Culture eats strategy for lunch: a better path towards gender balance

We have to make sure we answer questions like, “why should we care?” or “why does it matter?” as well as “why is it like this?”

I started thinking about these questions, writing about them, and speaking about them. I was given an opportunity to speak at the European Commission’s conference in Prague in May of 2009, marking 10 years of EU activites about women in science.

Participating in the genSET project

It was there in Prague that I met Portia‘s Elizabeth Pollitzer, who was preparing to launch the genSET project with funding from the Commission. She subsequently invited me to join the genSET Science Leaders Panel.

As a member of that panel, I had my first significant opportunity to organize my thoughts, hear others in positions of university leadership and to start thinking much more deliberately about policy. This was also my first encounter with Gendered Innovations, both through the participation of Martina Schraudner, and through the opportunity to listen to and meet Londa Schiebinger.

Culture eats strategy for lunch

Before I turn to some of the specific projects we’ve done in Tromsø and their implications for leadership, also at the ERC, let me take a minute to mention what I think is perhaps the biggest single lesson I’ve learned about trying to make change.

Management guru Peter Drucker is attributed with an expression that builds on the childhood fear of the bully in the playground who is going to steal your lunch.

His expression captures the idea that no matter what individual measures you might take, their effects will be short-term if your organizational culture is working against them.

What he says is that culture eats strategy for lunch.

What would that mean when we are working to improve gender balance in universities? You can give extra equipment or reduced teaching or a semester of sabbatical to all the women you want, but if you don’t find a way to make those moves lead to cultural change, then their effects will be short-lived. They may be very important for those individuals, but they won’t lead to lasting change unless every individual action you take fits into a vision of how your organizational culture will change.

That work must always be present and therefore individual-oriented measures that don’t happen in a context of leadership and awareness about culture, will have at best a local impact.

To put it simply: There’s only one strategy that matters and that’s the strategy of achieving cultural change.

Because strategies, once again, without cultural change, get taken away from you and eaten for lunch.

Actions at the University of Tromsø

With that in mind, let me tell you about a few of the things we’ve done in Tromsø and in Norway, along with some policy implications and proposals that emerge from them.

First of all, I had the honor five years ago of following one of our next speakers, Professor Gerd Bjørhovde, head of Norway’s Gender Balance in Research committee, as Pro Rector at UiT. When I was in that position, I took my experiences from being director of a Center of Excellence and from the genSET project into the leadership of my university.

There were two important actions at the beginning of my period. First, the university board adopted a strategy with an explicit goal to have 30% women in top academic positions by 2013. Second, when they made that goal, they also adopted the genSET recommendations as part of our institutional policy.

To achieve the 30% goal, I continued the tradition of human resources work, but now with a new kind of project. We called it the Promotion Project, and you can read about it on my blog or in my ebook, 6 steps to gender equality.

International attention gives national attention

I won’t take time to describe the Promotion Project here, but I will mention three results.

First of all, it’s an important part of the story about the University of Tromsø moving from being “worst in class” among Norwegian universities, with 9% women at the top in 2001, to being “best in class” with 31.5% this year. Along the way, there were important cultural changes that emerged, not least a greater focus by department chairs on career development with all their employees, not just the women in the project.

Continue to page 3 to read more about this project and the description of our new project.

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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