Equality as a leadership tool

There are many ways to illustrate the dearth of women in science. One familiar game is to ask people to name two women scientists. They all can name one, after all. And 99 times out of 100, it’s the same one. You know who I mean. Try it yourself and you’ll see.

The announcement of the Nobel Prize winners for 2014 led everyone in Norway to hope that question will soon have to be changed to “Name three women scientists.” We hope that the name May-Britt Moser, one of the winners in Physiology or Medicine, is going to be on the tip of your tongue, just like the name of Marie Curie is.

These short sound files include various arguments about gender balance. Use them as you like!

That’s how I started a couple of recent speeches and in this blog entry, I will include sound files and the some of the text associated with one of them. I’ve broken this up after being asked to provide shorter clips that people can use in their own teaching and presentations. Here there are, partially transcribed, too; take them and use them as you please. Like anything else on this blog, I just ask that you follow CC-BY conventions and give credit where appropriate. You can download the whole file, too, if you want it.

The sound file below continues to introduce the topic of equality as a leadership tool.

A sector out of balance

Our institutions are out of balance, especially at the top. Roughly speaking, in the EU about 20% of professors are women while almost 40% of associate professors are women and about 50% of those who get a PhD are women.

These numbers highlight two issues. One is that women leave academia at some point after their doctorate in greater numbers than men.

The other is that women get promoted to the highest level in significantly different numbers than men. Why is that?


Are women not up to the task?

There are only 3 possible explanations for these facts. One is that women are not up to the task of being a professor. Believe it or not, we actually do have to argue against this position sometimes, the most famous example being Larry Summers, who suggested a biological explanation for the lack of women in engineering — just before losing his position as president of Harvard.

It turns out there is mounting evidence to suggest that the gender math gap is culturally determined. For example, there is a correlation between the degree of gender equality in a society and the gender math gap.

The second possible explanation is that women don’t want to a career in academia or they don’t want to become a full professor once they’ve reached the level of associate. We often hear this in the form of statements that women prioritize differently; they choose to have children and that holds them back.

There are serious issues to discuss here, not least of all how to support various workplaces and even segments of society as they work to begin their reflections on why having children should affect the careers of men and women differently.

You are probably all familiar with research showing that women have to perform at a higher level to be considered equally qualified to men. But there also is research on the so-called motherhood penalty showing that women with children have to perform at a higher level to be considered equally qualified to women who do not have children.

Hand in hand with that is research showing a fatherhood bonus, whereby men with children are held to the lowest performance standards of anyone.

Are there structural barriers?

The third possible explanation involves structural barriers, as I describe in the following clip.

The promotion project

The next sound file is about an intervention called the Promotion Project, which was successful in increasing the number of women professors at the University of Tromsø. In this clip, I highlight two things from the project which were particularly important, namely a trial evaluation and anchoring the process in the normal management line.

Quotas increase quality

I review some literature on quotas in this next sound bite. This material draws from another speech, which is published elsewhere on this blog as 2 ways quotas for women raise quality, and which exists as a video also.


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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