Gender equality enhances research quality

By promoting gender equality in research, we enhance the quality and relevance of research, according to Arvid Hallén, Director General of the Research Council of Norway.

December 14, 2010
“When very few women choose a career in research, this weakens the quality of research,” says Arvid Hallén. He believes that the Research Council can play a pivotal role in this respect. (Photo: Anita Haslie)

High-quality research requires a diversity of ideas and perspectives. To ensure this, we must utilise the talent found throughout the entire population. When very few women choose a career in research, this weakens the quality of research. And then there is also the matter of fairness and democracy,” states Hallén.

Hallén has served as the head of the Research Council of Norway since 2004, which makes him one of the most influential individuals in the Norwegian research community. He has no doubt about the role that the leadership plays in promoting gender equality.

The leadership has the primary responsibility in this area. It is their task to ensure that research institutions are developed in such a way that the researchers enjoy their work, develop their scientific knowledge and skills, and produce good results. To achieve this, we need to focus on research management,” he believes.

Women want research management

Hallén points to a recent study conducted under the auspices of the Research Council in which more than 1 000 researchers were asked about their attitude towards research management. A total of 80 per cent of the women responded that research management is important, whereas only 66 per cent of the men said the same.

I am not surprised that women value leadership somewhat more than men do. I would guess that women both see the need more clearly and are more concerned with developing well-functioning research communities,” says Hallén.

What can the leadership do in practical terms to promote gender equality?”

Two things are especially crucial: They must work to make the research institutions attractive places to work, and they must develop effective systems for career development. The leadership must see to it that each individual employee is acknowledged and receives the necessary follow up. They must also have a clear recruitment strategy.”

If a research institution recruits more men than women or more female researchers decide to leave, then the leadership needs to think about why this is happening,” says Hallén.

The role of the Research Council

The Research Council of Norway is the strategic body that identifies thematic priority areas for Norwegian research, allocates research funding and provides key input to the authorities on research policy issues. Each year the Research Council awards approximately NOK 6.2 billion for research-related purposes.

How can the Research Council help to put gender equality on the agenda?”

We can play a pivotal role. The most obvious lies in how we design our funding instruments, such as what criteria we set when we announce research funding. For example, we did this when we changed the criteria in the funding announcement for the Outstanding Young Investigators scheme.”

In 2003, only four of the 26 applicants who were awarded funding under the Outstanding Young Investigators scheme were women, and most of the recipients were in the natural sciences and technology. The subsequent funding announcement specified that women in particular were encouraged to apply, that all subject areas were welcome and that the applicants need not be top-level researchers yet. The application assessment process was changed as well. Rather than each application being assessed by a single referee, panels of referees conducted a joint assessment of the applications. Preferential treatment was also introduced into the process, giving female applicants priority when all other factors were equal.

These changes yielded positive results. In the next funding round, the number of women granted funding rose to 40 per cent.

The leadership must see to it that each individual employee is acknowledged and receives the necessary follow up, Hallén points out. (Illustration: Colourbox)

Incorporating gender perspectives

Hallén wants to ensure that the Research Council provides funding to gender research and that in general it promotes the incorporation of gender perspectives into Norwegian research. The Research Council’s strategy states that “Gender perspectives must be integrated closely into all of the different areas.”

We will include gender perspectives in our programmes when relevant. I know that in some programmes this is a matter of course, such as the Research Programme on Welfare, Working Life and Migration (VAM). In other programmes the gender dimension is less apparent and in still others it is absent. There is still a lot we can do better,” says Hallén.

He emphasises that the Research Council has shown good compliance with the “40 per cent rule”, which requires that all appointed committees and panels consist of at least 40 per cent of each gender. Very few exceptions to this rule are made.

This is actually the easiest of all the gender equality measures to implement, even though it was difficult enough in the beginning,” he says.

What is harder is to be observant and to successfully include gender perspectives in the substance of the research. The expectations we can bake into the work programmes are one thing; the grant applications that the researchers and the various research communities actually submit may be quite another.”

Utilising the best research talent

What can you do as Director General of the Research Council of Norway to promote gender equality?”

I can ensure that we give priority to our gender equality efforts and to integrating the gender dimension into research. I can see to it that staff members are assigned responsibility for our activities in this area. We will now be discussing these issues at central management meetings at least twice a year. At these meetings the leadership will address issues related to statistics on the gender distribution of participation in research as well as methods for achieving better integration of gender perspectives into research.”

I am quite certain that this is important for utilising the best research talent and for ensuring that the substance of our research attains sufficiently high quality,” he concludes.

Translated by Connie Stultz and Carol B. Eckmann.

Talent at stake

You can read this interview in the booklet Talent at stake. Changing the culture of research - gender-sensitive leadership.

Here you will also find interviews with leaders at various institutions and in a variety of research communities who have confronted the gender-equality challenge and made a difference.

The publication has received a warm welcome throughout Europe.