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Long way to go for gender equality

Gender inequality remains a stain on the European project. After decades of effort to improve gender balance, surveys still show that women represent a minority in leadership roles despite female university graduates outnumbering male ones.

In its latest progress report on 9 May, the Norwegian government revealed that just 28 per cent of professors in the country were women—with the proportion growing by just 1 percentage point a year over the past decade. Statistically, those results may seem poor, but some say Norway is actually a bastion of female leadership in universities.

“It might not look good, but Norway is pretty much the European elite on this,” says Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association. “Why is 28 per cent a good result in Europe? We can’t say.”

EUA data on women in university leadership positions confirm that there has been a slow but steady change. Of the rectors in the EUA’s database covering 22 countries, 15 per cent were women in 2016, up from 11 per cent in 2014 and just 6 per cent in 2008.

There were major differences between countries. A third of rectors in Sweden, Norway and Finland were women in 2016, but in Belgium, Italy and the Czech Republic, it was less than 10 per cent.

Out of the Norwegian public higher education institutions, the Oslo and Akershus University College and the Oslo National Academy of the Arts scored best in gender balance, with 46 per cent of top positions filled by women. On the other hand, the Sámi University of Applied Sciences fared worst with only 11 per cent, followed by the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) with 18 per cent of women in top posts.

Siri Strandenes, head of the economics department at the NHH, was the first female professor hired by the university in 2002. Since then, she has seen a shift in gender balance within the university, citing two female professors joining her department this academic year. Out of 80 professors at NHH, 16 are women. “It should be more,” she says, but adds that academic discipline is an important factor.

“There are differences within Norway between the universities and fields,” says Strandenes. “Economics has traditionally not seen many female academics, so the result doesn’t surprise me.”

In general terms, Norway performs well in gender equality, achieving third place in a 2016 study by the World Economic Forum. But it is still not clear why women lack a presence in top academic roles, even with a good gender balance at doctoral level.

Following the progress report, Norway’s minister of education Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said he was “delighted” that women in academic posts were increasing, but that the country had “far to go”.

“I think it’s a good thing that Norway is open about the share of female professors,” says Strandenes. “It’s about building awareness.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe