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The Gender Equality Struggle at Chalmers University, Sweden

The Quest for Gender Balance at Chalmers University, Sweden

Let’s talk about a big step towards a gender-balanced future at Chalmers University in Sweden. A promise filled with ambition, yet tinged with disappointment. You’ve probably heard of it – the ‘Genie project’.

The ‘Genie Project’: From Inception to Contention

If we go back to 2018, the then-rector, Stefan Bengtsson, announced this remarkable project for gender equality with a whopping budget of 300 million Swedish kronor. The mission? – dismantle the so-called ‘boyish culture’ impeding women’s career progression and recruit more women into university faculties. The endgame? – Achieve a target of 40% female professors by 2029, a herculean task considering the university’s record of being at the base rung for gender balance among employees in Sweden.

Only Stockholm’s School of Economics had fewer female professors than Chalmers.

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As Chalmers’ chemistry professor Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, who spearheaded Genie, put it, “I had high hopes that Chalmers would become a model.”

However, after four years, and limited progress, Wittung-Stafshede quit in protest, criticising the leadership’s lack of support for necessary strategic changes.

Insights into the ‘Grabbish’University Culture

“For twenty years I worked at other universities in Sweden and the U.S.A before returning to Chalmers,” Wittung-Stafshede recalled. “I realised it was much boyish. It seemed there were networks of senior male professors, an old-fashioned kind of culture, where men secretly rule behind closed doors.”

Adding a human touch from our expat community in Sweden, this ‘male-dominated culture’ tends to mirror the traditional workplaces in other countries, and it’s a ubiquitous challenge in the corporate world.

Attempting a Course Correction

The new rector, Martin Nilsson Jacobi, ups the ante, acknowledging the need for more significant strides towards gender equality. He plans to recruit a new vice-rector responsible for this issue.

Interestingly, Jacobi confesses the university’s shortcomings in handling gender balance, “When recruiting internally, it becomes a lot of self-duplication. Older male professors need to rejuvenate their field, leading to an unconscious bias.”

A Scenic Route to the Target?

The university recruits more broadly these days, and female professor representation has increased from 12% in 2015 to 20% in 2022.

Here’s a dosage of perspective: Genie’s target of 40% female professors by 2029 seems a tall order, given the average 1% annual increase. As Jacobi says,

“We won’t get there unless we do something radical. The figure isn’t as important as recruiting in balance.”

Was the not-fully-successful Genie Project Worth It?

Definitely, according to Nilsson Jacobi. Despite falling short of achieving its goals, the Genie project has greatly influenced university operations, impacting both recruitment and culture.

Our narrative concludes with Wittung-Stafshede’s candid reflections – appreciating the progress, yet urging more commitment to sustainable change.

Facts: Female Professors at Swedish Universities in 2022

Chalmers: 20%
Stockholm’s School of Economics: 13%

Approximately 25 universities in Sweden have a higher proportion of female professors, benchmarked by Mälardalens Universitet at 41%.

So, the road to gender balance is still a long one, but every step forward nudges the needle towards equality. Chalmers, like many institutions worldwide, is grappling with the task, progress may be slow, but the quest goes on. As we have seen, commitment and targeted initiatives are key to reaching that desired balance. This is not just the tale of a university, but a window into the global challenge of gender equality.

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