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Analysis… A Nordic gender agenda

14/12/15Science & Technology

Professor Marja Makarow spoke with Pan European Networks at the seventh European Gender Summit about how gender-related issues are being addressed in the Nordic region.

When it comes to gender equality, the Nordic region is often held as a beacon of excellence and as a place where issues surrounding gender, in both science and technology and elsewhere, are being addressed. However, in recent years this trend appears to have begun to reverse, with fewer women becoming involved in STEM-related careers, fewer girls and young women studying STEM-related subjects (despite achieving better grades at school than boys), and the number of women on the boards of large companies, in some but not all Nordic countries, being disappointingly low.

Marja Makarow, vice-president of the Academy of Finland (the Finnish Research Council), Chair of the Board of NordForsk, the research collaboration platform of the five Nordic countries, and the former vice-rector for research and professor of applied biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Helsinki, delivered a speech at the seventh European Gender Summit (GS7) in Berlin, Germany – attended by Pan European Networks – discussing NordForsk’s policy and activities on promoting gender equality in the Nordic countries.

Pan European Networks asked her about this in more detail, as well as about some of the gender equality-related areas in which the Nordic region either excels or requires more attention.

How will NordForsk’s research programme try to identify the reasons behind the negative trend of women in science and technology in Nordic countries?

NordForsk adopted a gender policy in 2013, as it is important to lay down these principles. The policy is based on the notion that the gender perspective in research is important for quality. My own view in this regard is that collective intelligence is increased by diversity and, of course, gender issues are the basic level of diversity. The aim is to raise gender awareness among all Nordic stakeholders.

Additionally, there are some very simple measures being put into place. Perhaps the most important of which concerns the different assessment and evaluation panels and expert and programme bodies, in that when NordForsk appoints the members, the gender issue is taken into account. Here, the NordForsk policy dictates that at least 40% of the minority gender should be represented in all panels.

NordForsk will analyse how men and women perform within its competitive funding calls, and will look to make sure there is no bias by charging the secretariat with the task of reporting once a year to the board about how this has been implemented.

NordForsk will launch a research programme, tentatively entitled ‘Solving the Nordic Paradox – Gender Gaps in Research and Innovation’. It is based on a report published and developed by the Research Council of Norway, together with NordForsk, on the gender issue in the Nordic countries, which demonstrated that while the Nordic countries are known for being better than average when it comes to the gender balance in academia, the progress we have been making has stagnated and, indeed, may now even be going in the wrong direction. This finding catalysed the launch of the research programme, which was, indeed, one of the report’s recommendations; the programme committee has now been appointed and have begun to put together its basic elements.

The research programme will try to find an answer to the question of why the number of women in science and technology in the Nordic countries is now falling. Within the programme committee there are professionals in these issues, and so it has a lot of potential for success.

One part of the programme will be the establishment of a Nordic ‘She Figures’ database, because of some discrepancies between the figures held by the European Commission and the statistics bureaux in the Nordic countries. The idea here is to not only have accurate numbers, which of course we need for better monitoring, but also to create a research infrastructure in the form of a database which will be curated and updated for research purposes.

In 2012, almost 57% of people who attained a higher education at the tertiary level were women, with Finland and Norway having the highest proportion of both women and men in tertiary education. To what does the Nordic region owe this success, and how does this compare when we think of women attaining qualifications in STEM subjects?

That is a very important question and one which necessitates an exploration of the education systems. In Finland, for instance, the school system is totally free and equal to all – there are no ‘elite’ schools or very poor schools – with access according to where you live. The same is largely true for the other Nordic countries.

In a general sense, in Finland girls tend to do better in school than boys; something that many other countries also experience. While the reasons behind this remain unknown, there could be a link to biological development. In Finland this has now resulted in more women than men being accepted to study at university.

How do you feel the gender pay gap in the Nordic region could be better addressed?

According to the latest statistics, in Finland women on average earn 20% less than men. This pay gap has also been explored a little further, which has shown that this difference is more pronounced when women are younger, that their earnings become closer to that of their male counterparts when they are aged 40-50, and then the gap increases once again as they get older.

One explanation is that women seek employment in positions which aren’t as well paid as those typically populated by men, such as nurses or, particularly in the public sector, low level office jobs. However, this theory does not hold when the education sector is looked at, as this is an area where a very high number of women are employed and which is quite well paid.

There may also be the argument that the gender pay gap is something of a hangover from the days when men typically worked and women stayed at home to raise a family. This, however, does not seem applicable to the Nordic countries (though it may well be true elsewhere) because women have been a part of the workforce for a very long time, and the percentage of working women here in Finland, for example, is one of the highest in Europe.

On average, some three in ten board members of the largest publicly listed companies are women in the Nordic region, with Iceland and Norway having the largest female share, at 46% and 40% respectively. What more needs to be done to help progress in this area, and do you feel concepts such as quotas work?

The figures in Iceland and Norway are very high whereas in Finland the number is much lower (way below 20%). In Norway, the law states that in the private sector there must be a minimum number of women on the boards (and it is quite exceptional for legislation to touch the private sector), which may help to explain their high figures. The last EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, wanted this to happen at the EU level but was unsuccessful. In Finland, since the quotas were added to the equality legislation, discussions have taken place around establishing something similar for the private sector, but that has not been accomplished.

In Sweden, however, female members of heavyweight companies’ boards have reached a milestone: their number has exceeded the number of male board members whose first name is ‘Anders’.

There is a sense that, in this particular situation, quotas are not the ideal solution, and that is because micro-managing the private sector is something that must be handled very delicately. Instead, companies could put into place active policies and they should be made aware that diversity in the board room is as good for collective intelligence as anywhere else. There are, indeed, companies that are very sensitive to this and who have programmes to coach and mentor their promising, talented young women by ensuring that pro-active measures are taken to support them so that they are able to climb the career ladder.

This is a laudable measure not least because it challenges the existing culture, and cultural change is at the core of the issue. It is very much a bottom-up approach because companies themselves decide to do this.

There may also be structural issues which require attention. That is, in many areas – whether it be business, politics, or research – the way of working (unsociable hours, attendance required at places and events outside of work etc.) doesn’t take into consideration people’s private lives, people who have a family, and this is an automatic barrier for women who, in light of this culture, may not even think about joining the field at all.

When it comes to women in science and technology, how does the Nordic region compare to the rest of the world?

In Finland and Iceland 24% of Grade A professors are women, which is more than in the other Nordic countries and the EU average being 20%. This is also the case when we begin to look at scientific domains more specifically, with the exception of the ‘bio’ sciences being particularly well-populated with women. Regarding technology, however, the number of women becomes considerably less.

This perhaps returns us to the earlier point about the importance of education, in that there are currently not enough young women choosing to study STEM subjects. When it is understood that the STEM-related employment sector is the most rapidly evolving area of the global job market, women stand to become increasingly disadvantaged.

We clearly need to attract more girls and women to the STEM subjects and careers, and one way of doing this may be to re-evaluate the definition of subject areas as proposed by universities. That is, there is evidence to suggest that women are interested in ‘living things’ – whether it is an individual human being, animals, health, society, the environment, or Nature, and so on – and less interested in pursuing subjects such as pure mathematics. Indeed, the Technical University of Helsinki in Finland had not seen a rise in the 10% of female students signing up for an IT course, which began with three years of mathematics, despite doing campaigns in schools and promoting the course to female students as much as they could. However, by creating a course entitled ‘Bio-information Technology’, they immediately saw the number of female applicants rise to 70%, despite the fact that the level and duration of mathematics study involved in the course remained exactly the same. It may also be possible to make subjects such as mathematics more attractive to women by demonstrating how this discipline can be applied to areas such as business or society, for instance. Changes such as these could be implemented by universities without cost, and have the potential to have a dramatic effect on how women perceive STEM subjects, and thus their participation within them.

A recent study conducted in the USA on STEM-related jobs showed that just 25% of these positions were held by women and that, of course, is unacceptable. Given that the situation in the Nordic region is very similar, it is clear that this is a problem that we share with much of the rest of the world, and perhaps one way forward will be to try to share best practice and discuss the challenges we are experiencing and the ways we can approach them, and it is here that the Gender Summits have a role to play.

Professor Marja Makarow

Vice-President for Research

Academy of Finland

+358 (0)29 533 5002

This article first appeared in issue 17 of PEN: Science & Technology, which is now available here.

Pan European Networks Ltd