Debate on gender balance

Why are Danish universities lagging behind in terms of gender balance? And what can we do about it? These were the key questions posed at AU’s conference on gender balance on Friday 8 March. At the conference, many suggestions were presented that the school will now be looking into, says Dean Thomas Pallesen.

2019.03.19 | Sinne B. Jakobsen

There was a full house at AU's conference on gender balance on 8 March. Photo: Anders Hyllander.


Even though the conference “How to improve gender balance at Aarhus University” took place on International Women’s Day, it soon became clear that both men and women have a reason to fight for a better gender balance at Danish universities. Gender balance is all about ensuring diversity and thus the quality of our research, as Rector Brian Bech Nielsen said in his opening speech.

And there is lots to be done. At AU, just 21 per cent of all professors are women, and the number is only slightly higher at Aarhus BSS. Here women make up 24.7 per cent of the school’s 164 professors. This is not good enough, according to Vice-dean for Research Per Baltzer Overgaard.

“At Aarhus BSS, we have a 50 per cent gender distribution among our students and assistant professors,” he says. “Unfortunately, these numbers are far from reflected in the gender distribution at professor level. Although we’re moving in the right direction and appointed 31 per cent female professors in 2017 compared to 7 per cent in 2014, we still have a long way to go.”

Structural barriers for women

There is no clear explanation for why there are far less women than men at the top of the academic career ladder. At the conference, several possible reasons were put forward such as differences in maternity and paternity leave, a lack of female role models within certain academic fields, and the challenge that many researchers experience in terms of their work/life balance.

The second part of the conference consisted of individual breakout sessions in which the four faculties could discuss their specific challenges on their own. Participants included Dean Thomas Pallesen, Vice-dean Per Baltzer Overgaard and the six heads of department. In addition, five of the school’s researchers had been asked to offer their take on how Aarhus BSS can solve the complex problem. One of these were Professor Anne Skorkjær Binderkrantz from the Department of Political Science. Among other things, she zoomed in on the structural challenges that may make it harder for women to be become associate professors and might even deter women from applying for associate professorships and professorships.

“When we recruit, we typically emphasise factors such as international experience and the number of publications. This might present a challenge to some women as they will often be responsible for taking the maternity/paternity leave and will thus take longer to achieve the required number of publications. Some women might also find it more difficult to balance a research stay abroad with having a family, and thus their CVs might not include long-term research stays. We need to take all of these things into account when we recruit.”

Graphics: Didde Trolle

The dean: It’s about attracting and retaining talent

Dean Thomas Pallesen agrees with Anne Skorkjær Binderkrantz that the school could look into reducing some of the structural challenges, e.g. in relation to research stays abroad. This is also included in the school’s action plan. He also emphasises that gender balance is very much about attracting and retaining talent. This calls for sensible and gender-neutral rules and norms that may spur gender equality in cases of specific barriers for women. We also need to be able to offer employees an attractive workplace. In this connection, the departments play an important role: 

“We need to make sure that the departments offer researchers a good work environment that is attractive to talents regardless of gender and nationality,” says Thomas Pallesen. ”I would like to see senior professors mentor young researchers to an even greater extent than they do today and include the young talents in research groups. We also need to get the junior researchers’ take on what a good workplace constitutes, and what it takes to make them want to continue their career at Aarhus BSS.”

According to Thomas Pallesen, Aarhus BSS will now take stock of the school’s gender balance efforts and discuss how to increase the efforts at school and department level:

“I look forward to engaging in a constructive dialogue about the many suggestions that have been presented at the conference and to continuing working with the many excellent initiatives that are already taking place at department level. I also welcome any other good suggestions,” he concludes. 

Do you have a suggestion for how Aarhus BSS may improve the gender balance at the school?

Contact Per Baltzer Overgaard
Phone: +4587152175
Mobile: +4523266175

Read more:

AU’s action plan for more women in research 2016 to 2020

AU's website with information about and inspiration for how to work with gender balance in research.

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