually is highly suspect and socially very dangerous when there has been unarguable historical inequality between men and women.

Such an attitude is intellectual kin to ‘separate but equal’; it may sound good, but it’s not true in reality. Did gender inequality really come to an end at some point in the seventies or eighties and we now live in a meritocracy where there is a level playing field? The safer and intellectually more conservative point of view is to start with the assumption that men and women are intellectually equal until unequivocally proven otherwise. This point of view then allows one to focus on getting genuine equality of opportunity, which is the cornerstone of the foundation of a just society.

In the end, the argument about women in academia is starting to come down to the absence of women in the most senior positions. This is a mirror of society as a whole, where men dominate most senior posts. We now have the chance in academia to be one of the first sectors in society to really strive for genuine meritocracy and to take advantage of the diversity of thought and background that is so important to the unfettered search after truth.

What we want to see is greater openness and greater opportunity at the university. The new policy proposed by the University of Copenhagen rector’s taskforce on diversity, that every permanent position announced at the university should interview at least one qualified man and one qualified woman, is a step in the right direction to opening up such opportunities.

We hope that proposal has not been watered down, from the original vision of seeking out qualified individuals, to simply one man, one woman tokenism as recent reports suggest.

[Editor’s note: This comment is the third in a three-part debate series, where University of Copenhagen professors discuss the YDUN programme and funding targeted at women. Read Darach Watson and Jens Hjorth’s original comment and and Hans Bonde and Jens Ravnkilde’s response here..]

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