The world should learn from Norway’s systematic waste of female talent

Norway is the second-most gender-equal country in the world, yet its higher education system fails to attract and retain female talent, say members of the Young Academy of Norway

May 21, 2018
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Norway is the second-most gender-equal country in the world. It is a status we Norwegians are known for and proud of. However, a close look at higher education in the country shatters the image, for Norwegian academia systematically fails to keep talented female researchers. This needs to change.

The facts are plain: if you are a woman, your chances of succeeding in climbing the academic ladder decrease significantly. Yet, despite the fact that we have known about and have worked to address this for decades in Norway, we have struggled to shift the pattern in any significant way. Why? We believe that the answer is quite simple: we have been asking the wrong question. Asking what is needed for women to succeed in academia is a dead end. Instead, we need to ask: why is academia content to waste female talent?

The numbers are pretty telling. Nearly 60 per cent of today’s student population in Norway are female. For a decade, more than 50 per cent of PhD students have been female (see KIFinfo for more details). Numerically, the basis for recruiting women for senior positions is good. There really is no shortage of female talent. And yet less than 30 per cent of professors are women. In some fields such as technology, as little as 16 per cent of professors are women (see NIFU for further details). Moreover, a new report from the Young Academy of Norway highlights that young female researchers are more likely to leave academia and are less likely to recommend a research career to young people than their male counterparts. In other words, academia fails to keep hold of excellent female researchers.

This is hardly surprising. For women, the road to the top is longer and harder than it is for men. Women are seemingly less likely to succeed with funding applications; they have lower salaries; they receive fewer science prizes; and they are less likely to have permanent positions. An academic career is hardly the most attractive professional option for up-and-coming young women.

Even if this academic gender pattern has troubled one of the world’s most gender equal countries for decades, neither sector leaders nor politicians have managed to provide a successful recipe for change. Whether consciously or not, the responsibility for enhancing the poor gender balance has tended to be placed on the shoulders of women themselves. Well-intended efforts such as providing leadership courses and mentoring imply that the issue is the individual women and their seemingly inadequate competences. Hence, if enough courses or mentoring schemes are provided, gender balance will be achieved. We have tried it for decades – it does not work very well. We move at a snail’s pace. At the current speed, it will take us another 22 years to achieve gender balance among professors. What are we to do?

Leaving aside the frequent criticism of nepotism in Norwegian academia, an equally important challenge to address is the tendency to hide behind the notion that positions always go to “the best” candidates. When asked about the lack of gender balance in tenure-track positions, for example, academic institutions typically claim that they selected “the best” person for the job. The same answer is given when scientific awards fail to acknowledge women. There is no simple answer for how to define “the best”. In most cases in Norway, you recruit for joint teaching and research positions. In today’s demanding academic world, you need staff who are excellent at teaching and are also good leaders and administrators. The meaning of what is “the best” for an institution is relative. Recognising this and acting accordingly requires us to rethink hiring processes and also to demand more of those leading the institutions.

Summing up, our message is simple: we need to shift the focus from the women to the system. When so many women leave, the academic system is failing. Addressing the system failure is paramount. If we are to tackle the global challenges we face today, we cannot afford to waste talent. So scholars around the world, learn from our pitfalls as you push forward. Start addressing academia’s systemic failure and stop wasting female talent!

Guro Lind, Herdis Hølleland, Katrien De Moor and Guro Busterud are part of the Young Academy of Norway, an interdisciplinary organisation for young researchers dedicated to research policy and dissemination.

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Print headline: Norway is a very gender-equal nation, yet it systematically wastes female scholarly talent

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