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One in every three female PhD students in Denmark faces sexism

Discrimination — New report sheds light on the everyday sexism and abusive behaviour that PhD students face. Minister says the results are »completely unacceptable«.

»It could be a comment about what your dress looks like. Or that you are consistently interrupted or talked down to at meetings. Or it can show up – luckily less often– as discrimination or unwelcome sexual behavior.«


Are you a current or former PhD student, and have you experienced sexism or offensive behaviour in connection with your PhD?

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Irene Tamborra is a professor of physics at the Niels Bohr Institute. After many years as an underrepresented woman in a male-dominated field, she can list countless examples of everyday sexism and abusive behaviour, especially towards young women in academia.

READ ALSO: Rector on new sexism report: »This is just not good enough«

»Sexism is a problem in science and technology subjects in general. Although much has been done to improve the problem, much remains to be done. The establishment of an equitable and respectful work environment is crucial,« says the physics professor, who is a recent recipient of the Danish Elite Researcher Prize.

Irene Tamborra’s experiences are far from unique. More than one in three female PhD students have experienced at least one verbal act that objectifies, excludes, or degrades them on the basis of their gender.

This is the conclusion of a new, comprehensive, report from the analysis and research institute VIVE, which looks at the experiences of sexist incidents among PhD students and examines what sexism, offensive acts, and gender stereotyped attitudes, mean for women’s research careers.

The report also shows that almost one third of female PhD students have experienced at least one malicious sexual comment. One quarter of them have experienced unwanted physical contact, including sexual coercion.

»It is completely unacceptable that so many PhD students have experienced being subjected to degrading comments, unwanted physical contact, or discrimination on the basis of their gender,« says Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund (Moderates Party) in a press release. And she continues:

»As a PhD student you need to be able to safely move around the universities. I therefore expect this to be taken seriously and that everyone does their best to ensure a good work environment at the universities.«

Tip of the iceberg

Rune Vammen Lesner is senior researcher at VIVE and is the author of the report. He uses an iceberg as a metaphor to explain how sexism exists in academic settings:

Below the surface is a whole lot more. The everyday sexism that may be harder to see with the naked eye

Rune Vammen Lesner, senior researcher, VIVE

»Everything above the surface of the water is what we can see: Unwanted physical contact, touching, kissing, hugging, attempted rape, and actual rape. Below the surface is a whole lot more. The everyday sexism that may be harder to see with the naked eye: Comments on your clothes, your lifestyle, your body,« he says.

Although the senior researcher points out that it has turned out to be a »very significant share« of the PhD students who have experienced sexist or offending incidents, he is not surprised by the results.

»We chose to focus on this particular group because we had a hypothesis that the university has many risk factors in this work environment,« says Rune Vammen Lesner. He refers to hierarchical structures, fixed-term appointments, and very competitive recruitment processes.

»These are all factors that together can create a breeding ground for sexism,« he says.

Women are leaving universities

A large proportion of female PhD students have experienced sexism or offensive behaviour during their PhD programme. But how does this affect their research careers in the long term?


The study ‘Sexism at Danish universities – A quantitative and qualitative study of PhD students’ experiences of sexism and retention in research careers’ has been prepared by VIVE and was commissioned and financed by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

The survey was conducted partly on the basis of a questionnaire that was sent out to everyone who started a PhD degree programme between 2010 and 2018 (15,040 people) with 5,587 people responding to the questionnaire; and partly on the basis of qualitative interviews with 15 female PhD students.

Source: VIVE

Many may be familiar with the metaphor of the leaky pipeline. It describes how female researcher numbers go down the further you go up the academic ladder.

And in the latest report from VIVE, there is a clear correlation between the number of sexist incidents and women’s research careers, according to Rune Vammen Lesner.

»We can see that women are overrepresented at the master’s and PhD levels, but as soon as we get further up in the system, women drop out.«

The report concludes that the gender composition of workplaces has an impact on the frequency of sexist incidents. And that women who start their PhD in an environment with many sexist incidents, will be less likely to choose a research position.

There is a high risk of both sexism and a lack of women at the top of the hierarchy in the technical and natural science subjects especially.

»The fewer the women, the more the sexist incidents,« says Rune Vammen Lesner. He cannot say on the basis of the report whether women quit academia because it becomes too uncomfortable to be there, or because they are discriminated against in the hiring process.

Etiquette for geniuses

Irene Tamborra is both a prominent and an award-winning professor in one of the fields where the risk of sexism and offensive behaviour is greatest.

And because she herself has experienced the feeling of being the only woman in a room full of men for many years, she is particularly concerned with promoting equality in her own workplace.

People shouldn’t be allowed to do anything just because they’re geniuses

Irene Tamborra, Professor, Niels Bohr Institute

»In my research group, and at the Niels Bohr Institute in general, I am very aware of creating a respectful atmosphere among all employees,« she says and adds:

»I think we generally need to focus more on hiring a more diverse group of researchers and give young people role models. And then we need to educate people in what is acceptable behaviour in a workplace. People shouldn’t be allowed to do anything just because they’re geniuses.«

Irene Tamborra has no doubts that sexism and offensive behaviour are one of the reasons women drop out. But she also believes that other factors can come into play.

»It is extremely exciting and rewarding to push the boundaries of our knowledge. But academia can be a tough working environment. The labour market is competitive and one have to work hard to establish a work-life balance. I think this also plays a role when we talk about why women might choose not to work at the university,« she says.

It’s all about power

Anette Borchorst is professor emerita at the Department of Politics and Society at Aalborg University. In addition to having done research on gender equality since the late 70s and sexual harassment since 2015, she has also been PhD coordinator for a long period of time.

She says the report is a »very thorough piece of work, which is both comprehensive and nuanced.« The results come as no surprise to her either.

»We know from countless studies that unequal power relations and precarious employment terms can put especially younger women in a very vulnerable position. And both of these things are present in the university’s working environment, especially for PhD students,« she says and adds:

Universities are losing a large and important pool of talent

Anette Borchorst, Professor Emerita, Aalborg University

»There hasn’t been much focus on sexism at universities, which have generally been slow to draw up harassment policies and a focus on prevention. This only really happened after 2020, when the second wave of MeToo rolled over Denmark.«

Anette Borchorst points to the university’s power structures in particular as the cause of sexism and offensive behaviour.

»The PhD students have a very direct dependency on their supervisors, and this can make them very vulnerable. If universities are to counteract this, they need to develop clear ground rules for dealing with sexism, including problems between supervisor and PhD students.«

According to Anette Borchorst, the analysis is strengthened by the fact that it is based on responses from everyone who started a PhD degree programme between 2010 and 2018. This long-term perspective makes it possible to link the sexist events to subsequent careers.

»The big story is that we now have very clear numbers that document how especially women disappear from sexist working environments in academia. This means that the universities are losing a large and important pool of talent,« she says and continues:

»And when we look at the gender distribution among professors, and compare Denmark with other European countries, it is clear that we are lagging far behind in terms of gender equality.«