Gender Equality

When your boss is a cow, it’s probably a woman

The cow quickly forgets that she herself once was a calf. This Norwegian proverb appeared in print recently, in a newspaper article written by a professor at the University of Nordland. The op-ed piece was a critical contribution to a current debate, namely whether the two universities in northern Norway should be merged.

The piece is written with passion and engagement, and I personally share the author’s view that the institutions should not be merged.

But the rhetoric in the article is extreme. It attacks the rector of the University of Tromsø personally, not least of all by using that proverb. If the rector were a man, the allusion would have been more distant. But UiT’s rector is a woman.

I have not spoken to the author of the article, but I assume he would protest; I assume he would claim that he was making metaphorical reference to the city of Tromsø. On the surface, that claim is possible — but it’s a little too simple.

When a person is a city

In the first paragraph, a tension is set up between three institutions: the University of Nordland, which is located in Bodø, Narvik University College, which is located in Narvik, and the University of Tromsø, which is located in Tromsø. However, the institutions are not referred to in that paragraph by their names. Instead, the author simply writes about “Bodø” and “Narvik” and “Rector Husebekk” — two cities and a person.

Already in his opening, then, the author uses the name of the rector as a surrogate for the city of Tromsø. Furthermore, immediately after mentioning her name, the author puts the name of the institution in parentheses, “Rector Husebekk (UiT).” Now the confusion is enhanced; the rector is not only a stand-in for the city, but also for the institution, the University of Tromsø.

While there needn’t be anything odd about using the name of the rector to refer to the institution itself, it is striking in this context. The rectors in Bodø and Narvik, after all, have also participated in the public debate. They’re left out of it. Husebekk isn’t.

When a person is a region

Before we get to the cow, though, the rector’s geographical background is emphasized.

There is a well-entrenched regionalism in Norway, one component of which is that northerners sometimes express feeling overpowered by the central government in Oslo. The current rector at UiT is from the south.

Her origins outside of the north are highlighted in the editorial, first by paraphrasing a passage from an article she wrote and then immediately following this with a reference to southerners. “The rhetoric [Husebekk’s — CR] is not unlike that one encountered when bureaucrats from the south came up north during the 1800s and had a look around in order to describe the northerners.”

The characterization those bureaucrats came up with, the author writes, “is now being used …” Really? By whom? Not by bureaucrats from the 1800s. Not by Bodø. Not by Narvik. Nope. By Rector Husebekk. “Tromsø” we are told by the author, has now taken on the role of “Oslo.”

We know who “Oslo” is — southern functionaries who think we’re hillbillies. Who is “Tromsø”? Well, that was already established in the first paragraph. And what could be a more perfect personification of the movement of the condescending power center from “Oslo” to “Tromsø” than Rector Husebekk’s personal journey from her childhood in the capital region to her adulthood in the north?

When a person is a cow

Once we’ve established that she’s not really one of us, we get to the cow. Immediately after establishing that “Tromsø” has taken on the role of “Oslo,” we read the proverb: The cow quickly forgets that she herself once was a calf.

Yes, the next sentence refers again to the city of Tromsø.

But by now, it’s perfectly clear who that is.

(Disclosures: I am a member of the board at the University of Tromsø. I have not discussed this piece with Rector Husebekk or any other member of the board or anyone at the university at all. The views I express here should not be attributed to anyone else — neither person, institution, nor city.)

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



  • Henrik Thorsteinsen says:

    Are you joking?

    • Curt Rice says:

      Didn’t particularly mean to be, no. But it’s become quite clear to me in the course of the day that this piece elicits strong reactions. Some think I’m completely nuts. Others have been very supportive. Native speakers in both those groups. I’m not aware of anyone from Bodø who has responded positively and plenty from Tromsø have responded negatively. There is, not surprisingly, a bit of a gender split, but it’s not 100% either way. So, well, it’s just an analysis. We can disagree.


I encourage you to republish this article online and in print, under the following conditions.

  • You have to credit the author.
  • If you’re republishing online, you must use our page view counter and link to its appearance here (included in the bottom of the HTML code), and include links from the story. In short, this means you should grab the html code below the post and use all of it.
  • Unless otherwise noted, all my pieces here have a Creative Commons Attribution licence -- CC BY 4.0 -- and you must follow the (extremely minimal) conditions of that license.
  • Keeping all this in mind, please take this work and spread it wherever it suits you to do so!