Suddenly tenure is within my grasp. I am a scholar who has done everything wrong (according to the academic standards). I was born a woman (!), I choose to study literature (not a lot of career opportunities), I decided to focus on popular culture (the horror of it) and showed an interest in historical romances and chick lit (disaster) and then I aged (never a good thing). When I started my doctoral studies in Sweden in the 1990s I had a lot of confidence and a lot of fight in me. I had taken every course in gender studies and feminist theory that was available at that time. I was a member of several discussion groups with other women and I had a female professor whose seminars talked about literature from a gender perspective. The future seemed bright and I honestly thought that the academic world would change in a decade or so.
Sweden has had the advantage of a very clear legislation on gender equality since 1980, and has several programs to improve both the conditions for women at universities and to increase the number of female professors. One example is the “Tham Professors”, which was created in the 1990s and aimed at researchers that had a clear gender perspective in their work. They were given the opportunity to become professors and develop more opportunities for women and strengthen gender research at all levels. But it has taken a lot longer than we thought. Today there are more women at the universities than men at all levels – except the highest one. We still have only 20% female professors and that doesn’t seem to change.
I meet a lot of young Ph.D. students who don’t see any discrimination, who seem oblivious to the glass ceiling, and in a way, I envy them. Sooner or later they will run straight into the same structures that I have been struggling with for a long time now, and I don’t know if it is better to warn them or to just let them discover it for themselves.
Now, it’s not as bleak as it sounds. A lot has changed, and today I think it is easier to enter the university as a Ph.D. student. You can choose your own subject, no one can argue with you if you want to work with feminist theory and we have gotten rid of a lot of the blatant discrimination. But – and there is a but – we haven’t really changed the structure. There is still a lot of opposition and in one way I think it is harder today. When I first came to university as a graduate student, I met a lot of “open” opposition, but today it is more subtle, more hidden. On the surface everyone agrees that equal rights are a must, that gender perspectives are important and that we need more women professors. But underneath the surface? Well, I don’t know. There is still a lot of good old-fashioned sexism floating around and now it is more difficult to battle it.
So why do I want to stay at the University? Well, I love the students (yes, you heard me right: I love teaching!), and I enjoy doing research and getting books published. I feel that I can still be of some use and even if I am not a man, or particularly high brow in my research (working with paranormal romances for the moment) and as I get older, I actually think the university needs people like me and like you reading this, so don’t give up.
Senior Lecturer Maria Nilson has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and works at Linné University in Växjö, Sweden. Her main field of research is popular culture.
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