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Opinion Piece: Break down the gender barriers in Danish research

Photo: Sofus Graae

Although we have discussed the lack of gender diversity at Danish universities for many years, and previous ministers have tried to overcome this challenge, Denmark still falls behind many of the countries we normally compare ourselves with.

Today, only 23 percent of Danish professors are women, which indicates that we do not tap the full potential of the talent pool and therefore risks losing groundbreaking research results as well as the next Inge Lehmann, Marie Krogh, or Lene Hau. This is an issue which ought to be high on the research policy agenda, and all actors involved - universities, foundations, politicians - must contribute to increase the proportion of women in Danish research.

The reasons for the uneven gender distribution in the research community have been discussed for many years, but we still have no clear answers and solutions. Therefore, the Carlsberg Foundation has conducted a major study among our grantees and leading players in the Danish research environment in order to identify the career barriers felt by female researchers, and not least what efficient measures the Carlsberg Foundation can implement to attract more female researchers.

The study shows that 96 percent of the female researchers surveyed find that the low proportion of female researchers is a problem, while this view is only shared by 70 percent of the male researchers. Furthermore, 70 percent of female researchers find that unconscious bias in connection with recruitment is one of the most pronounced career barriers. However, only 27 percent of their male colleagues share this view.

Female researchers also believe, to a larger extent than male researchers, that the often demanding and competitive work environment and culture at universities constitute a career barrier to permanent employment. At the same time, a lack of focus on diversity and inclusion on the part of university managements is perceived as a major problem. And in line with other studies, family obligations are also perceived as a greater career barrier for female researchers than male researchers. According to the survey, this view is shared by at least 56 percent of the women, while only 32 percent of men agree to this.

Our study also shows that 90 percent of female researchers have experienced career barriers owing to their gender. In terms of equality, this is not only wrong but also very undesirable, considering the importance of research for our prosperity and value creation in society. It is a considerable problem when male and female researchers are not offered the same career opportunities in a highly developed country like Denmark, which makes a living from exporting know-how. The first step is that everyone must agree that we are in fact facing a major challenge in order for us to collectively overcome it.

Since the Carlsberg Foundation was founded in 1876 by brewer J.C. Jacobsen, the Foundation has supported excellent basic research within natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities, and one of our main purposes is to "brew knowledge for a brighter future". Excellent research requires freedom, diligence, and immersion, and focus on the best talents. Therefore, it is important to consider the entire talent pool – regardless of gender. The Carlsberg Foundation grants research funding to the best and most visionary researchers and has a special focus on talent development and succession planning in Danish research. The quality of the research, and not the gender of the researcher, will always be decisive for who receives a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation.

Now is the time to create equal opportunities to nurture and develop research ideas and talents regardless of gender, for everyone to realize their research potential. Therefore, gender diversity in Danish research has become one of four strategic benchmarks in the Carlsberg Foundation's Strategy 2019-2023. Furthermore, as announced in the Foundation’s Ordinary Call for Applications 2020, we will eventually strive to achieve a qualified equal gender distribution among our grant holders. We have chosen to communicate this as more highly qualified applications from excellent female researchers are a prerequisite for us to be able to increase the proportion of female grant holders.

Last year, the Carlsberg Foundation took the important step to remove a financial challenge facing female researchers in connection with pregnancy and childbirth. This means that the Foundation now grants full maternity compensation to women and men, i.e. it covers the difference between pay during maternity leave and reimbursement from public sources.

Going forward, the Carlsberg Foundation has decided to adopt a more holistic view of the individual applicants by considering several quantitative and qualitative factors in relation to the applicants' CV. Some female applicants may have “gaps” in their CV, for instance due to maternity leave, which can make male applicants appear more qualified. In those cases, the Foundation will consider, for example, the quality and potential of the research conducted by the applicant. However, the weighting of qualitative and quantitative factors will always be assessed on an individual basis. The foundation will also require that grant holders of major research projects strive for an equal gender distribution among the PhD students and postdocs they employ. A research stay is usually carried out as a continuous two-year stay at a foreign elite university but we will now allow greater flexibility as to the length of a research stay abroad in special cases where family circumstances so warrant. Finally, the Carlsberg Foundation wishes to contribute to create more visible female role models, especially professors, at Danish universities - an initiative that according to female and male researchers in our study will be one of the most effective ones.

The cosmology center DARK at the Niels Bohr Institute is an excellent example of how to remove gender barriers. The center has been supported, among others, by the Carlsberg Foundation. Professor Jens Hjorth has managed to achieve a gender distribution of approx. 50 percent female PhDs and 40 percent female postdocs - although this field of research is typically male-dominated. The group leaders have set specific goals for the proportion of female employees, and based on this benchmark, implemented several initiatives. They have also actively sought to avoid bias when recruiting new staff, encourage their male researchers to take maternity leave, and researchers are appointed for a minimum of three years in order to reduce the problem of uncertain employment conditions.

It is time for Denmark to take a serious step towards better gender diversity among tenured associate professors and professors at universities. Enough has been said about the challenges; it is now time for action. Our study shows that university management – department heads, deans, and rectors – play a crucial role. It is important that they play an even more active role when it comes to the challenge of gender diversity and how to create a more attractive work environment with clear career paths, especially for women. This should be an important part of the universities' strategic development plans, because ‘tone from the top' is paramount in all organizations. University managements must recognize that a qualified equal gender distribution is a goal we must strive for.

We often claim that we have been successful in reaching gender balance in Danish society. However, this cannot be said for the research community. We still need to break down the many barriers to make equal opportunities for all researchers regardless of gender. Based on the knowledge we have derived from the researchers in our study, we will do our part to help increase the proportion of talented female researchers to the benefit of Danish research and Danish society - and we encourage other foundations, universities and politicians to contribute as best they can in their own way.

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