Women still have lower chances of becoming full professors than men in Sweden despite decades of policymaking aimed at improving gender equality — a bias that is likely mirrored in countries around the world, according to a study.
The study, published in Scientometrics in September, found that "the career prospects for female university researchers are as bleak today as they were twenty years ago" and, specifically, that women's prospects for becoming full professors are 37 per cent lower than those of men.
It says that the difference in promotion rate is not explained by higher female absence from work due to part time employment when women start families, and questions whether their career prospects are being affected by the mere fact that they are women.
"We can attribute at least part of the difference to unequal treatment of women and men within the university organisations," the study says.
The authors argue that Sweden is a good case study because it has strong policies to ensure gender equality.
"If women still have difficulty advancing to senior academic roles in a country that is ranked as number three on the UN gender equality index in 2008, [...] it is reasonable that the situation is not likely to be tremendously better in other countries," the study says.
"For women who have had postdoctoral fellowships, their careers look very much like men's," Rickard Danell, a senior lecturer at Umeå University and a co-author of the study, told SciDev.Net.
"The big difference is that men who haven't had postdoctoral fellowships […] do much better."
This is partly because they fare more favourably within university informal social networks — which are mainly comprised of men — than do women.
"Unless universities, faculties, and departments fundamentally change how they organise networks and resources, women's transition from PhDs to professorships will continue to look bleak in comparison to men's," the paper says.
The results do not surprise Kaiser Jamil, dean of the School of Life Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies, in Hyderabad, India.Jamil said the current generation of young female scientists whom she mentors fare better than their predecessors, but still struggle to gain access to research funding and positions.
"I don't think it will change so quickly […] — it will take a long time," Jamil, who was formerly president of the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), told SciDev.Net.
Jamil said that frequently her female students fail to put themselves forward for awards and prizes because they are conditioned to defer to men, and can shy away from talking to male department heads due to cultural or religious reasons.
Rania Siam, an associate professor of microbiology at the American University in Cairo, said that women who manage to persuade male department heads of their research skills early in their careers will have an easier time later on.
"The first few meetings were always a challenge, but once you've proven your role you are generally on equal terms," she told SciDev.Net.
Jamil said she encourages women to speak up for themselves and to apply for awards and fellowships, rather than waiting for others to notice them.
Scientometrics doi: 10.1007/s11192-012-0840-4 (2012)