‘Largest’ investment by a university in gender equality

In what may be the largest investment in gender equality by a higher education institution, Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, has launched a strategic plan called GENIE – Gender Initiative for Excellence – to address gender inequality in the faculty via a comprehensive long-term programme.

Through concrete changes of academic culture, systems and processes together with selective recruitment, and with an investment of SEK300 million (US$32 million), Chalmers aims to increase the proportion of women professors from 17% today to 40% in 2029.

”Research shows that a more even gender balance leads to greater scientific success and a better working environment for both men and women,” the project says.

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The overall goals of the project are to increase the proportion of women in the faculty, remove obstacles that hamper women’s careers and create working environments that are “diverse and inclusive” and hence supportive of excellence in research and teaching.

GENIE was launched on 1 January 2019 and is running until 2028. Chalmers University said that as far as they know it is the largest investment in gender equality ever made by any university. GENIE is unique in that it is led by faculty. For success, they believe a combination of bottom-up and top-down efforts are needed.

Analysing culture, systems and processes in each department will identify imbalances between men and women and project members of GENIE will work out a scheme for redressing gender inequality by proposing a set of tailor-made activities for each department. For long term change, all leaders must understand the current bias and embrace change.

Top female faculty recruitment

Direct recruitment of top female researchers will be one strategic priority. Heads of department together with research leaders in the department will propose recruitment of such top female candidates. There will also be a visiting professors programme and internal grants to support faculty already in the system.

GENIE has a steering group in place, led by its president, and an international advisory board. Professor Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is chair of the leadership group, which is the operational team, of GENIE, accompanied by professors Mary Sheeran and Anders Karlström.

Since the launch, project members of GENIE have visited all the department heads to get an idea of the current situation. Further discussions with other groupings will follow (female faculty, male faculty, gender equality groups, HR, etc).

“To get action is important. Some efforts will fail, but it is better to try than to do nothing,” Wittung-Stafshede says.

On Chalmers University website several articles have been published to enhance awareness of the GENIE project and the plan is to expand the GENIE site with a wealth of information around gender equality work.

Current articles include: ‘If you care about gender equality at Chalmers, come!’, ‘Gender equality a powerful tool for higher quality’ and ‘A big investment to make Chalmers equal’.

International expert advisors

Professor Paul Walton of the University of York in the United Kingdom, who has been hired as an advisor to the project, said: “The world will watch this one! This is the biggest gender equality investment I have heard of in academia, having visited more than 200 universities and departments all over the world to talk about gender equality.

“Chalmers has now understood the challenges, with a very clear way and determination to tackle it,” Walton said.

When Walton started working with gender equality in academia 25 years ago, the primary motivation was to make it equal and fair. But several years on, research has shown that a better gender balance leads to greater scientific success, and increased quality is now one of the main motivations.

In fact, he believes that equality measures are “one of the most powerful tools a university can use to improve itself”, according to a statement on the Chalmers University website.

“We know that we, and probably all universities, have internal structures and cultures that favour men’s career development over women’s. Even if it’s only small differences, it ends up affecting a lot of people over a long time, which leads to big effects,” Chalmers University President Stefan Bengtsson says.

“We need to make better use of the competence of the entire population, to take the next step in quality.”

Heads of department important

So how do you achieve gender equality? According to Walton, it is important to share data broadly and openly, for example, data concerning pay and qualifications in promotions, and to incorporate gender aspects into all statistics. Leadership is also key, in particular at the departments.

“It is at the departments that cultural changes can occur, and here the head of departments and informal leaders have important roles. Everyone will follow the leaders in the department,” Walton said.

Asked by University World News if the GENIE project has already started to find top professorial candidates, Wittung-Stafshede said: “GENIE has already invested in five female assistant professors to start this year. Chalmers had a broad international call for 10 assistant professor positions in 2018 within our different areas of advance. There were more than 1,100 applications for the original positions, thus high competition, so GENIE went in and funded five female second highest ranked candidates.”

She said Chalmers University is currently in negotiations to secure a top-notch professor in physics.

“The general idea is that we discuss it with the departments and everyone looks around for candidates pursuing research that is of strategic interest for the department and Chalmers. In addition, departments that recruit top researchers with GENIE money will face extra demands from us to do gender equality work in the department,” she said.