University Post
University of Copenhagen
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Three forces holding back women researchers at the University of Copenhagen

Hint: One of them is leaky pipes.

The University of Copenhagen, founded some 550 years ago as an institution to educate men to be good priests, has not yet perfected the art of hiring women into senior research and teaching positions.

As of 2019, 26 per cent of the university’s professors were women. In one department this figure was as low as 4.5 per cent.

READ ALSO: Among 22 professors at the Department of Economics only one is a woman

To give some context, Denmark ranks below-average among EU countries for the percentage of women employed in ‘Grade A’ academic positions. This report, published in 2018 by the European Commission, shows that Denmark lags behind no fewer than 22 other EU countries on this metric.

The issue of gender inequality within academia has been known and discussed for decades yet still today not enough is being done to resolve the issue. Here is a breakdown of the major problems and major solutions presented and discussed at The University of Copenhagen on Monday 9. March.

Problem #1: The particular challenge of talking about gender equality in Denmark

International Women’s Day was on a Sunday this year. But prorector Bente Merete Stallknecht insists that »considering the challenge we are facing we should use every day to fight this important battle.«

The day’s demographics

Audience: 30 women, 3 men

Panelists: 3 women, 1 man

Event hosts: 2 women, 0 men

Art in the room (paintings and busts): 0 women, 13 men

Many Danes believe that Denmark has achieved, or is close to achieving, gender equality, but at the current rate it will only happen in 2065 (at which point your reporter will be a ripe 71-years-young). This pervasive misconception actually makes it quite difficult to bring up the issue of gender inequality, says Signe Møller Johansen, Specialist Consultant and Union Representative for Technical-Administrative Staff at The University of Copenhagen, because many people respond dismissively or defensively, believing perhaps that the issue does not have a place in mainstream debate today.

»Even though today it is easier than 10 years ago to talk about gender equality it is still difficult, and the myth of equality needs to be addressed,« says UCPH Professor Anja C. Andersen.

Solutions to problem #1: The particular challenge of talking about gender equality in Denmark

All panelists agree that there is a need to continue talking about the issue of gender equality. This means departments and university employees raising awareness of the issue through conferences and events. This means inviting women as presenters and discussants to conferences. This means ensuring that women researchers show up on reading lists – even in fields dominated by old men’s voices.

The panel

o   Anja Andersen, Professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Science at the Niels Bohr Institute, The University of Copenhagen (panelist)

o   Jesper Kallestrup, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at The University of Copenhagen (panelist)

o   Signe Møller Johansen, Specialist Consultant and Union Representative for Academic Technical-Administrative Staff at The University of Copenhagen (panelist)

o   Ida Theilade, Professor of Global Development, Development of Food and Resource Economics at The University of Copenhagen (panelist)

o   Bente Merete Stallknecht, Prorector, Professor at The University of Copenhagen (guest speaker)

The event was organized by Maria Mortensen, Specialist Consultant for Equal Treatment and Diversity at The University of Copenhagen, and Ravinda Kaur, Associate Professor and Centre Manager for the Department of Intercultural and Regional Studies at The University of Copenhagen.

This means leaders (men and women) speaking up about the importance of achieving equal gender representation in senior researcher positions. This means integrating gender equality-related terminology and language into all foundational university texts regarding recruitment, development, and retention of staff, so that the conversation cannot help but come up again and again.

Problem #2: Fixing the university’s leaky pipes

Bente Merete Stallknecht speaks metaphorically of the university’s leaky talent pipeline. The reasoning goes: how can women be a minority in senior academic positions when we know that so many bachelor and masters programs have been, for some time, comprised of a majority of women students? Stallknecht posits that at the jump from Masters to PhD, some bright women students leave academia—the first leak.

Then, over the course of a woman’s academic career, various other factors are supposed to contribute to women academics leaving the field. One reason is lower salaries—the second leak. According to evidence presented by Ida Theilade, Professor of Global Development, UCPH, women academics in the same jobs as men at The University of Copenhagen earn less.

Another reason is a lack of promotions and advanced research opportunities—the third leak. If women see and experience that they do not have the same access to career-advancing opportunities as their male counterparts, it becomes a very practical calculation to leave academia and opt for the private or public sector where women often find better advancement outcomes.

And yet another reason is maternity leave-related setbacks—the fourth leak.

The topic of maternity leave is only raised for a couple minutes out of a two-hour session, but it brings out some interesting perspectives. On the one hand, there seems to be consensus that it is important that men and women have equal access to parental leave.

While some lament the fact that women can lose momentum or focus at a crucial early stage of their career due to time off for a maternity leave, it is also contended that many women in academia do not have kids, and that there are many other reasons why women do not end up holding senior research positions. As such, over-stating the significance of maternity leave can do the larger discussion a grave disservice.

Solutions to problem #2: Fixing the university’s leaky pipes

Firstly, according to the panelists, the university must clarify academic career paths and be more transparent about how staff can expect to advance. Women having a better sense of what they can do to progress and where they can expect to end up, can give them a greater sense of security and incentivize them to stay in academia.

Secondly, the university must work to create a more supportive and positive work environment; this, of course, benefits both men and women researchers. Jesper Kallestrup emphasizes during his presentation that the Faculty of Humanities, of which he is Dean, has begun focusing more on hiring ‘round academics’ who contribute to the university not just through their research, but through various other aspects of their job.

Thirdly, the university must correct the gender pay gap and publish disaggregated salary data. Women need to know what their colleagues earn in order to properly negotiate their salary. Professor Ida Theilade says she was only able to obtain the department salary-data she presents by first obtaining the right legal document, and by then asking personally for the data, which apparently didn’t make her very popular.

Problem #3: gender bias in hiring

According to all panelists, hiring processes are a key area of gender bias and discrimination across the university. For a woman to get hired, firstly, you need women to apply. Then, those women applicants need to get excellent reference letters. Then, a hiring committee needs to select some of the women applicants for further consideration. Then, the hiring committee needs to decide to offer a woman the job. And finally, a woman needs to accept the job offer. At each of these stages, gender dynamics and bias play a part.

According to Jesper Kallestrup, many women applicants do not apply for a job if they believe themselves to be underqualified according to the job description. Women applicants also do not tend to apply for job descriptions that show gender bias. Meanwhile, according to Professor Anja C. Andersen, research has shown that people use different words to describe women and men in reference letters. For example, if a woman is described as being hard-working it is understood as a positive thing, while if a man is described as being hard-working he is understood to not be very clever, but trying to compensate.

These kinds of subtle and unconscious language differences can result in women applicants being sorted from the pile.

And one extremely key issue is that many positions are filled by appointment from the inside. In one department at The University of Copenhagen fourteen out of the last twenty-five hires have been completed without any competing candidates. When the system works in such a way that »someone on the inside needs to think it would be nice to have you on the inside,« as Anja C. Andersen phrases it, women lose out.

This is because mentorship relationships tend to be more common amongst young male researchers. According to one audience member, a professor at UCPH himself, »there are no self-made men«. Any successful man, he continues, has had help along the way through mentorship, or special speaking, funding, or travel opportunities.

Solutions to problem #3: gender bias in hiring

Making structural changes at the management and institute level matters. This means teaching hiring committees how to properly evaluate gender bias in job postings to guarantee that the posts invite a mix of applicants. This means providing bias training for men and women staff so that they understand how bias occurs and what it can look like.

Multiple panelists make the point of reminding the audience that both men and women are susceptible to bias – have you ever heard a woman friend or colleague casually say that they like men better or think they are more interesting? This kind of sentiment can easily impact the outcome of a hiring decision in favour of the man applicant.

As for how the university might incentivize its departments to hire more women, the room can’t quite agree. While some audience members argue for the efficiency of offering financial rewards to departments that hire more women, others contend that this kind of monetary prize for the advancement of women can produce superficial and short-term results.

According to Prorector Bente Merete Stallknecht, staff gender data will be included in the next round of UCPH budget negotiations, meaning that departments that fail to hire senior research staff will have to face the music.

There is no silver bullet

The reality is that change and progress will be the result of »lots and lots of incremental improvements,« says Dean Jesper Kallestrup.

For starters, in the opinion of this reporter, let’s commit to having more men in the audience of this same event next year. And for God’s sake, let’s erect some grumpy looking statues of smart dead women, too.

One abstract sculpture provides some comfort. Seen below, it commemorates seismologist Inge Lehmann. Due to a complete lack of institutional support during her life the true scope of her accomplishments only began to be recognized in Denmark after her death.