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Looking beyond a gender balance in academic decision-making

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The unbalanced representation of women and men in decision-making bodies in science across the EU has long been recognized as a serious problem – negatively influencing the quality of research and innovation. Understanding how this gender imbalance on scientific and management boards and the under-representation of women in management positions such as vice-chancellor and dean can be challenged and changed is thus of great importance.

Swedish higher education has come a long way in reaching gender balance in academic decision-making positions and has the highest percentage of women vice-chancellors in Europe, with over 50 per cent who are women as head of research institutions. One of the contributing factors as to why Sweden has achieved such gender balance is equal representation policies. However, a closer look at the situation in Swedish higher education also reveals a paradox regarding policies about equal representation.

The advancement of women in senior management positions in Swedish universities has namely come in spite of a continuing under-representation of female professors. In 2014, only 25 per cent of full professors were women, just barely above the EU average. This gender imbalance differs considerably between disciplines, however. For example, Sweden has a slightly lower proportion of women professors in engineering and technology compared to other EU countries.

This means that the absolute requirement for women to be equally represented in administrative committees and managerial positions has two important implications; 1) that the workload on female professors increases disproportionately compared to men, and/or 2) that women that are not yet full professors are appointed to these positions.

This has opened up criticism towards equal representation policies as they are slowing down women’s academic careers and can actually contribute to increased gender segregation in other aspects. If women are appointed to committees and administrative positions before they are professors, they can come to a halt in their scientific career due to the increasing administrative workload.

Women academic managers are now expressing their concerns about “women being exploited in the name of gender equality” . These women are also more and more reluctant to support the equal representation policies because of their own experiences of being “overloaded by administrative assignments” due to a lack of women that could share the burden of work that is distributed according to equal representation policies. Instead of supporting the goal of a 50-50 representation, they explain that it would be fairer to have a 25-75 goal.

This is of particular concern in engineering and technology where only 10 per cent of the professors are women and in the natural sciences where 14 per cent of the professors are women (compared to 23 per cent in the social sciences and 30 per cent in the humanities). The problem with equal representation policies being unfair to women thus varies according to the degree of the gender imbalance within each disciplinary field.

Solutions to the under-representation of women in decision-making positions need to take differences at a structural level into account and should, therefore, vary between the academic disciplines according to their history, specialization, size and the nature of the gender imbalance. It must also address the issue of lack of female professors and support women’s career progression by other means – for example, offering compensation for women who take on administrative assignments and positions, in the form of extra research funding and time to apply for associate professorships and full professorships.

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