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Gender (in)equality in higher education: Sweden, Europe, and ?
January 26, 2011 - 8:45pm

From the archives - this post was originally published at on 3.02.2010.

To portray the situation of women in academia today is not a task meant for success in the space of 500 words. I will nevertheless try to describe briefly the situation in Sweden and to use that particular case as a springboard for more general thoughts about how it looks elsewhere and how it would be desirable to look everywhere in the future.

In today’s Sweden 60% of those who begin university studies are women, and this is a trend that began in the 1970s. In terms of the distribution across the fields of knowledge, men form the majority in the natural sciences and the technical subjects, but even in these areas women are the majority of graduates. Overall, two-thirds of those who finish a program of education are female.

This women dominance ends however when we examine the higher levels of involvement with research and teaching at the university. More men than women are doctoral students, for example, and the difference reaches its apogee when we look at the fact that 82% of professors are men and 18% women, confirming the well-known trend of vertical segregation.

The Swedish picture is almost identical with the general European one. There are more female bachelor level students (55%) and graduates (59%) across the 27 member states of the European Union, but only 48% of those who begin their doctoral studies are women, like the 45% of those who actually obtain their Ph.D. Even more similar is the situation at the professor level: the Swedish average is identical with the European one: only 18% of those who work as grade A academic staff are women (She Figures 2009).

How can this discrepancy be explained? Why is it so that so many women get a bachelor degree and so few continue to advance in the higher academic echelons? In a report from 2008 the Delegation for Equality in Schooling finds that this is not the reflection of the free choice of individual men and women, but rather the consequence of long-lasting power distribution patterns. To this contribute the obscure recruitment criteria and processes, and the unwritten expectations that separate men from women. For example, it is supposed that women will take on more social and administrative responsibilities whereas men are given more room to focus on the research and creative aspects of their jobs.

The most typical pattern of discrimination is invisible and subtle. It is not the case that women are actively excluded but that they are not invited to participate in what it has traditionally been a man-dominated world: they are not chosen as key note speakers at conferences, or they are not part of the informal networks created originally by men. They are forgotten, they are not seen, they are ignored.

There are still some positive trends. The younger generation in Europe, our dear Generation X, benefits from a more equal treatment that the previous cohort. Females between 35 and 44 represent 23% of grade A academics, whereas 45 – to 54-years-old females account for 21% and those over 55 only 18%. This improvement over time is reflected in the results of the three consecutive reports from the EU: the proportion of female professors increased Female grade A professors increased from 15,20% in 2000 (in the space of EU-15, the Western European states) to 19% in 2009 (in the expanded EU-27, including East European states where there was a higher degree of equality). Moreover the number of female researchers is growing faster than that of men (+6.3% during 2006-2009 compared to +3.7% from 2002 to 2006).

The numbers are bleak even if they do show a slow improvement. Who is responsible for changing the situation? How can one work against this invisible but very insidious passive exclusion of women? In Sweden, and this is a relatively unique situation, it is the government that has been actively engaged with the issue of bridging the gap. The main reason is that all Swedish universities are state-owned. Yes, you heard it right, there are no private universities to speak of. This leaves most of the responsibility of promoting equality to the politicians, who have had gender equality on the agenda for decades. And of course, it does give results (ever so slowly), but as the comparison with the general European trend confirms, it is by no means better than other strategies, where governments cannot exert control over gender issues in higher education.

How do you have it in your countries? Does this picture correspond with yours? And if not the government, who is it that took up the issue of gender (in)equality?

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


Women and Science –

She Figures 2009 –

Dold könsdiskriminering på akademiska arenor – osynligt, synligt, subtilt (2005) –

Delegation for Equality in School –


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