Is the Gender Gap Solved in Liberal Sweden?

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is a professor and division head of Chemical Biology at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this post, Professor Wittung-Stafshede goes beyond the progressive nation’s gender policies, to examine the everyday and institutional sexism experienced by women in science. 

Sweden is considered one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. We have the longest paid maternity leave in the world (16 months), and at least three of these months must be taken out by the dad. Sweden has free daycare, schools (including university), and afterschool programs. Swedes are very liberal in terms of household duties: men and women share a lot of responsibilities, and there are no stay-at-home moms. Based on this culture, I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken.

I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. - Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede

I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. – Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede

Everyday Sexism

A female researcher still encounters sexism and gender biases in Sweden. How many men have been sexually approached by a senior colleague? How many men have got teaching evaluations with comments on being ‘hot’ or on their choice of clothes? How many men have been mistaken for the secretary in place of the chair of the meeting?

I have experienced these types of situations too many times. I once got a call from a senior male professor asking me to be on a prestigious Swedish committee. Although I was honored at first, I felt humiliated upon learning that I had been picked from a women-only list after no women were found among the top scientists. Despite my feelings I accepted, as I felt it important to serve. When I recently discussed why so few women choose our university with a senior male, notably a high-up leader, told me he knew why; it was because the university had poor lighting in bathrooms for fixing make-up. I was flabbergasted. While examples like these seem incidental individually, when accumulated, they undermine the self-confidence of women in academia.

If I, as a female professor, speak out I am considered aggressive but if I am quiet, I am invisible. - Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede

If I, as a female professor, speak out I am considered aggressive but if I am quiet, I am invisible. – Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede

Institutional Bias

The problem is not just limited to subjective anecdotes. There are numerous studies with hard-core scientific data revealing the presence of gender biases. Wold and Wennerås were pioneers when they showed in 1997 that women applicants had to have significantly stronger merits than men to get the same scores from the Swedish Medical Research Council.

In a randomized double-blind study, two sets of identical application materials, with the only difference that half had a male name and the other half a female name, were sent out to over 100 faculty at research universities and presented as a student applying for a lab manager position. Results found that the female applicants were rated significantly lower than the males in competence, hire-ability, and whether the faculty would be willing to mentor the student. As other examples, an analysis of over 800 recommendation letters demonstrated that more standout adjectives and ability words were used to describe male as compared to female candidates and, upon large-scale analysis based on over eight million scientific papers, it was found that men predominate in the prestigious first and last author positions.

Still, many (male) scientists in Sweden think we have solved the gender problem in Swedish academia because of the introduction of three initiatives.

  1. We have assured that approved grants to women match the fraction of women that apply (however, studies have shown that the often bold language in grant calls frequently restrict women from applying),
  2. Several universities have special grants for women (which unfortunately makes men think women get promoted because of special treatment and not skills), and
  3. We nowadays request a woman on every committee (which means women are over-committed and have less time for research than men).

However, when one combines female scientists’ personal accounts of biased incidents with numerical facts the conclusion is challenged. In the 2015 grant application cycle, only 19 % of the Swedish Research Council project grants were awarded to women, and only just above 20 % of all university professors are women today (spread is 11-30 % among Sweden’s 11 universities). In terms of four top Swedish research awards, female winners during the last few decades constituted only 3, 9, 11, and 13 %, respectively, with no positive trend. In contrast to my initial naïve assumption, benefits such as free maternity leave and childcare, while helpful, do not solve the gender gap in academia.

Finding Solutions

To combat unconscious gender biases in academia (in Sweden and elsewhere), we must all, including university leaders and department heads, first become aware and educated on the topic. Next, we have to:

  1. Assure that hiring and promotion processes are not biased towards men,
  2. Nominate more women for awards and high-rank positions,
  3. Include more women in leadership boards at university and funding agencies/foundations,
  4. Mentor and support young female faculty,
  5. Make sure that women and men have the same influence in strategic discussions, and
  6. Appreciate the societal value of reaching gender equality in academia.

To make Sweden’s deceptive reputation genuine, there must be action now.

Learn More:

C Seierstad, G Healy: Women’s equality in the Scandinavian academy: a distant dream?

About the Author

Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, professor i biologisk kemi, Kemiska institutionen, Umeå universitet

Professor Pernilla Wittung Stafshede

Professor Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is Division Head at the Chemical Biology division, Biology and Biological Engineering department, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.

After her PhD in 1996, she moved to USA for postdoctoral training at Caltech. She continued for 10 years as faculty in the States, first at Tulane University, New Orleans (where she got tenure) and the latter 5 years at Rice University, Houston. In 2008, she returned to Sweden with her husband and 2 young children and took a professorship at Umeå University in Umeå. She spent 7 years there before moving to Gothenburg in 2015. Her research centers around protein biophysics, with special interest in proteins involved in metal ion transport and protein folding and misfolding. Over the years, she has experienced diverse academic settings and she has trained many young scientists including numerous women and minorities. She is a member of the Biophysical Society Professional Opportunities for Women Committee and finds issues regarding gender biases very important (unconscious and sometimes conscious)

You can follow Pernilla on Twitter @PernillaWittung

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