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Are Men Better Professors Than Women? Denmark Addresses the Academic Gender Gap

A ‘worryingly low’ number of female lecturers and professors in universities has lead to heated discussions about gender equality in Denmark. Following this ground-breaking study, Katrine Obel-Grønbæk  translates and investigates the Danish student medias’ analysis of the issue.

 The Danish government earmark 70 million DKK (12.7m US dollars, 9.4m Euro) for the advancement of female researchers, with the introduction of University led cash incentives for the employment of female staff after reports of ‘worryingly’ low female university positions throughout the country’s academic institutions.

Since 2000, more women than men have been attending Danish universities, and today an equal amount of female and male PhD students are being educated. However, these numbers are not reflected at the level of research where men still – by far – outnumber women. For every one woman that is appointed a professor at a Danish educational institution,  there are five men who get the title. And every time a woman becomes a lecturer, two men achieve the same.

New financial initiatives are going to secure more female researchers

In terms of the proportion of women in research, Denmark is not doing well compared to other countries. Last year, an EU survey ranked Denmark at a lowly 23rd out of 27 countries, far behind both Sweden and Norway.

The Danish government has responded with action. In cooperation with The Free Research Council, they have launched a program that is going to “promote a more equal gender composition of the research environments in Denmark”. The programme, which is going to cost 70 million DKK, will be open to all fields of study and both men and women can apply.

“But through dispensation from the law of equal treatment, female applicants will be prioritized over male applicants in cases of equal qualifications between two applicants,” a representative from The Free Research Council said about the programme.

“Our assessment is that we are losing a lot of talent,” the Danish Education Minister Morten Østergaard says to Politiken, one of Denmark’s leading newspapers. With an equal gender distribution among PhD students, he does not believe that the inequality arises because men are better at being professors than women. “

There has to be other things that come into play, apparently making the career path harder for women,” he says.

The measures, however, have been met by heavy criticism. According to critics, they translate into female favoritism at the expense of their talented male colleagues. And then it is no longer a question of equality, they argue.

The myth of meritocracy

Everyone agrees that individuals should be evaluated on their qualifications and not their sex. However, the numbers seem to indicate that gender bias still exists in the meritocratic structures of the universities: that is, a system whereby the talented are chosen and subsequently move ahead purely on the basis of their achievements and abilities.

For a long time, universities believed – and some still do – that meritocracy would prevail and that women just needed time to catch up with their male counterparts; they did get access to the universities later than men, so it only seemed natural. Up until now, the rationale has therefore been that the numbers would even out by themselves over time.

This has not happened. The proportion of women among the employed researchers at Danish universities has not changed significantly since 1979. In fact, if the current developmental pace is going to continue, we will have to wait another 246 years before there will be as many women as men among the faculty members of the University of Copenhagen. PhD student Gry Høngsmark Knudsen bases her numbers on employment statistics, among other things, and says that it is a myth that universities have always employed the best candidates.

Discrimination is hard to measure. But in 2012, for the first time, a ground-breaking study from Yale showed that gender is a factor. It had both male and female scientists presented with application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position and who intended to go on to graduate school. Half the scientists were given the application with a male name attached, and half were given the exact same application with a female name attached. Results found that the ‘female’ applicants were rated significantly lower than the ‘males’ in competence, ‘hire-ability’, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student. The scientists also offered lower starting salaries to the ‘female’ applicants: $26,507.94 compared to $30,238.10.

The universities take action

“Believing that things will sort themselves out does not hold water. It is not because some angry, old men are sitting and trying to keep women out. There are structures, habits and a culture in society that means that we all – including the women – have a perception that men are slightly more smart and have a bit more edge. And we need to get rid of that,” associate professor Anja C. Anderson says to Politiken. She is one of the advocates for the new financial initiatives and she used to be part of the gender equality taskforce at the University of Copenhagen.

In the last few years, gender equality has been a key agenda at most Danish universities. In 2007, the University of Copenhagen introduced cash rewards to the institutes and faculties that hired female professors. Three years later, more than every fourth newly employed professor was a woman. The number was under 16 per cent before.

For the time being, it seems that women need help breaking the existing structural barriers. And it seems that finance is an area that can make a difference.

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