”Strangers” in academia

strangerWhile reading our interviews with Finnish women working in bio technology, I happened to glance through a recent article entitled The ”stranger” among Swedish ”homo academicus” by Alireza Behtoui and Hege Høyer Leivestad (2019). Their results on academics of migrant background remind of the complexity of the subtle acts of marginalization in higher education.

Based on Swedish registry data, their study shows that academics coming from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa are over-represented within medicine, technology, IT, and the natural sciences and underrepresented within pedagogy and the human and social sciences. This is more or less opposite to the gendered segregation in academia: women are overrepresented in the humanities and social sciences and underrepresented especially in technological fields.

Behtoui and Leivestad have also gathered semi-structured interviews with migrant-origin academics. According to this data, technical fields are preferred not only because they offer better labour market opportunities and higher salaries but they are also experienced as easy subjects because in them, Swedish language skills are less important than in the humanities and social sciences. Unlike mathematics-based technological fields, the humanities and social sciences require delicate lingual competence. ”We felt inferior all the time, because in humanistic departments, Swedish language is the language of the seminars”, relates a female professor.

Notwithstanding the differences, there are much common problems in career building among migrant and female ”strangers” in academia. Behtoui and Leivestad report of a lack of resourceful and powerful supervisors and networks, and hidden recruitment mechanisms such as closed procedures, tailored job profiles and the selection of ”right” reviewers. In addition, the migrant-origin academics felt that they are pushed into topics on the periphery, such as migration, minorities, diversity and immigration. They become ”race or ethnicity specialists” but the status of these sub-fields within the discipline is low, manifest, for instance, in difficulties in getting research funding.


Behtoui, A. & Leivestad, H.H. (2019) The ”stranger” among Swedish ”homo academicus”. Higher Education 77, 213-228

Oili-Helena Ylijoki