A couple of weeks ago, just before the expansion of the corona-virus in the Nordic countries, I attended a workshop “Gender and Equity in the Contemporary Academy: Kick-Off Workshop for the GENDIM Project in Trondheim, Norway. The GENDIM project, led by Professor Vivian Lagesen from Norwegian University of Science and Technology, investigates the gender dynamics underlying gender imbalance among university academics. The project takes as its starting point the concept “epistemic living space” (Felt 2009), enabling the investigation of epistemic, spatial, temporal, symbolic and social dimensions of academic work and career building in the current neoliberal environment.
Several presentations discussed the discrepancy between gender balance and meritocracy. It is generally agreed that gender balance is a good thing and work to reach gender balance in academia is an important goal. At the same time, people, both men and women, emphasise the importance of academic merits in university recruitments and career progression. Female academics in particular, tend to assure over and over again that they have attained their positions due to their merits, not because of gender balance measures. The same tension between gender balance and meritocracy is apparent also in our interviews with Finnish female academics.
How to become a professor and have career success was another topic that resonates very well with our Finnish findings, just to name a few issues that were eagerly discussed over the workshop. Based on interview material gathered in Norway, Vivian Lagesen distinguished four narratives of how professors make sense of their career trajectories: 1. Narratives of self-inclusion, emphasising hard work in a meritocratic and competitive system, 2. Narrative of ‘tailwind’ in which the interviewees, often with an academic background, have always taken more or less for granted that they will become professors, 3. Narrative of supported inclusion, characterised by help, encouragement and support from networks, and 4. Narratives of ‘headwind’, involving various hardships in a chilly university climate. Sarah R. Davies, drawing on her interviews, gave four pieces of advice of how to become a professor: Work hard, Know the right people, Be lucky, and Be focused. This logic, she underlined, represents individualisation of responsibility.
As a whole, the workshop raised a wide array of important issues concerning, among other things, gender, career, race, policy, power, and inclusion in the neoliberal university context. Both similarities and differences among the Nordic countries became evident. This will offer valuable background against which our Finnish findings can be mirrored and reflected on.
Felt, U. (2009) Knowing and living in academic research: Convergence and heterogeneities in European research cultures. Prague: Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.