Gender Equality

5 suggestions to the Norwegian government about women professors

The single most important success factor for increasing gender equality and gender balance in the workplace is engagement from top leadership. Usually, we think of this in terms of the top leadership of an organization, but in Norway we are fortunate to see engagement all the way to the top of the government.

The Prime Minister’s traditional New Year’s Day speech this year began with a lengthy discussion of gender equality, on the occasion of the centennial for women’s suffrage. Jens Stoltenberg’s vision is that “with courageous women as role models, we dare to imagine this ideal: a Norway that is inclusive, safe and with equal rights and opportunities for all.”

Our Minister for Education and Research, Kristin Halvorsen, has recently said that she is increasingly impatient about getting more women professors. Today, Norway has 25% women professors; current calculations suggest that the goal of 40% won’t be reached until 2025.

As I try to imagine how to allay Minister Halvorsen’s impatience — which I share — I realize that there’s some good news but there’s also some bad news.

The bad news is that the political analysis offered by the Minister is incomplete: She notes, quite rightly, that there are many more women taking doctorates now. Therefore, there are many more women qualified for academic positions, she says, but universities are taking too long to move these women forward.

By telling us that we simply need to hurry up, the Minister fails to address the fact that there are structural aspects of academic careers that play themselves out differently for men and women. The career path as it currently runs, is discriminatory. This must be redressed with specific measures. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to identifies ways to improve.

And that’s the good news: The process can be accelerated with interventions by the minister, and here are five suggestions for how:

1. Earmarking of positions for women: This has been tried in Norway before, and was ultimately found to be illegal at the European level. However, research results that have emerged since that trial provide the basis for new arguments. Specifically, research on how teams function alongside research on group intelligence leads us to conclude that on a large scale, we can expect higher quality results from teams that are gender balanced than from teams that are not. This research justifies looking at a group’s composition when hiring into that group. The interesting legal case would therefore be one in which a group consisting only of men is going to hire someone; they can argue on the basis of research that they need not only a chemist, for example, but a female chemist, since she represents in part by virtue of being a woman a competency that the group needs, namely a contribution towards gender balance, which in turn has been established as giving positive results.

2. Increased regulation of the hiring process: Too many permanent jobs are advertised too narrowly. It should be a requirement that permanent academic positions are advertised internationally. It should also be a requirement that the applicant pool has a certain magnitude and composition. A department that can’t attract 10 applicants for a permanent academic position is, with a few legitimate exceptions, either incompetent at advertising its jobs or else deliberately working to limit the applicant pool, perhaps by having an extremely specific job announcement.

At my university, our Board now requires that for all permanent positions, a search committee must be formed prior to advertisement in order to identify potential candidates, such that job announcements are sufficiently broad. Furthermore, we now require gender balance in the applicant pool before hiring is allowed; departments that fail to achieve this must submit a well-argued application for exemption prior to evaluating the applications.

3. Identify and eliminate discriminatory aspects of the current promotion procedure: The responsibilities of associate professors and full professors at most Norwegian universities are divided roughly equally between teaching/adminstration and research. Yet promotions are determined almost exclusively by research performance. This is nothing short of bizarre. Why should promotion from a job which is 50% teaching/administration and 50% research into a higher rank which is also 50% teaching/administration and 50% research, be determined solely on the basis of research? Indeed, we say in Norway that our rank of full professor is compatible with international standards, but at least on this point, that is simply not true. Many major universities around the world include teaching performance as a core element of promotion to full professor, right alongside research performance. Norwegian students should be up in arms about this!

Now, why is this discriminatory? It is discriminatory because women associate professors perform their duties in teaching and administration differently than men. One recent study found the following:

On average, male associate professors spent 37 percent of their time on research, while women associate professors spent 25 percent of their time on research. While women associate professors spent 27 percent of their time on service, men spent 20 percent of their time on service.

Undervaluing non-research aspects of the job and thereby overvaluing research will favor men as a group over women as a group. This is discrimination.

To briefly mention one more structural problem, we know that men and women full professors evaluate younger women more stringently than younger men. A recent PNAS article caused quite a storm by showing subconscious bias against women by all senior faculty, not just men. We simply are unable to evaluate men and women by the same criteria; fairness can only be assured by explicit intervention. Yet, how is this acknowledged in the current promotion system in Norway? It is not.

4. Discuss gender equality when discussing temporary employment: If it is true, as many claim, that women have a lower tolerance for a string of temporary positions than men do, and if the current system for academic careers includes a de facto requirement that one take a string of temporary positions, then this, too, is a structural issue that affects men and women differently. And while longterm temporary employment is a complex and demanding problem that the ministry and the universities are fully engaged with, the gender equality aspect of the issue is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

5. Fund national efforts to address gender imbalance: The Research Council of Norway has just announced a new program which will subsidize very specific efforts to increase the number of women professors and the number of women in scientific leadership positions — the BALANSE program. The program will also fund research on such measures. The budget for that program is far too modest, while the quality of the vision is perfectly positioned to assuage the Minister’s impatience. If Norway wants to achieve gender balance more quickly, an excellent strategy would be to triple the funding of this program. (Full disclosure: I am on the program board for BALANSE.)

I’m proud that Norway has a government that cares about gender equality and gender balance. And I think Minister Halvorsen shows good leadership by expressing her impatience on this topic. That can motivate us to work harder. But I also think she underestimates how much she could do beyond simply motivating others to act. Modest adjustments in the implementation of laws and regulations could lead to major acceleration for achieving the government’s inspiring goal — a Norway with equal rights and opportunities for all.

At the top of this page, you’ll see the opportunity to download for free a collection of my essays entitled 6 steps to gender equality: How every university can get more women to the top, and why they should. (It’s also available for a song in kindle format on amazon.com.) I invite you to download a copy and send it to your friends, colleagues, and — not least of all — your ministers. Thank you!

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

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1 Comment

  • Pavel Caha says:

    Hi Curt,

    I like your point 4. I have an observation to add. There is a rule in the Norwegian legal patchwork that in fact enhances discrimination. The rule I am thinking about prohibits a single person pick up two post-docs at the same Norwegian institution. (So you may have two post-doc positions, but you have to move for a position that is temporary anyway.) This effectively limits to one the number of post-docs for a person stuck at one place with kids (my reading of the politically preferred term “woman at the beginning of an academic career”). And since, as you say, “the current system for academic careers includes a de facto requirement that one take a string of temporary positions”, parts of the law in fact enhance (rather than restrict) discrimination.

    I think the deeper problem lies in the fact that the politicians just want to get the numbers right. The easiest thing is to implement shallow restrictions (special positions for women), without removing the underlying causes (enforcing mobility on people whose life is incompatible with it).

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