I was recently appointed to head the Norwegian Committee on Gender Balance in Research. Journalist Aksel Kjær Vidnes interviewed me about this for the magazine Forskerforum. What follows below is my translation of that interview.
Professor of linguistics Curt Rice at the University of Tromsø now is going to work nationally with gender equality and gender balance in academia. As the newly named leader of the Committee on Gender Balance in Research, he’ll contribute to making recommendations about measures that can lead better gender equality at Norwegian universities, colleges and research institutions.
And that is necessary. While women make up about 60% of the student population in Norway, only about 25% of professors are women. As Rice goes into the position as leader for this committee, there is one little potential complication — namely that the committee’s mandate could be significantly changed during his period (2014-2017). The Ministry of Education and Research is considering expanding the mandate for the committee to also address other aspects of diversity. If that’s the case, that is a good thing, since diversity gives better workplaces, concludes Rice.
Curt Rice has previously been the head of Tromsø’s first Center of Excellence, the Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics (CASTL) and he was Pro Rector for Research & development at the University of Tromsø. Rice also writes about university leadership and gender equality on his blog.
Why did you agree to become the leader of the Committee on Gender Balance in Academia?
I’ve had the opportunity to work both locally and internationally with matters related to gender equality. This position gives me the opportunity to work nationally. It will be exciting to see if the kinds of measures I have worked with locally can be developed further and be relevant at the national level. But even more broadly, I would say that I care about contributing to making research institutions perform better and I see gender equality work as one tool that can contribute to that.
You have been quite engaged in the gender equality work at the University of Tromsø. Where does your interest in this issue come from?
When I started getting into leadership positions, I realized that young men and women have different experiences and that made me start thinking about structures at workplaces and how they affect women and men differently. It seemed to me that it would be both unfair and unwise not to try to contribute to making those differences smaller and eventually non-existent.
What kind of different experiences do men and women have in academia?
One example is that a research career requires a lot of self-promotion. We have to send in articles, we send in grant applications, and we have to position ourselves at conferences. This is something that men and women seem to tackle differently. There are greater impediments for women than men to carry out this kind of self-promotion. Research on self-citations — referring to one’s own articles in the reference list of a new article — shows that men refer to their own work more than women do. Self-citation is actually beneficial, by the way. It’s almost like there’s a cultural difference between men and women when it comes to self-promoting and that has significant implications for moving forward in one’s career.
From the outside, it’s a little surprising to hear that academia involves so much self-promotion. Maybe we have the idea that researchers advance just by focusing on their work, not on their self, and that gender therefore shouldn’t play such a big role.
I know, but just look at how one becomes a professor in Norway. You have to initiate the process yourself. Women apply later than men. Maybe it’s like you say, that men and women are both focused on their research, but that the difference is the extent to which they are focused on a career per se and that one should always be trying to move forward. This is the kind of thing I saw that led me to understand that women have different experiences than men, and it was in this way that I became interested in gender equality work.
Don’t you think that there are lots of men who also think it’s difficult to promote themselves in this way, instead of just focusing on doing a good job?
There surely are. But when we look at big numbers, we see that men promote themselves more. They apply for promotion earlier and they are more assertive about getting their names added to articles as co-authors. Don’t forget that generalizations about large groups don’t necessarily apply to every member of that group. Men as a group are taller than women, but there are nonetheless lots of short men and tall women.
As you begin in this role as leader of the Committee on Gender Balance in Research, what is it that you want the committee to start working with?
There are two things that I find especially important. One is to continue with the good work that has been done to assure that career possibilities for men and women are the same. This means working to get more women to the top, but there are also issues when it comes to recruitting PhD candidates and postdocs. At many different points along the career path, there’s still a job to be done to make sure that men and women do not get treated differently.
The other big area is about research questions themselves — to get gendered perspectives into research to a greater extent. This is strategically important. The new EU program for research, Horizon 2020, requires that applications, regardless of research field, include whatever gendered perspectives that may be relevant. I want this committee to raise awareness among Norwegian researchers about this requirement and about what it actually means for their research. This could actually make gendered perspectives in research into a competitive advantage for Norway when it comes to applications to Horizon 2020. Furthermore, it contributes to making research more relevant for the entire population and not just half of it.
The Ministry of Education and Research announced that the committee’s domain may be expanded to also apply to other kinds of diversity, not just gender equality. What are your thoughts about that?
This is a significant and substantial issue that the committee will discuss when we have our first meeting. I don’t want to make any predictions about where the committee might land, but I can nonetheless say that diversity in workplaces gives advantages. This is true both for gender diversity and diversity such as ethnic diversity, physical disabilities, LGBT and other minority groups. Diversity yields advantages, so I think the Ministry’s proposal is extremely interesting.
We see now a development at the universities and colleges whereby women are in the majority at lower levels. Men are still in the majority among professors, but also here, we see progress. Do you think that we might start seeing new and perhaps unanticipated differences in the future as a result of this development?
It’s very positive that education is available for both men and women. That’s something we can be proud of here in Norway. Today we have about 60% women among students. If it were 95%, or headed in that direction, I might get concerned. When it comes to the higher levels, I see it unequivocally as positive that we are moving towards better balance among professors and associate professors. The percentage of women professors goes up every year, but a lot of work is being done to achieve that. There’s no reason to think that this would have happened without active interventions.
Some might suggest that one should put a limit on active interventions and view gender inequality in the workplace almost as a natural situation.
There are different kinds of problems here. One is the international trend by which women leave academia in greater numbers than men. This has a connection to the situation with so many temporary jobs — it seems that young men are more tolerant of not having a permanent position. And then there are the other impediments that hold women back when they do actually choose a career in a research institution. Those impediments are still with us. If we stop working with them, the progress will slow way down. In other words, gender equality work must be a continuous project. Even if we had a 50/50 division, we would still have to do this work.
I may have said it before, but I want to emphasize something: gender equality work is not some peripheral pursuit that we do just so the girls have a nice time on the job. We do it because institutions become better when they invest in gender equality.
I care about seeing Norwegian institutions continue to get better. This is my way of contributing to that.
Photo: Paul Sigve Amundsen