Gender balance can make universities better

Universities have the potential to answer many of the most basic challenges faced by modern societies. We answer them through research – making new discoveries. We answer them through education – conveying previous discoveries. Research and education together move societies forward.

Yet even though universities hold the key, those of us who work there don’t deliver results as well as we could. Sometimes we take too long, distracted by more pressing demands in the system. Sometimes we stop our work before it’s finished, without identifying the benefits to society that might be found in some new knowledge.

It’s not just our research that can be poorly delivered. Our approaches to education are sometimes so conservative that we lose those who are hungry to learn.

It is my belief that one of the most basic impediments to more effective delivery of research and education is the quality of the workplace at many universities. The academic staff could easily be equipped to better perform their research and teaching.

Ask professors what they do that someone else should be doing – or ask them what they do that no one should be doing – and you’ll get an earful. The support staff, too, could be liberated to spend time on tasks that improve the quality of research and education.

Making universities better

I have spent over half my academic career in leadership positions, first as the chair of my department, then as the founding director of the University of Tromsø’s first Norwegian centre of excellence – the Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics – and later as the elected pro rector for research and development.

Through this leadership experience, I’ve developed a passion for working to make universities better.

I used to think that one inevitable side effect of improving university workplaces would be the removal of some of the barriers to gender equality. But as I talked with more women at universities and as I read more research about bias, I came to realise that I had got it exactly backwards.

It’s not that improving the quality of the university workplace generally will necessarily make it better for women. The truth is just the opposite: making universities better workplaces for women will improve institutional quality for everyone.

Following my belief that research is the key to solving society’s challenges, I build my arguments for improving gender equality on exactly that – research. For example, I study and synthesise what scientists have discovered about how teams work or how hiring, promotion and publication evaluations are carried out.

I read about the effects of role models and the perceptions young women and men have of academic careers. I get into the peer-reviewed literature and I analyse reports from think-tanks, government agencies, NGOs and private industry.

Discussing gender balance

I blog on issues related to university leadership. The most prominent topic on my blog is gender – gender equality and gender balance. Although I sometimes am casual in switching between these terms, they do mean different things.

Gender equality is achieved when individuals in any particular situation are treated equally, independent of their sex or gender. Gender balance is a property of groups, so that it is achieved when there are roughly equal numbers of men and women in that group.

When I speak on the importance of improving gender equality and gender balance, my talks often build comprehensive arguments that include various pieces taken from the research syntheses appearing on my blog.

My arguments are spiced with stories from my own work at the University of Tromsø, and in Norway and Europe more broadly, to improve research organisations by improving the plight of women at research organisations.

Like those talks, the book you can download below takes several blog entries and weaves them together to illustrate in one place a somewhat broader perspective than is possible in 1,000 words.

My goal is to offer something useful for those looking to explain or understand why it is essential for the success of universities that we commit to working explicitly and deliberately to improve gender equality.

* Curt Rice is vice president for research and development at the University of Tromsø in Norway. He blogs on leadership in academia, including gender balance. This is an excerpt from the preface to his new e-book, Six Steps to Gender Equality and More Essays about How Every University Can Get More Women to the Top and Why They Should. You can download the pdf version of the book for free or you can download the Kindle version from