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Published: 12 Oct, 2021

“We need to stop telling women to step up”

PROFILE Double professor at two faculties, manager and head of research. Studies in Latin America, about Swedish healthcare and transdisciplinarity in practice. And beside that, she has also had a career as a physiotherapist. If you ask Ann Öhman, professor of gender studies, the uneven gender distribution in academia is no insoluble problem, but it requires conscious actions.

Text: Elin Andersson

If the problem was that women needed to step up more, it wouldn’t have existed now. We need to make sure that the uneven gender distribution is an organisational and leadership problem and not an insoluble riddle.

Transdisciplinarity has followed Ann Öhman throughout her academic career. After working as a physiotherapist, she completed her doctoral studies in public health in 2001. Her interest in topics revolving around health, work and gender led her to start working at the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences. To her, it has been natural to work together with researchers from various scientific fields.

“I’ve realised the importance of combining knowledge from various scientific fields to really be able to address and understand a research issue. An example is the most recent research project I’ve been involved in. In that, we investigated men’s violence against women and what consequences it has on healthcare. To really understand the issue, a researcher in law, a political scientist and two public health researchers have worked together to study different aspects of the problem. It ranges between how the healthcare system is equipped to meet health consequences of violence and the knowledge of violence in various professions.”

Collaborations over scientific and geographical fields

Transdisciplinarity was also key in ‘Challenging Gender’, the huge research programme that made the Swedish Research Council award Umeå University’s gender research with the title ‘Centre of Gender Excellence’ in 2006.

“’Challenging Gender’ was led by Britta Lundgren, professor of ethnology, and it united researchers from a number of fields under five themes, of which I led one. We aimed to figure out how you conduct transdisciplinary research. We worked systematically with highlighting that, and how, we are different and hence could help everyone to understand our scientific starting points. But to reflect and give each other feedback takes a lot of time and that’s the biggest challenge. I’ve presented and written about this afterwards, even in international contexts, and the problem people experience is particularly how to find time for reflection when you are so pressed for time.”

We aimed to figure out how you conduct transdisciplinary research. We worked systematically with highlighting that, and how, we are different and hence could help everyone to understand our scientific starting points.

Ann Öhman has also worked in several international research projects. Among others, when she studied Latin American men’s view on equality and violence. To conduct studies in Latin America, it has been necessary to set up good partnerships.

“I’ve conducted several studies in Nicaragua and Ecuador, where domestic violence is a widespread problem. When working as a Swedish researcher in other countries, in my case Latin American countries and Indonesia, it’s crucial to have collaborations on site. When I took on my doctoral studies, I was lucky to end up in an international environment at the Department of Epidemiology and Global Health. There were already established contacts with several Latin American countries, and these I have since developed upon myself. I don’t think anyone should get into that type of research on their own, but always seek support on site.”

Director of an expansive research environment

In 2008, Forum for Women’s Studies and the Graduate School of Gender Studies merged into the new Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS). Ann Öhman became the first director of UCGS and was tasked with setting up a transdisciplinary, very expansive, research environment.

“When UCGS was founded, many thought it was a controversial initiative. But we were lucky to receive good support from the University Management, and had a good financial basis to start off with. The build-up phase of UCGS was fun, but tough. We progressed expansively to begin with. In the first years, we employed seventeen postdoctoral fellows, seven assistant professors, six visiting professors and a large number of doctoral students (currently, over 70 doctoral students have completed their studies, and about 30 are registered with the Graduate School of Gender Studies). After leaving my role as director of UCGS, I continued as head of research and I have certainly liked it here.”

Knowledge-driven work towards academic equality

As a professor of two separate fields, Ann Öhman has been head of research at the faculties of medicine and social sciences.

“I don’t think there is any woman professor who hasn’t experienced techniques of domination, often conducted unawares, in their career. For example, your opinions could be disregarded or you could be suppressed or ignored. Despite this, I think I’ve been spared discrimination in my work life. I’ve had the luxury of working in an organisation where being a woman leader is accepted.”

According to Ann Öhman, the uneven gender distribution among professors that still persists is not a problem to be solved by individuals. This needs to be raised at a managerial and organisational level.

“If the problem was that women needed to step up more, this problem wouldn’t have existed now. We need to make sure that the uneven gender distribution is an organisational and leadership problem and not an insoluble riddle. There is plenty of research about women’s academic careers. It clearly shows that the work to gain more women professors must build on knowledge and consciousness of which opportunities and pitfalls there are. An example of such a pitfall is that many women complete their doctoral studies and then immediately end up with full-time teaching. Teaching takes up all their time and they are not given the chance to gain experience in supervision and research, and all other aspects required for promotion. The management needs to work actively with a knowledge-driven policy that awards merit to those with lectureships too. Separate career initiatives are good, but we mustn’t stop there. If we wish to really get to the bottom of this problem, the work must be structured and recurrent on a managerial level, otherwise its incredibly easy that the former gender distribution returns. And we must definitely stop telling women to show what they’re made of or step up. This is an organisational and structural problem requiring a conscious leadership, not a problem on an individual scale.”

Ann Öhman retires on 1 January 2022. She will stay on as professor emerita, and will continue to supervise a doctoral student until completed thesis.

“When I retire, I’ll try to take it easy and figure out what it is I really want to do. I may allow myself a lie-in, and to stay in bed reading the newspaper once in a while. I’ll enjoy that!”