Needed: Gender equality experts in academic recruitment committees!

fancycrave-254181-unsplashIn March, I got an opportunity to meet the Young Academies from Baltic and Nordic countries. I was invited to their workshop to introduce our Nordwit NCoE and to talk about gender equality in academia. In my presentation, I presented some of our very tentative observations from the interviews we have made in Finland with women from the fields of bio- and health technology. The interviews are made to understand how women have experienced their working and career possibilities in academia; and why they have decided to either leave the academia or stay in there.

The reasons to leave are quite familiar to all of us working in the current academic reality in the Nordic countries: precariousness, too little time for research, requirement of international researcher mobility. What was surprising to me coming from social sciences, was the impossibility to stay in academia as an independent senior researcher in the fields of STEM and medicine. This means that during or after postdoctoral period, everyone who wants to stay in the academia must establish their own research group and usually collect funding both for themselves and for their group members. It is self-evident that not everyone is lucky or capable of securing this kind of funding.

Among our interviewees are women who have applied and received lots of funding, and who currently employ up to 15 people in their research groups. Still, not all of them have succeeded in the academic recruitments. One aspect of these recruitments is gender, as one of our interviewee who has followed the recruitments from her own permanent position argues:

I think there are these kinds of old boy’s networks. (…) I know very competent women who have left because they feel that they are not chosen to do the responsible jobs that they would like to do, and then some male colleague is chosen who doesn’t have any particular merits why they should choose him.

After my talk, I got really important questions and comments from the audience. One of them was precisely about the recruitments from someone who had been involved in appointment committees. He said that those are really the places to look into. This has been to some extent done by Marieke van den Brink and Yvonne Benschop (2011) in the Netherlands. Their plan was to participate as observers in the selection interviews for full professors but this was denied due to privacy issues. Instead, they analyzed the appointment reports and the interviews they made with members of appointment committee members. Van den Brink and Benschop noticed how “younger candidates with equivalent qualifications” were preferred over older; and these older candidates were more often women since they had more career interruptions than men. Though committees were looking for the most excellent researchers, often the likeability of candidates gave them extra “excellence points”. Men professors gave these points to young male candidates who reminded of themselves. In addition, women could be disqualified because they were “too nice” to make it in the academic game of survival, whereas for men being nice was a merit.

In order to tackle gendered inequalities in academia, the recruitment processes must be transparent, and they need to include experts of gender equality. We can start this first in the fields with persistent gender imbalance in the number of full professors, but all fields should follow. It is unacceptable to have professors in appointment committees, who claim that men are appointed because “Men have been working with men for ages. That is natural. It is easy.” (van den Brink & Benschop 2011, 515).

Tiina Suopajärvi


Van den Brink, Marieke and Benschop, Yvonne 2011: Gender practices in the construction of academic excellence: Sheep with five legs. Organization 19(4): 507–524.


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