Gender balance of Swedish professors will take 25 years

The proportion of research and teaching staff who are women rose from 27% in 2000 to 42% in 2019 in Sweden, according to a new report from the Swedish Research Council.

However, there remain significant differences between the career path for women compared to men, and it is expected that achieving gender balance among professors will take another 25 years, the report said.

But even with parity among professors, it is not expected to be achieved in some fields, such as the natural sciences and engineering in that timescale.

The Swedish Research Council Director General Sven Stafström said the study provides valuable information for continued gender equality work.

“Even if the results show similarities in the career development for men and women, there are still inequalities that all who are active within higher education and research must take seriously. Greater focus must be placed on giving women and men equal opportunities to conduct research; then we will also achieve greater quality in Swedish research.”

The report, How Gender-Equal are Swedish Universities? Working conditions for doing research for women and men (in Swedish with an English summary), was published on 24 June and will be published in English later in 2021.

It is based on a survey of 2,014 women and men who graduated with a doctorate between 2009 and 2016, who were asked questions on their employment in the higher education sector. Of those responding, 423 have since left the sector.

The study was aimed at both investigating and analysing the differences between the career development of women and men, and also at investigating how the conditions in higher education are perceived by women and men. It also wanted to highlight the conditions in higher education from a management and employer perspective.

There were three subsidiary studies, the first consisting of two questionnaires aimed at women and men who were awarded a doctorate between 2009 and 2016, referred to as “junior researchers” in the report. The purpose of the questionnaire was to cast a light on the experiences of junior researchers as employees in higher education.

The second subsidiary study involved interviews with representatives of nine departments, all of which employ many junior researchers who have been awarded grants from the Swedish Research Council.

The third subsidiary study is based on registers and describes the career development of women and men with doctoral degrees within and outside higher education.

Today, several scientific fields appoint approximately the same number of women and men as professors, and within these fields overall gender equality at professor level will probably become a reality within a 25-year period, the report says.

Equality not likely in some fields

One exception is natural and engineering sciences. Here, the number of female professors is low, which is in turn because the number available for recruitment is low. This means that the goal of gender equality at professor level will probably still not be achieved overall within 25 years.

The route to becoming a professor is not gender equal in any subject area, however. One example of this is that even when the gender distribution is equal among newly appointed professors in several scientific fields, this does not reflect the number available for recruitment. The proportion of women in the number available for recruitment is just over 10% higher than the proportion of newly appointed professors who are women.

Even in natural and engineering sciences, where the proportion of newly appointed professors who are women is low, the proportion of women in the number available for recruitment is higher.

The study also shows that, in all scientific fields, women face more challenges than men do. One reason for this is that women to a greater extent are active in research fields where the opportunities to gain merit in research terms are small, while men to a greater extent are active in fields offering more time for research, the report says.

But also within the various research fields, differences exist between women’s and men’s career development and experiences of being active in higher education. The differences are often small. At the same time, these are recurring patterns that are often detrimental to women, and these can therefore be part of the explanation of the difference that cuts through the scientific fields, namely, that it takes longer for women than for men to be appointed a professor.

The ‘Matilda effect’

The results suggest an accumulation of negative factors and experiences for women, which in the literature is known as the ‘Matilda effect’, a term coined by science historian Margaret W Rossiter for bias against acknowledging the achievements of women scientists.

The factors include that:

• Time for research is unevenly distributed between scientific fields, and also as a consequence of gender. A higher proportion of women are active in research fields that have few professors, and a higher proportion of teaching and lower proportion of research. To this can be added that, in all scientific fields, men state in their questionnaire answers that they spend a higher proportion of their working hours on research.

• Women report to a greater extent than men that it is difficult to be responsible for young children and simultaneously develop a career in higher education. More women than men say that they have experienced unfairness. Women also state that they to a lesser degree can influence important decisions relating to their work, and fewer women than men say that they have had opportunities to develop networks.

• Fewer women than men have access to two of the success factors that women themselves assess in the questionnaires as being among the most important for success in higher education: the opportunity to gain scientific merit, and access to a mentor.

In all scientific fields, more women than men state that they do not think that the principles for organising author names on publications are fair and that there are organisational aspects in higher education that are detrimental to both women and men. These relate to conditions of employment, work environment conditions, and the difficulties that those of an under-represented gender encounter in the workplace.

• A small proportion of the junior researchers have employment that is regulated by law (Swedish higher education ordinance) and that offers a clear career path, namely as associate senior lecturers.

• Many women and men work more than the 40 hours per week that constitute normal working hours in Sweden. Almost one quarter responded that they work between 50 and 60 hours per week, and some work even longer. The department heads in our interviews point to the high level of competition, in particular in medicine and health, and natural and engineering sciences respectively, as an explanation for the long working hours of researchers.

• The questionnaire answers show that the experience of being or not being part of a community in the workplace may be an effect of gender, as well as of employment category and origin. There are departments that have developed tools to increase the chances of creating an environment where all feel included and are given the same opportunities.

Men use more time for research

The survey demonstrated that men use more time for research than women. Of those funded by external funding, 67% of the men said that they spend more than 60% of their working time on research while the corresponding figure for women was 58%.

But with regard to those whose research is funded by a combination of funding sources, 33% of the women and 53% of the men said that they use more than 60% of their working time on research.

More women prioritise the family

Approximately half of the respondents said it was difficult to combine work and family life. Among those who have left the higher education sector, nine out of 10 reported that those difficulties are not as onerous in their present work.

Analyst Stina Gerdes Barriere of the Swedish Research Council, who is one of the authors of the report, told the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers’ newsletter, Universitetsläraren, that it is significantly more difficult to combine work and family in the higher education sector than in other sectors and that this is a great challenge for the sector.

Impact of autonomy reform

Lena Adamson, associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, told University World News that, as the report points out, there are several mechanisms involved in the gender imbalance between the number of female and male professors at Swedish universities.

“One seemingly unobserved such mechanism is that, at the time of the so-called autonomy reform (2010-11), most Swedish universities went back to the former requirements of having supervised one doctoral candidate to be able to apply for a professorship.

“This [was] regardless of all other research related proficiencies and accomplishments the individual may have (large number of publications/citations in prestigious journals, responsibilities in developing research fields/organisations or new doctoral training programmes etc etc),” she said.

Adamson said the consequence here is that, since to engage or employ a doctoral candidate, there usually is a need to compete for external funding, which is “a race that prolongs the process, where very few win, and another field where we know that female researchers come out less fortunate than male researchers”.