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Career Q&A: Equality for Quality

CREDIT: Ute Vogel/Creative Commons

Curt Rice is a professor in the Department of Languages & Linguistics at the University of Tromsø in Norway and also the university's vice president for research and development. Under Rice's direction, Tromsø put in place a new initiative—the Promotion Project—to promote more women to the position of full professor. These efforts were rewarded by the Norwegian government with the national Gender Equality Prize for 2011, which consisted of 2 million kroner (about $338,500). After hearing about the Promotion Project on Rice’s blog and in a webinar, Science Careers asked Rice what prompted the university to try and redress the gender imbalance at the full-professor level, how successful they've been so far, and how young scientists elsewhere can benefit from the lessons learned.

The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity.

There is another tricky thing here, which is that young women believe that this problem is solved.

—Curt Rice

Q: What would you say are the main issues for women in academia?

C.R.: First, they face the same challenges that women in the workplace in general face. So, for example, research shows that in every European country, women do more of the work at home than men. And that is going to have an impact on women’s careers, so that’s a deep cultural impediment that many women are going to have to deal with, and that plays itself out in, for example, decisions to have children.

Then, in academia, there are some specific structural impediments. For example, the job of being an associate professor has two main tasks, teaching and research, but the promotion to full professor often is based exclusively or at least heavily on performance as a researcher. It seems to be the case that women spend more time on their teaching than men do, so department chairs in big surveys report that when they have extra teaching that needs to be done, they often ask women to do it because they are willing. And students report that when it comes to getting help on their term papers and so on, women are more generous with their time than their male colleagues. But that doesn’t count when they apply for promotion, and so women tend to be older when they are promoted.

When I’m in a leadership position in a university, do I really want to go to my women associate professors and say, “Please spend less time on teaching?” I don’t want to do that because I have 10,000 students here who I want to get a good education. So, on the contrary, I would rather say to the men, “Spend more time on your teaching.” Except I don’t really want to do that, either, because it’s important that we have a profile as an active research institution. So this is one example of a situation where we have a structure that plays out differently for men and women.

Q: So what prompted the University of Tromsø to try and redress the gender imbalance?

C.R.: There are two reasons a university should care about working on this. One is that it’s the right thing to do. Society is balanced, and student numbers are balanced, and in our case, it's even balanced at the level of associate professor, so it should also be balanced at the top. It just seems fair, and we want to be a fair employer.

But the second reason is that it’s smart. We believe that our university functions better as a workplace when we have gender balance at the top, and we believe—I mean there’s research on this, that’s what convinces us—that research groups function better when they are gender balanced. And we believe that leadership teams are more effective when they’re gender-balanced. That’s what has really been pushing us, especially in the last 5 years. We want to be better at providing research and education, and we believe that gender balance actually does make us better.

Q: A decade ago, only 9% of full professors at the University of Tromsø were women, and now it’s 30%. How did you achieve this?

C.R.: The Promotion Project from the last few years has been very important. We went to every department and we said, “Who are the women who you, as the head of the department, think are within 3 years of being qualified to be a full professor?” So we identified a group of women and then, with each one of them, we said, “What do you need to keep moving forward?” And of course, they have different answers. Some of them need an assistant to help with the statistics, and some of them need a new microscope, and some of them need money to pay an outside person to read through their book manuscript and give feedback.

And then, there is some research to suggest that women as a group have lower self-confidence than men, that’s why we decided that the heart of this Promotion Project would be to have each individual woman put together a portfolio for evaluation. We would hire an outside person and ask that person to write a report evaluating the portfolio and giving very specific feedback on what they need to do to qualify for promotion. And that has had a tremendous effect. So actually, about 10% of the women got feedback that said, “You’re already there.” They then applied officially, and we now have promoted several of them. Each department chair had individual meetings with the other evaluated women to make a plan for the next 2 years, and now they are working in a very focused way toward responding to what came out of those trial evaluations.

And it’s really contributing to changing the whole culture of the university. One of the chairs just told me the other day that there were three men in their faculty who had said that they want a trial evaluation, and the chair said, “Great, let’s make that happen.” So this Promotion Project is an example of choosing to make the situation better for women, and as a result you make it better for everyone.

Q: How can young men and women scientists elsewhere benefit from the lessons learned during the Promotion Project?

C.R.: It’s important for young men and women to think about their career path, so you should say to yourself, “OK, I’m a postdoc now, and in 3 years, my goal is to have an assistant professor position,” or “I’m an assistant professor now, and in 5 years, my goal is to be an associate professor.” I think the most important thing they can do then is to initiate that process with their boss and say, “Let’s talk about my 5-year plan, and I think it’s going to be great for you if I can do this, because I’m going to be producing research, and I’m going to become more qualified and all that, but I can’t do it alone. I need some help, so what kinds of things can you do to help me?” In other words, they should contribute to making a culture where talking about career progress is a normal thing.

And then you also have to be assertive about discriminatory things. So when the teaching assignments are made, you have to be confident that gender is not a factor there, and if you need to ask questions to have that confidence, then you should ask those questions. It can be a delicate thing to do, so before an issue comes up, I think it’s good to ask, “How many men and women do we have actually working at this university, and do we have any goals about changing that?”—and just make it into one of the things that gets discussed. And then, when the teaching assignment comes along, you say, “Well, I’m just asking because I want to know, but what about that guy down there, is he doing his share of the teaching?” So it is risky, but I think if the topic becomes a normalized topic then it’s easier to bring it up. Which is part of why I think a culture of career development is really an important thing to pursue.

Q: Any other advice for young female scientists?

C.R.: There is another tricky thing here, which is that young women believe that this problem is solved. So women who are 25 years old tend not to be interested in gender equality issues because they think, “I don’t want to be promoted because I’m a woman, I want to be promoted because I’m a good scientist.” They don’t realize until they’re 35 or 40 and getting well into their careers that men and women are affected differently by the systems that we have. So what I would like to say to a 25-year-old woman is, ask potential employers how they approach the topic of career development. If you go to a place where there is engagement in helping young scientists become good senior scientists 10 years later, then, when you finally at the age of 40 realize that discrimination does exist and affects you, you'll be in a place where there are people who care about that career issue and can help you. I do believe that these days many more universities care about this. It’s still not enough, but I think that universities will change as more and more of their new young staff members express an expectation for leadership to invest in them. So it’s very important for people to ask this general question about career development, in part because just asking the question can contribute to making a change.

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