Bringing women to the forefront

Scandinavia is often lauded for its pioneering efforts to combat gender inequality, but the reality is that Danish women still struggle to find top positions in the workforce. A new initiative is addressing the persisting gender imbalance in academia

You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize-winner to see that something is awry in Danish academia. Women make up 60 percent of Masters degree students, but hold only one in five leading research positions. In a European context, the statistics from the Danish Council for Independent Research (DFF) are dispiriting, given that sixteen EU countries have a higher percentage of female professors than Denmark.

To turn the tide, DFF last year launched the YDUN initiative that will invest 110 million kroner in young Danish researchers. Both men and women can apply, but if male and female applicants are equally qualified, the female researcher will be prioritised.

The ambition is to launch more female academic careers, and in October, seventeen winning project leaders were selected. Among them is Professor Anja Groth, who is conducting research into new technologies regarding cellular memory. Her work will contribute to future research on stem cells, aging and various diseases including cancer.

Groth says there are a lot of talented young women performing at the top levels in science, but many may not get the funding they need.

While more women may start to break into academia’s top tier, she argues that Denmark is already lagging behind, and should make it easier for candidates of both sexes to accomplish their goals.

“I recently read that top companies like Google and Apple are competing to get the best female programmers by offering a range of family-friendly initiatives. We need to have the same approach with research,” she said.

“I think we need to implement various strategies, perhaps including softer approaches in career development, specific strategies in funding, and making sure positions in academia are allocated in open competition.”

Anja Groth in a video from 2011

It’s a man’s world
Like academia, the corporate sector in Denmark lags behind the rest of the Nordic countries in respect to paternity leave and women in leadership positions. According to the Nordic Labour Journal, only about seven percent of Danish management positions in listed companies are held by women.

This trend is seen throughout Europe and, in 2012, the European Commission issued a directive to ensure that by 2020, 40 percent of European non-executive board-member positions will be held by the under-represented gender – women in every case. The directive copied a move made by Norway in 2008, but which Danish politicians have resisted.

Stine Bosse, an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School and renowned business woman and board member, says the glass ceiling is cracking, but there are evidently still a number of issues to address before it is shattered once and for all.

“It’s getting better, but there are still very few women that make it to the top,” she said. “In my opinion, it does not necessarily have to be fifty-fifty, but we do need to see something like 30 or 40 percent females in these higher positions.”

She argues that policies to prioritise women are needed, remembering her early days climbing the corporate ladder, when business was definitively a man’s game.

“If you didn’t know how to decode male language, you would have difficulty. You essentially had to allow yourself to understand a more male way of thinking.”

She explains that some of these ‘male’ attitudes linger, contributing to the current pattern of men hiring men.

“When you recruit someone for a top position, it’s likely that you might look for somebody close to yourself and your own competencies,” she explains. “More women need to be brought into the board room, and the decision should always be based on their qualifications.”

A significant issue identified by both Bosse and Groth is paternity leave and the discrepancies between regulations and genders.

“We need to make sure that it is also easy for men to take time off to be with their family. It should be observed and respected that they may also take another position and choose family life,” explained Bosse.

Groth has seen many women in neighbouring EU nations successfully pursue careers at the forefront of research, but Denmark is still limited by a more conformist perspective.

“In Denmark, we are focused on security and the ability to control and know exactly how our future looks. There is a tendency for society to make rules about how to pursue a career or live a family life, and it can be difficult for people to deviate from the norm,” she explains.

The long road ahead
Professor Bente Rosenbeck, an expert on gender studies at the University of Copenhagen, describes the situation in Denmark as a long and “very difficult battle.” Rosenbeck has been studying women’s roles in Scandinavia and has sat on gender equality committees for over 35 years.

“Things have been done, but the problem in Denmark is that we’re not attacking the structures that make it difficult for women to be hired in academia,” she said.

Research conducted by the University of Copenhagen has found that the gender imbalance in academia increases as the roles become more senior.

“The system is biased,” Rosenbeck explains. “The problem is that everyone in Denmark thinks we have equality, so there is less action on these issues.”

Bosse agrees that it will take more action, but says strategies will need to be developed over time.

“I think each generation will have to think about this. An even  gender distribution in the workplace is within reach, but I think it will take one or two generations until we have a more uniform perspective.

“There is a long way to go, but we just have to keep on talking about it. M


By Lesley Price

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