University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Gender inequality starts with young researchers. And it is all about children

Gender and career — For many years, gender equality at universities has been about getting more women up to where they are fewest, namely at the professor level. And with good reason. But the problem starts somewhere else, because it is especially younger women with children that leave academia.

Michala Hvidt Breengaard cannot answer specifically how many jobs she has had at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), but it is more than ten, she reckons. Today, she is hired on a postdoc contract at the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen, a place where she, in her own words, has been »forever«.

Michala Hvidt Breengaard has gone from one temporary appointment to an other ever since she graduated in sociology in 2008. And she is not the only one.

Even though not everyone who completes a PhD does it to get permanent employment at the university, more and more junior researchers are still working for several years in temporary jobs that lead nowhere.


Especially women who have children during the course of their research career end up finding this career path a difficult one. They are usually the ones who give up on getting a career at the university, and they are rarely those who make it to associate professor.

Even women who do have permanent contracts at universities end up leaving because it is difficult to combine maternity leave, family life and a career in research. This is according to a report that examines the career paths of academic staff based on universities’ hiring in the period 1999-2017.

One in four professors is a woman

The number of men and women who take a PhD degree programme is almost even. Women in 2018 women accounted for 56 per cent of the total number of master’s graduates from universities in Denmark and 50 per cent of PhD students. But from then on, it changes dramatically.

One third of academic staff at universities were women in 2018. Between 2008 and 2018, the proportion rose from 27 to 34 per cent. Even though the number has increased mostly in the professor category, only 23 per cent of all professors are women.

Equality initiatives at the University of Copenhagen

UCPH has been working on gender equality for more than a decade. Yet in spite of two action plans — in 2008 and 2015 — it was clear by 2017 when the initiatives were evaluated, that UCPH simply »maintains the status quo«. There have been no »major developments« in the distribution between the genders in academic positions.

Only 23 per cent of professors are women at Danish universities.

Interestingly, only 28 per cent of newly appointed female professors at UCPH in 2017 were employed as ordinary professors, while the other women were employed in the less prestigious term-limited category of MSO professors. For this reason this type of employment has been recommended phased out by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy DFiR.

The University of Copenhagen has hired a so-called diversity consultant and set up compulsory courses in subconscious bias for the university’s 80 senior managers.

It seems like the efforts made in recent years to promote gender equality in research have not been very effective.

The proportion of female assistant professors has almost dropped, and the proportion of women at associate professor level in the period 2015-18 only increased from 33 to 34 per cent, according to data from the Agency for Science and Higher Education.

But why are things not progressing any faster, and why are female researchers with children leaving their academic careers?

I am hoping that Michala Hvidt Breengaard can give me some idea of what all this is about. Four years ago, she herself had a child who she hands in to, and picks up from, daycare most days. Today she has someone helping her out. It’s afternoon, already dark, and we’re sitting at a soon to be pandemic-locked-down café in the Copenhagen district of Nørrebro.

»People get it to work out. But as a single parent, I don’t have any opportunity to work all the time. And I don’t want to,« she says.

»A postdoc was hired while I was a PhD, and I remember he asked whether we thought it would be possible to handle the 37 hours-a-week job because he had small children who he also would like to spend some time with. And the answer was no. He just shouldn’t expect to be able to do that,« says Michala Hvidt Breengaard.

This all took place in an informal conversation between a group of young researchers around a lunch table. But, according to Breengaard, it shows that there is this idea of what it takes to be a researcher. And part of the explanation behind any inequalities can be found here. We will get back to this in a minute.

Getting a permanent contract takes six years

Somewhere else in Copenhagen, Dan Hirslund is working. He has fought for better contracts for the temporarily-hired researchers at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen for years, and so I imagine that he is the right person to learn more about how you juggle an unpredictable career path with a family.

It takes an average of six years to get a permanent position as a newly graduated researcher at a Danish university. But it takes longer for women than for men.

73 per cent of women with children who stayed at the universities had not got an associate professorship six years after their PhD. This was only the case for 60 per cent of men with children. By comparison, the figure was 59 per cent for women without children and 57 per cent for men without children. The numbers are from the DFiR report.

Dan Hirslund knows this report. He is an associate professor on a temporary, fixed-term position. He also used to be a staff representative for this group of researchers. He knows something about the conditions for temporary staff at UCPH.

You need to look at the numbers in the context of those who seek a new path away from academia. As a temporary employee, you jump from one temporary position to the next, without any certainty that this will lead anywhere in the end. And this means that many people deselect a career in academia.


We need the best and brightest talents. Whether they choose to have zero, or four, children is irrelevant.
Katrine Krogh Andersen, Dean, Faculty of Science

»It’s hard to have a family and make a career out of university, because there are extremely tough requirements for you to be flexible and to work overtime,« says Dan Hirslund.

At the same time, the increased focus on internationalisation and on doing research abroad makes it more difficult to support a family and have an academic career.

»If you knew that you have to fight hard for two or three years, and then there is a position at the end of it, then you could organise your life for this goal,« he says. But this certainty is not there. And Hirslund understands why, for many people, it is just not worth it.

At the same time, it is still women who are taking the most maternity leave, reducing their contracted working hours, and taking on the primary care work with the young children. But according to Hirslund, there is nothing natural about this. It could just as well be men doing it.

It is just not happening. In fact, it is a well-known fact in the research that men’s careers are not to the same extent affected by an increase in family size.

Having children has a price, but mostly for women

Having children comes at a price. Women’s salaries are about 20 per cent lower ten years after the first child than it otherwise would have been. In the years following a child, women lose around 30 per cent of their salary due to maternity leave. Each child costs approximately ten percentage points in salary, while men’s salaries are pretty much unaffected. This is according to a 2018 study from the University of Copenhagen.

In DFiR’s study from 2019, you cannot see men’s likelihood of getting promotion or their salary trend negatively affected from having children.

I don’t want to accept these conditions. They are not good for people.

External Associate Professor Dan Hirslund


Dan Hirslund has three children himself from before he started his PhD. For Many people, the PhD is the last safe appointment for a long time. And because you have the right to take maternity/paternity leave as a PhD student, many people choose to have children during that period.

»But then you are in a situation where you are a young parent in a race that is extremely intense. You think that the PhD project is tough, and that it will be a little easier afterwards. But the fact is that it only gets tougher after your PhD is defended,« he says.

The requirements become more and more diffuse when you are no longer guaranteed a three-year term of employment with reasonable terms and conditions.

»I think many people are not ready for it. And with good reason,« says Dan Hirslund. Since he finished his PhD In 2012, he has been in nine temporary positions.

He says there is not much understanding of what the postdoc process is, and that the process is not standardised.

»I think there are many who are not equipped for the uncertainty that is inherent in the postdoc environment. You have to conduct research on something that is groundbreaking and creative, and postdocs are often considered to be ‘young gold’. And then you have to apply for new jobs all the time. While you are on one project, you have to think about the next one, because the projects are typically short, but it takes a long time to get the go ahead for them. Typically one year from the time when you make an application until you get a response,« says Dan Hirslund.

Taken this as a given, what can you do to prevent gender inequality?

» But I don’t want to accept these conditions. They are not good for people. They are not designed to create good working conditions. I think there is something wrong with these conditions, because it should not be the case that you have to work in ways that break you down.«

Women at the top

Right now there are initiatives to bring more women into top positions in the world of research. The Inge Lehmann programme is a large grant, in the millions of Danish kroner, where promising female researchers can apply if they have already received a career-enabling million-kroner grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

»This is all good. But it has very little to do with what is happening further down the hierarchy,« says Dan Hirslund.

And there has been a lot of focus on the higher echelons at universities, and this has been the object of criticism.

Professor of history Hans Bonde and Doctor of Medicine Torsten Skov have criticised the gender equality drives at the University of Copenhagen, and in a discussion paper they point out that the data shows that women drop off early on in their career paths. At the same time, they criticise the Lehmann programme because it simply grants funding to researchers just because they are women – instead of targeting the funding on improvements further down the career ladder, where it is actually needed:

»The whole problem with, for example, the Lehmann programme is that its purpose is to favour permanently hired women at the university who are already doing fine. Those, on the other hand, whose opportunities need to be improved, for example at the PhD level, are still left in the lurch,« according to Hans Bonde and Torsten Skov.

Work-life balance – something women have to figure out

We can’t point to one particular thing that is the cause of the drop-out of women. Or the exclusion of women, depending on which way you see it.

Women have been given access to the labour market and can pursue a career in research. And many researchers have a passion for what they are researching that lets them sacrifice other aspects of their life so they can dedicate themselves to it. Not everyone is prepared to make these sacrifices – or can makes these sacrifices – due to the family situation which they happen to be in. This is according to Ea Høg Utoft, who is a postdoc at Aarhus University and who has written a PhD on gender equality in research.

»If you are a single mum or have a husband who earns more than you do, which is often the case, then some people would rather sacrifice their career than their personal life. There can be many reasons why you make this choice,« says Ea Høg Utoft.

There are prejudices and assumptions out there about what women are willing to give up.

Postdoc Ea Høg Utoft, Aarhus University


Maternity/paternity leave and having children are important reasons »of course«. But Ea Høg Utoft is reluctant to solely focus on the women themselves. We need to look at the institutions themselves, she says:

»Some actively and completely voluntary reject having a research career. But we also see – and the research shows this – that there are prejudices and assumptions out there about what women are willing to give up,« she says.

It is often only women who are asked how things are going with their work-life balance, according to Ea Høg Utoft. But we have to enlarge our perspective:

»If we go along with this idea that we are this first-rate country of gender equality, then it should be possible to have a career and combine it with having a family if that is what you want. So one thing is how women make their own choices. But we see prejudices and stereotypes about what women want to do, and what they can and should do,« says Ea Høg Utoft.

Men work on average seven hours more a week than women. Women on the other hand, spend an average of one hour a day more on housework than men. And women take most of their maternity leave.

»I have seen examples from other universities where, without having a specific policy for earmarking maternity/paternity leave, they distributed a daddy brochure to male employees with information about what they were entitled to, and how they could make use of it,« says Ea Høg Utoft. This had a big effect, because, as it turned out, there were a lot of people who did not know what they could do.

Structural inequality is the blind spot

The essence of it is that it is really difficult to work with gender equality at Danish universities. According to her, it’s really hard to get away with taking any initiatives without »the usual gatekeepers« quickly manning the barricades. Why is it like this?

»In Denmark we have for a long time been living under the illusion of us having equality. If we assume that this is the case, then there is clearly not actually a problem. And when people then talk about how we need gender equality initiatives, the only way we can understand it is that women will then get an unfair advantage,« says Ea Høg Utoft.

In our optics then, women are so assimilated and emancipated that we can only see their rejection of academia as active and voluntary. And this according to Ea Høg Utoft, has made us blind to real structural inequality.

A research career is much more than the five to ten years in which you can have young children.

Dean Katrine Krogh Andersen, Faculty of Science

»This is why nothing has been done, because people don’t feel that gender equality is a problem. Either that, or the initiatives simply supplement the already existing ones because we do not see the institution as unequal. And then we just have to conclude that the initiatives have not helped,« says Ea Høg Utoft.

So we need to understand that the institutions themselves are fostering inequality?

»Yes, exactly. Within my field of research, we speak of gender inequality as embedded in the way we organise ourselves. At the universities, this is reflected, for example, in the way we cannot understand the excellent researcher independent of the person’s gender,« she says.

If you ask a third grade class to draw a researcher, they typically draw a man who looks like Einstein with spiky hair. Our idea of what a real researcher looks like is characterised by the university system historically being made by, and for, men.

»We need to see it as a result of our history. We don’t have a long history of women being visible at universities at all,« she says, and refers to the work of a researcher in women’s history Professor Professor Bente Rosenbeck.

She says that scientific practices have masculine connotations. And that this still applies.

»Out in the research communities there is this idea that the ideal researcher needs to have unlimited commitment. And in this, time is implied. This means that you dedicate yourself wholeheartedly and without limits to research,« says Ea Høg Utoft.

Dean: We need to help out during the years with young children

I call up Katrine Krogh Andersen, who is dean of the Faculty of Science.

»Gender equality at Danish universities presupposes that women are being employed and on decent terms. Otherwise the trend will be that more women leave the universities. It also presupposes changes in culture if the gender equality issue is to become a shared responsibility.«

I read up the DFiR report that she herself coordinated. We talk about what kind of help universities can offer.

»Nowadays nobody asks me how many children I have. As it has no influence on my job. But it did 20 years ago. We need to take a holistic view of how a research career is much more than the five to ten years where you can have young children,« says Katrine Krogh Andersen.

»There is something cultural about it, because the years where you can have children are also very competitive. This is where you need to establish yourself as a researcher. And I think we can do more to help young researchers through these years, so you don’t end up thinking that this would be a good idea for me, but it is simply too difficult and uncertain.«

If there are structural and cultural barriers that are preventing the actual equality of men and women being attained with and without children, how do we create more awareness of about it?

»This is really difficult and complex. Because we have formal equality and equal opportunities. We both have women who choose to opt out of a demanding career, and women who want the career, but who find out that it was too difficult or that they have been overlooked. There is no doubt that if you want a career at university or in other competitive settings, then it costs time and effort, and this means you need support,« says Katrine Krogh Andersen.

»We need the best and brightest talents. Whether they choose to have zero or four children should be irrelevant if they are willing to do what it takes, and we can help them through these years. You can be really good at what you do, even though there were a few years where you had children.«

No-one is counting working hours

Back in Nørrebro, Michala Hvidt Breengaard is preparing for her postdoc to expire this summer. The successful ones in this system are the ones who publish a lot, get new funding, and network with the right people. This is what she sees. She herself is focused on spending her time on her research, not on turning up at events or lobbying an associate professor for an assessment or access to a teacher training course.

She has chosen to do this because research is not the only thing in the world that she could imagine doing. Otherwise you would have to put the rest of your life aside. And she doesn’t want to do this.

»A research career probably suits those who do not have so many other things to deal with. This is the way things work today. That said, nobody is counting your working hours,« she says. Work can be organised flexibly, so she can go to the doctor with her child in the middle of the day without asking for permission.

»It would be difficult for me to have an eight-to-four job. The flexibility as a researcher is really good,« says Michala Hvidt Breengaard.

But now that it is possible — due to the flexibility — to have small children who get sick and need to be picked up, why is it then that women drop out, the higher you move up in the hierarchy?

»I don’t know. Is it because they are posting associate professorships in fields where there are not that many women? Are men better at shuffling over to the places where jobs are being posted, or is it about the way in which men organise their careers? Maybe it’s also about the fact that when you think of a researcher, an image of a man pops up?«