Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Denmark Moots Fair Trade-Off on Gender

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Denmark Moots Fair Trade-Off on Gender

Article excerpt

Jon Marcus reports from Copenhagen on the fine-tuning of policies targeting under-representation of female academics

Ranked third in the world by the United Nations on gender equality, Denmark was one of the first countries to give women the vote. Its prime minister is a woman, as is its minister of higher education and science.

But the current debate over gender imbalances in academia illustrates the challenge of addressing such disparities in a society that steadfastly refuses to allow preferential treatment for any group.

Only about a third of Danish researchers and fewer than one in five professors are women, according to a national task force that issued its report in May. In both cases, these levels are worse than the Nordic, European Union and Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development averages. At the current rate of hiring, according to the report, Recommendation from the Task Force on More Women in Science, it could take 50 years to reach gender parity.

This state of affairs, said Sofie Carsten Nielsen, the minister of higher education and science, "is not good enough...It means that we miss talent."

The challenge is how to fix the problem without requiring that women be given priority in hiring.

In February, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark's largest and oldest higher education institution, instituted a policy requiring every applicant pool for academic and administrative jobs to include at least one woman. That replaced a scheme under which departments that were increasing their proportion of female academic staff were allowed to add positions and received financial bonuses.

But such policies are controversial - and may even be illegal, some critics have said.

"Even some women think it is a bad idea to do this," acknowledged Camilla Gregersen, vice-chair of Dansk Magisterforening, Denmark's academic union and professional association for university graduates, which endorses the goal of increasing the number of women in academic jobs.

"[But] sometimes you have to take steps to reach a goal," Ms Gregersen said in her office in Copenhagen's Frederiksberg neighbourhood. "It's not the steps that are important; it's the goal that's important."

Achieving gender parity in university jobs has been a surprisingly difficult process in otherwise egalitarian Denmark.

Women outnumber men among university undergraduates and comprise half of doctoral candidates.

"But as we get closer to the permanent senior positions, we find a much smaller proportion of women," said Lisbeth Møller, director of human resources at Copenhagen. …

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