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Research on Gender in Academic Careers, GENIAC

Higher education in Sweden should be meritocratic and equal for women and men. But, how is it ‘factually’? Moreover, how can we explore this issue in relevant and research-efficient manners?

A Complex and Multifaceted Issue

The applicant’s qualifications should be decisive for eligibility to a position as professor or senior lecturer. The Equal Opportunities Act shall promote the equal rights of women and men in terms of work, employment and other working conditions and development opportunities at work. This also applies to higher education. Two reasons for the law are usually emphasised. According to the equity aspect, women and men should have equal access to careers, and their achievements in higher education should be valued and rewarded regardless of gender. The vast majority also recognises the quality aspect; women and men carry partly different experiences. If the experiences and perspectives of women and men are considered and put to use, it means enriching the development in research and education. One reason, which is not always openly addressed, concerns power and influence: In a debate, the argument easily becomes controversial because power is a matter of a zero-sum game, where one’s gain is the other one’s loss.

Discrimination against women

For more than a quarter of a century, we have been interested in the issue of gender equality in academia, how it can be explored and what the results have to say to researchers, decision makers and an interested public. Studies on women’s and men’s careers in higher education are facilitated by the fact that the employment processes are well documented and, according to Swedish law, accessible to research. The procedures have been honed since their inceptions in the university statutes of 1852 and 1876. A thorough and, in many ways, elaborate procedure has legitimised the meritocratic system. However, it has also been argued that discrimination against women takes place within this system. These were the assumptions for the study that laid the foundation for the research program Gender in Academic Careers, GENIAC.

Pilot study

In 1994, the government allocated us funds for “a pilot study regarding how female applicants’ qualifications are assessed at employment in universities and colleges in relation to how male applicants’ qualifications are assessed” (Government Decision 1994-05-19). The underlying question was whether women are discriminated against when applying for employment as a university teacher.

Assessment of qualifications in the recruitment procedure

The publication of our results from the study of assessment of qualifications in the recruitment procedure regarding professors and senior lecturers coincided in time with an impetuous debate on gender equality in media and in universities and colleges, and we soon found ourselves participating in this exchange of views. In one of the largest Swedish newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet, the debate editor formulated the vignette for one of our two debate posts in the following manner:

It is a widespread notion that women are discriminated against because of their gender in academic services. A government inquiry [SOU 1995:110] has based its entire reasoning on this presumption. The evidence cited for this position does not exist, Ulla Riis and Leif Lindberg point out, relying on investigations of their own. (SvD 1996-03-17)

In our study, we assumed that something is problematic within the Swedish higher education system when women are so few in the higher teaching and research positions. Although this study does not show discrimination in academic appointments, it does not mean that career opportunities are equal. There are other gender equality problems and other points in a career that can have a greater explanatory factor.

Summary: Ulla Riis & Leif Lindberg (1996) Värdering av kvinnors respektive mäns meriter vid tjänstetillsättning inom universitet och högskolor [Assessment of Female and Male Qualifications in Appointments Within Higher Education]. (Ds 1996:14)

Part of the work on the government assignment was a compilation of research literature on gender and academic career. Some 60 publications from the period 1980–1995 could be listed. Most texts had a limited scope and usually were initiated locally. Most were coloured by the prevailing political debate, and there were only a few works with a scientific approach.

Six years later, we followed up this compilation of literature with a commented bibliography (2003) covering the period 1995–2002. The assignment was given by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education. The number of works had grown sharply, but a closer examination of about 160 of some 680 publications showed that reports with local connections and so-called ‘grey literature’ still dominated in terms of numbers, and works with more extensive empirical and/or clear scientific ambitions still constituted a minor part.

Summary: Kyndel, D., Lindberg, L. & Riis, U. (2003) Jämställdhet inom universitet och högskolor. En bibliografi med kommentarer [Gender Equality in Swedish Higher Education. A Bibliography with Comments]. Stockholm: Högskoleverkets rapportserie 2003:22 R

Academic leadership – career or not?

During the same period as the compilation of literature, Ulrika Haake studied a rarely illuminated academic career track: academic leadership and the leadership-creating process undergone by new heads of department. The focus of the study was on their discursive identity development. Fifteen heads of department, about as many women as men, were interviewed on five occasions from the time they were newly appointed and four years ahead. The main result of the studies is the visualisation of a gender-segregating process and of the different ways in which academic leadership is expressed in male-dominated and female-dominated positions. Some differences emerging over time are that leadership in the male positions is expressed as being relatively delimited, contrary to what is expressed in the positions populated by women, where leadership is described as comprehensive and complex. Men do not talk about gender related to leadership issues, while women increasingly do this over time. Another difference is that the men are more positive to the idea of leadership and to continuing as heads of department, while the women see more problems and refrain from taking another leadership role. In summary, the study shows the complexity of studies of academic leader career patterns and their variability over time.

Summary: Haake, Ulrika (2004). Leadership Making in the Academy. On the Discursive Identity Development of Departmental Heads, Academic dissertation, Faculty of Social Sciences, Umeå University, Sweden

Article: Ulrika Haake (2009). Doing Leadership in Higher Education: The Gendering Process of Leader Identity Development, Tertiary Education and Management, 15(4), 291–304.

Abstract: Ulrika Haake (2009). Doing Leadership in Higher Education: The Gendering Process of Leader Identity Development, Tertiary Education and Management, 15(4), 291–304.


The different worlds of academia

Overlapping with Haake’s thesis study, we conducted an empirical study in 2004–2005, this time too with assignment from the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education. Our task was to, “based on existing statistics on higher education in Sweden”, identify “critical phases in the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate education, and from postgraduate education to employment at the university, with regard to gender and positions for which a doctoral degree is required”. The results led us to call the final report The Different Worlds Academia (2005). The statistics refer to the period 1987–2002, and the focus of the analyses was on exams and positions in one dimension and on gender in the other. One expected result was that the proportion of women among those with a doctoral degree (i.e. senior lecturers and professors) was lower “the higher up” in a hierarchy one was looking. Another expected result was that the proportion of women increased over time. However, when the statistics were distributed over faculty areas and disciplines, the overall picture changed significantly. Our conclusion was that a horizontal analysis is necessary if one is to understand the phenomenon of gender equality in higher education, and if knowledge of this would form a reliable and solid base for relevant measures for change. We also formulated a reference framework for further investigations. Leif

Summary: Lindberg, Ulla Riis & Charlotte Silander (2005) Akademins olika världar [The Different Worlds of Academia]. Högskoleverket Rapport 2005:53 R

Gender Equality and the Academy

A research grant in 2006–2008 for the project Gender Equality and the Academy: When Desires and Choice Face Hindrance, Opportunities and Resistance made it possible for continued horizontal analyses and examination of the question of who leaves and who stays in the academy. The prevailing view has long been that the women, for various reasons, are those who leave or are forced to leave the academy after earning their doctorates. In a previous study, we had further found that there were virtually no studies of the external conditions for the higher education system and the impact of these provisions on gender equality. The research question this time was: Does the design of the university system have an impact on gender equality in the academy? One answer was that women holding doctorates leave the academy to a much lower degree than men do. A second finding illustrated the varied resource situation for different parts of the academy and the yielding differences in gender balances. In addition to the link below to a summary of a dissertation from this project, presentations and results of other sub-studies will follow under the headings below.

Summary: Silander, Charlotte (2010). Pyramides and Pipelines: The System of Higher Education and Its Effect on Gender Equality. Linnaeus University Dissertations No 1/2010

Doctoral education and gender equality work in female- and male-dominated subjects

Another sub-study in the FAS-project 'Gender Equality and the Academy’ compares different doctoral educational environments based on the subjects' gender compositions. The transition from undergraduate to postgraduate education has proven to be critical from a gender equality perspective. Existing statistics show that the differences in transition rates are large when comparing women and men. This is particularly evident when statistics are analysed horizontally. In a combined interview- and questionnaire study, with a focus on basic values about who the ideal doctoral student is, how the selection process for doctoral education takes place and how to look at gender equality work, in male-dominated, female-dominated and (statistically) gender-equal postgraduate environments, we were able to show clear but contradictory patterns. The differences between different disciplinary cultures were clear based on whether the subject was dominated by women or men.

Article: Haake, U. (2011) Contradictory Values in Doctoral Education - A Study of Gender Composition in Disciplines in Swedish Academia. Higher Education, 62(1), 113-127.

Abstract: Haake, U. (2011) Contradictory Values in Doctoral Education - A Study of Gender Composition in Disciplines in Swedish Academia. Higher Education, 62(1), 113-127.

Gender balance in higher education

The next sub-study on 'Gender Equality and the Academy’ focused on gender balance during the period 1997–2007 with special emphasis on horizontal conditions and changes rather than vertical ones. As said, we had seen that equality in higher education must be regarded as a complex phenomenon and in need of multidimensional scrutiny. The result of the present empirical study revealed (1) large differences in gender balance between research areas, (2) an overall change towards increased gender balance during the period, but (3) few or no changes taking place in mathematics and technology (with the exception of increased transition frequency from undergraduate studies to doctoral studies in technology). The most advantageous opportunities for postgraduate education existed in medicine, technology and science, and the possibility of doing an academic career was large or very large in science and in medicine. For persons admitted to postgraduate education there is gender balance in medicine, science and social sciences. However, female students mostly populate undergraduate education in the social sciences, in teacher education and in care. In these areas, students’ opportunities to be considered for postgraduate education are very small, the transition rates are extremely low, and men are favoured over women, which should be emphasised. Overall, the transition rates are substantially lower for women than for men. Women and men spend about the same amount of time in postgraduate education. There are differences between research areas but not between genders. 

Article: Leif Lindberg, Ulla Riis & Charlotte Silander (2011). Gender Equality in Swedish Higher Education: Patterns and Shifts, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 55(2), 165‐179.

Abstract: Leif Lindberg, Ulla Riis & Charlotte Silander (2011). Gender Equality in Swedish Higher Education: Patterns and Shifts, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 55(2), 165‐179.

Horizontal analyzes of gender equality in higher education

In our work with the project 'Gender Equality and the Academy', we combined research on gender with theories of differences between academic cultures. Our approach, which is based on both quantitative, longitudinal and qualitative research methods, shows a more complex and contradictory picture of gender equality in higher education than what one-dimensional explanatory models can provide. Our contribution has practical as well as theoretical implications: Political and administrative measures against gender imbalance in higher education should not be based on mainstream ideas about the causes of the imbalance but rather on a thorough and contextual analysis of the specific area. In particular, we want to emphasize the value of conducting horizontal analyzes. Theoretically, there is a need for a composite frame of reference that can handle the different aspects of the different worlds of academia. See our more summarizing article on the project below.

Article: Charlotte Silander, Ulrika Haake & Leif Lindberg (2013). The different worlds of academia: a horizontal analysis of gender equality in Swedish higher education, Higher Education 66(2), 173–188.

Abstract: Charlotte Silander, Ulrika Haake & Leif Lindberg (2013). The different worlds of academia: a horizontal analysis of gender equality in Swedish higher education, Higher Education 66(2), 173–188.

Our work up to 2013 on the theme Gender in Academic Careers can be summed up thus: Horizontal analysis is complementary to vertical analysis, and horizontal analyses are necessary for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of gender equality in higher education.

Is the Bar Quivering?

Another more targeted study is a follow-up of a promotion reform in Swedish universities. In 1999-2011, senior lecturers had an unconditional right to be promoted to professor if their competence met the requirements for the professor’s level. In our 1996 study (Riis & Lindberg), we proposed such a system and argued that it “would [probably] benefit women” (p. 14, 117 f). One result of the follow-up study in 2011 was that women, as a group, actually did benefit when it came to promotion, but the picture—again—became another one when data was distributed over faculty areas. Women were promoted from a somewhat lower scientific level than men were, but the women’s management qualifications and the confidence in women as academics were higher than the corresponding qualifications regarding men, and this probably furthered the promotion of female senior lecturers. In addition, we could see an intricate interaction between gender, faculty area and time. For example, women in medicine were clearly withheld from promotion at the beginning of the period, but this tendency disappeared later on. At the same time, in medicine, teaching qualifications, which were held to a greater extent by women than men, were at times systematically devalued. This tendency did not change over time. Thus, the horizontal dimension again proved to play a major role in understanding the dynamics of gender equality in academia, and the whole question’s complexity was once again emphasised.

Summary: Riis, Ulla (2012) Is the Bar Quivering? What can we Learn about Academic Career Requirements from the 1999 Promotion Reform? Uppsala: Pedagogisk Forskning i Uppsala, no 161

Up until 1999, Swedish universities appointed professors only after a public posting and a competition between those applying for the chair. Experts for assessing the applicants’ merits were chosen from universities other than that recruiting. The experts were (1) to deem whether or not each of the applicants was eligible for a professorship, and (2) to rank the eligible applicants. This process was regulated in the Higher Education Ordinance. In 1998 an addendum was made to the Ordinance to the effect that any senior lecturer could apply for promotion to become professor. The procedure for recruiting experts, the demands on them, and the requirements for eligibility on part of the applicant remained unchanged. The procedures for recruiting through public posting and a competition also remained unchanged.

Evaluation of gender equality policies

The project Evaluation of Gender Equality Policies—What Works? examines how universities in Sweden, Norway and Finland work to further gender equality. Although the Nordic countries have a long history of active gender equality work at universities and colleges, there is no comprehensive survey in a Nordic context of the type of measures used, how these can be related to policy at the national level and the effects of these measures. The project is conducted in cooperation with the Nordic Centre for Research on Gender Equality in Research and Innovation (NORDICORE) at the Norwegian Institute for Social Research (ISF). The project has as a starting point the fact that major differences in gender balance exist between different research areas and between the Nordic universities. The main task of the project is to understand and explain why this is the case. Data collection has been completed, and the analysis will take place during the spring of 2020.

We will eventually present the results here.

Nordic research on gender equality in academic careers

In this article from 2021 we provide an integrative review of research on gender and academic careers conducted in the Nordic countries from 2003–2018. We investigate the nature and content of contemporary Nordic research and critically examine the methodological and theoretical approaches authors have used. We read, categorised, and analysed 74 articles retrieved from Web of Science. Our review shows that gender differences in academic careers persist, in line with earlier reviews. Also, the early years seem crucial to the development of an academic research career. Studies focusing on gendered career trajectories and publication patterns together with studies on the influence of new public management on gender are the three main areas of research interest. Existing research lacks (1) a focus on the horizontal dimension (i.e. across disciplines), (2) studies developing concepts and theory and (3) studies focusing on the consequences of changes in the research policy framework for higher education. To see the whole article on online first, go to: https://doi.org/10.1080/21568235.2021.1895858

Abstract: Charlotte Silander, Ulrika Haake, Leif Lindberg & Ulla Riis (2021). Nordic research on gender equality in academic careers: a literature review. European Journal of Higher Education.

To Achieve Gender Equality in Organisations

In a book by Emerald, the Geniac-project presents one chapter. In short, the chapter can be introduced like this:

Sweden, as a country based on extremely high secular and self-expression values, serve as an example that somewhat differ from other countries internationally, when it comes to educational leadership curriculum. The chapter takes its starting point at the governmental decision for Swedish universities to gender-mainstream their organisations, something that affects the educational leadership curriculum. To be able to discuss this, the chapter presents three research studies on gendering leader identity development processes and gender equality strategies in the Swedish higher education setting.

Reference: Haake, U. (2021). To Achieve Gender Equality in Organisations: A Swedish Case on an Important Aspect of Educational Leadership, Samier, E.A., Elkaleh, E.S., & Hammad, W. (Ed.) Internationalisation of Educational Administration and Leadership Curriculum (Studies in Educational Administration), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 199-214. https://doi.org/10.1108/978-1-83909-864-220211012.

Abstract 2021: To Achieve Gender Equality in Organisations: A Swedish Case on an Important Aspect of
Educational Leadership 

Latest update: 2021-11-01