Gender Equality

The promotion project: Getting more women professors

Virginia Woolf suggested that a woman would more likely become a successful writer if she only had an annual stipend of 500 pounds and a room of her own. Is that all it would take for women in academia to experience greater career success? Are there too few female full professors because not enough women researchers have rooms of their own?

Women associate professors do more administrative work than men, and perhaps in that context a room would help — a room that can be locked, as Woolf emphasized. But beyond that, I doubt that increased isolation yields career advancement.

Most of the barriers to gender balance at the top reflect problems in the system. In academia, this is clear from the genSET project. In industry, it’s clear from McKinsey’s Women Matter reports. Changing the system requires engagement, not isolation.

But there is one area in which women frequently tell me that they think the problem is more with themselves than with the system. They tell me that they have lower self-esteem than their male colleagues.

It’s hard to know if this is true; the research is inconclusive. Some studies support the idea that women have lower self-esteem than men; others strongly dispute this generalization.

This issue is particularly present in discussions of promotion. In Norway, individual associate professors submit applications to be considered for promotion to full professor. Their department chairs don’t initiate the process — the employee does. And women apply later in their careers than men. Why?

This may be a rational decision. Women may have perceived the research that Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold published in Science a few years back. They showed that in Sweden, women applicants for post-docs in biomedicine had to have published twice as much as male applicants to receive the same score from reviewers. I’ve recently heard of a new (currently unpublished) study in Spain reaching similar conclusions.

But the fact that women apply for promotion later than men could be the result of something else. It could be the result of low self-esteem. At the University of Tromsø, we’ve decided not to wait for more research on the causes; we’ve initiated The Promotion Project.

This is a simple project, designed to increase the confidence of individual applicants as they consider applying for promotion. The heart of the project is a trial evaluation, i.e., a simulation of the promotion process. The structure of the project is as follows.

  1. We wrote to all department chairs and asked them to identify the women associate professors in their departments who have portfolios nearing that of what is necessary for promotion.
  2. We invited these women to join our project, emphasizing that it is intended for those who want to apply for promotion in the coming two years.
  3. We gathered for a half-day seminar all of the women, their chairs, and their deans. During this seminar, we emphasized the importance of the project for the leadership and Board of the university, and we invited speakers with interesting stories to tell about their career paths. We also emphasized to the deans and chairs our expectation that they would support and facilitate the participation of their faculty members in this project.
  4. We held a seminar for the project participants, focusing on the structure of an application for promotion. What does a good letter of application include? How is it structured? What will the committee do with it? How can you write in ways that will help them with their work? We talked about how to choose what to include in the application portfolio, and invited successful professors from different fields to reflect on the process, acknowledging cultural differences for promotion among different areas of research.
  5. The participants then had a few weeks to produce an application portfolio having the same structure as a genuine application for promotion.
  6. While they were working on the applications, the project coordinators were collecting from department chairs the names of external colleagues who would be likely candidates for evaluating each individual’s application for promotion. Those individuals were contacted and were engaged, with compensation, to undertake an evaluation of one or more individual applicants, including a frank assessment of what the individual needs to do to be prepared to apply for promotion.
  7. During this period, we also advertised funds internally that faculties could apply for in connection with The Promotion Project. Each individual will have different needs to reach the necessary level for promotion. Chairs and deans would identify measures for individuals and apply for funding to support them. Relevant projects could include short-term buy-outs from teaching duties, statistical support, research assistance, data processing support, and more.
  8. The results of the trial evaluations are being returned now, in June, 2011. They will be conveyed to the individual applicants, who will come together again in August for a seminar on how to use the evaluations to progress towards promotion.
  9. Our project includes one simple measure to help the participants push their writing forward. In particular, we will take them away for a week in October, for a write-in.
  10. After that, we’ll continue to support them and nudge them forward until the application deadlines for promotion, in September, 2012 or early 2013.

The most explicit goal of this project is to increase the percentage of women full professors and docents at the University of Tromsø, from its current level of 25% to a new level of 30%. If we succeed, we will get closer to a tipping point at which we will gain even greater benefits from nearing gender balance at the top of our system. And if we do that, women and men will be together, in the same room, to the benefit of science and education.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • KeshaSparks says:

    Hey this is really a nice article and also quite an informative one, I liked it out specially the views mentioned they seemed to be very resourceful….

  • Dr. Robin M. Chandler says:

    Having been rejected for promotion to Full Professor at one of the largest private universities in the northeast US., I can tell you that self-esteem was not the explanation, nor qualifications! There are many other reasons that directly implicate the system, not the candidate.

    • curt rice says:

      Thanks for this feedback. I completely agree that there are deep systemic problems, and they are not few. In our system, one of them is that promotion from Associate to Full professor is initiated not by deans or department chairs, but by the individual faculty member. And we were seeing that women apply much later than men. In some ways, I think the solution would be to have chairs initiate the process, but that isn’t entirely unproblematic from a gender equality perspective, either. So, this particular project is intended to address one problem in our system, namely that women self-select a slower path. At a more general level, I think that we have to simultaneously work to change the problems in the system as well as working to push forward on gender equality within the system we have, given that changing it takes such a long time.

  • A final test of your leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.
    The fastest secret weapon to success is usually to look as though you’re playing by somebody else’s rules, while quietly playing by your own.

  • Paul Brennan says:

    Is there any concern that this kind of scheme could be viewed as positive discrimination? Could it be unfair? Just wondering.

    • Curt Rice says:

      It’s a good question, Paul. In the Netherlands, there have been court cases in recent years, in which the ruling has said that there is a positive discrimination issue here, and the relevant programs were discontinued. (If memory serves, this was in Groningen, and maybe in Nijmegen, too.) In Norway, there’s been no challenge of this kind yet. My hope is that our work with women on career planning and development will lead to work with everyone on those issues. And there is some preliminary evidence that exactly that is happening.

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