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Comment: Where have all the women gone?

There are many women PhDs, but the numbers dwindle at the top of the Danish academic hierarchy, with an embarrassingly thin presence of women professors, writes Anamaria Dutceac Segesten

For decades Denmark has been a promoter of a strong gender equality agenda, encompassing all walks of life. But how successful have these efforts been in the case of higher education?

Not very, if we look at the statistics on how many women are active in Danish higher education and which positions they occupy.

In 2010, the percentage of women university teachers in Denmark was the following: 37 per cent among assistant professors, 28 per cent among associate professors and 15.5 per cent among full professors.

The University of Copenhagen is not much better: Approximately 43.5 per cent of the assistant professors, 31.8 per cent associate professors and 17.7 per cent of the full professors were women, according to the Ministry of Education.

The trend, and in particular the last set of numbers, is very similar to the general picture in the EU-27, where 18 per cent of full professors were women in 2009.

Corrective action badly needed

One conclusion is self-evident: there are many women PhDs, but as we proceed to the top of the academic hierarchy, the numbers dwindle, with an embarrassingly thin presence of women professors. Even if trends point towards the increased recruitment and promotion of women in the academia, this is not enough.

Letting demography work for gender equality will not stop the discrimination of women in the workplace during our lifetime. We need more proactive policies, which foster the co-optation of young talented women from the time of their Ph.D. studentship, including the creation of flexible work plans that balance work and family.

The structures of the academic world have been set up and developed during centuries of paternalistic thinking. It is against these structures, and the subtle practices of discrimination that they carry, that corrective action is needed.

Females less productive?

It has been argued that women lack the competence required to advance to the professor level, as they win fewer research grants and publish less than their male counterparts. What can the reasons be for this lower productivity?

One reason is the over-representation of women in student adviser positions, university administration and (mid-level) university governance. This reduces the time available for writing research proposals or journal articles. A solution may be that universities ensure that service is more equally divided between men and women, which may result in a higher publication output from the part of women academics.

Another factor that is significant in explaining the lower article publication rates is work environment: The amount of time on maternity leave, the existence of same-sex mentors and the outsider status of women in professional networks, all have a negative affect on publication rates, according to several studies.

A solution addressing this structural imbalance would be that universities make sure women and men enjoy the same leave time. Universities could also foster the development of inclusive peer networks and that of women mentor groups for female PhDs.

What other solutions can be found to correct the gender imbalance in academia? Make your own suggestion below!

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