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Closed Appointment Procedures Increase Gender Imbalances in Academia

Danish researcher Mathias Wullum Nielsen has studied gender equality in the academic world – for example how the discourse, practice and implemented measures differ between the Scandinavian countries. In an article recently published in Nature, he writes about the problem of appointing academics without an open call for applications.

Photo: Søren Kjeldgaard
 Photo: Århus university, Søren Kjeldgaard

Sociologist and organisational researcher Mathias Wullum Nielsen, who presented his PhD dissertation in June, has spent the last handful of years studying gender equality in academia. He has primarily used his own academic institution, Aarhus University in Denmark, as the object of study, but he has also made comparisons between Denmark, Sweden and Norway. He concludes that the Scandinavian countries display important differences in terms of discourse, practices and concrete measures to increase gender equality in academia.

‘Denmark is less willing than Norway and Sweden to talking about gender equality as a rights issue,’ says Wullum Nielsen. ‘They prefer to apply a utility perspective: Organisations that hold back women are not talking full advantage of their potential and will therefore end up less competitive. Denmark is therefore using a more narrow range of interventions.’

Differences can also be found between Norway and Sweden, he says. In Norway, a lot of the gender equality work has focused on structural measures to support women in academia. In contrast, Sweden gives more attention to organisational cultures and how they can be changed.

‘Denmark is inspired by both Sweden and Norway. At the same time, however, the Danish discourse is more stuck in the notion that the issue of gender equality concerns only women and that gender equality strategies should focus on equipping women with the qualifications they need to be successful but are currently lacking.’

Open recruitments not so open after all?

In an article recently published in Nature (24 September 2015), Wullum Nielsen reports the results from another study he has done, on appointments of senior researchers at Aarhus University. From 2004 to 2013, 20 per cent of all new professors and associate professors were recruited without an open call for applications, he found. When looking only at the positions that were openly advertised, a large part of them only attracted one applicant – an observation suggesting that the open recruitment processes may not have been so open after all.

The studies also show that the gender imbalance is considerably larger in closed than in open recruitment processes: 23 per cent of the applicants were women when the positions were openly advertised, whereas the share was only 12 per cent when the recruitments were handled more informally, without an open call for applications.

‘I’m very interested in how the academic world thinks about the concept of meritocracy,’ says Wullum Nielsen. ‘Every time somebody suggests measures to increase gender equality in academia, opponents claim that such measures are incompatible with the principle of meritocracy, which is a cornerstone of the academic world. So I wanted to see how things really work in this field.’

The organisation needs to deal with the problems

What’s most surprising is not that the problems exist, but rather that the development seems to be headed in the wrong direction, he points out. Both the minister in charge and the university itself have signalled that open recruitment processes shall be the norm. Nevertheless, the share of informal recruitments increased from 8 per cent in the first half of the studied 10-year period to 30 per cent in the second half. And Aarhus is not alone – a recent review reveals similar patterns at several other Danish universities.

‘Sometimes there may be good reasons to fill vacancies without an open recruitment process, but the finding that the proportion is so high indicates that the organisation needs to deal with the problems,’ says Wullum Nielsen.

The observation that informal recruitment processes on average are less beneficial for women is old news, he says. One reason for this bias is that male managers tend to prefer candidates who are more like themselves. Another is that female academics are often less visible to decision makers since their ties to those with power in the academic world are generally weaker.

As part of his PhD project, Wullum Nielsen also explored how the use of bibliometrics to measure a researcher’s individual merits affects the gender equality.

‘I’ve looked closer at the so-called Danish bibliometric research indicator, which goes by its Danish acronym BFI. According to my study of Aarhus University, male and female researchers have equally good citation rates. It therefore seems fair to assume that they should achieve about the same BFI scores. However, men generally score higher in the BFI system. The main reason for this is that men are more likely to publish their research in scholarly journals that yield higher scores,’ he says.

Better to read than to count?

One plausible explanation for this bias is that the BFI system ranks journals in male-dominated research fields higher and consequently tends to assign higher scores to male scholars’ publications. It is well known that the female representation in the committees making these assessments is low, Wullum Nielsen points out.

‘It may seem like a good idea for gender equality to measure in the organisation. Clearly presented objective data makes it easier to point to discrepancies. But it’s not that easy. If the assessment criteria are determined in favour of the dominant group, the results will help reinforce the imbalance, contrary to what’s intended.’

Wullum Nielsen sees it as problematic that bibliometrics has gained such importance in the assessment of individual scholars’ achievements. Since external factors can have a strong impact on a researcher’s bibliometric score, in particular early in the academic career, it would be reasonable to assess somebody’s potential in some other way – for example by reading their publications instead of merely counting them.

Wullum Nielsen’s PhD dissertation is titled New and Persistent Gender Equality Challenges in Academia. He will spend the next two years doing research at Stanford University, with professor Londa Schiebinger.

‘I will mainly focus on how gender equality in academia affects the research content and the knowledge that’s produced,’ he says.

Updated 19 April 2020