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

erc_banner-verticalThe European Research Council awards the most prestigious research grants in Europe, but they have a problem. Every time they advertise a new competition for funds, the success rate for the women who apply is lower than the success rate for men. To their credit, the numbers are public, the ERC clearly cares about this, they want to understand it and to see if they can fix it.

As part of their work to gain greater insight into this and related issues, the ERC recently held a workshop with the following goal.

The aim of the Workshop is to gather representatives from national research organisations and gender experts to discuss the diversity of practices and approaches to gender mainstreaming in various European countries and to exchange best practices on policies and approaches aiming at the promotion of wider participation of women researchers.

What follows is a slightly modified version of the text of my talk at that event. (Here’s the complete program.)

Centers of Excellence: where are the women?

We’ve been invited here today to tell our stories and to extract from them potential policy recommendations that can support those working at the ERC to improve gender balance in their programs. I’d like to briefly tell you a little about how my own priorities in this area emerged and then tell you about some of the work being done at the University of Tromsø.

A turning point for my own awareness that men and women have different career paths in our sector, came on June 12th, 2002. That was the day that I participated in a press conference in Oslo at which the Research Council of Norway announced the results of its first competition to create national Centers of Excellence. I was lucky enough to be among the 13 who would lead these new centers and on that day, we all were euphoric.

The press conference was attended not only by our Minister, but even by the Crown Prince! However, the Crown Prince wasn’t there for us. He was there because the press conference for the new Centers of Excellence had been cleverly combined with the press conference to announce the winner of that year’s Curious Per contest — a contest in which elementary school classes compete with one another on creative science challenges.

So the room was full of a few hundred school kids and a bunch of professors.

They started with us. The 13 new Center Directors were asked to come stand in the front of the room. This was a few weeks before my 40th birthday, and I felt pretty young by comparison. But then I noticed that even if my age made me look slightly different than some of the others, my suit and tie didn’t.

[This section is an edited version of Centers of Excellence: where are the women?]

There we were, 13 men, the proud winners of a competition that took only one factor into account. And you know what that was: Quality! Excellence!

The idea was that the schools kids were already interested in science and now they would see us standing in front of them, a living picture of a future they might have. Science, research, universities. It’s right here, waiting for all of you … said our female minister, who must have felt a little awkward about this.

The Directors of the new Centers of Excellence and the winners of the Curious Per competition were in that auditorium together, at the same time. But it felt like a time warp. We were supposed to be a picture from the pupils’ future; but the 13 of us collectively looked much more like a stiff painting from their past.

And it wasn’t just the girls that morning who couldn’t see their futures in the group of Directors. It was the boys, too. True, the boys could at least see individual role models of the same sex, which the girls could not.

But the striking thing about the winners of the Center of Excellence competition became clear only when looking at them as a group. Even for the schoolboys who were present, that group couldn’t reveal a snapshot of the future. When those boys are adult scientists, after all, they won’t be working exclusively with men. There won’t be groups that look like the one that was standing in front of them that morning. And while it was easy to see how our selection had in some sense failed the girls in attendance, it turned out that we had just as compellingly failed the boys.

So, there we were. As a group. Collectively, a role model for no one.

Why should we care?

The picture I saw that day — the picture I was part of — led me to a heightened awareness of the differences between the paths of early career women and early career men at our center. As I started thinking more and more about this, I realized there were important “why” questions to answer.

Continue to page 2 to find out what the title of this speech & blog entry means.

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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