Ministry's incentive scheme misses the mark

Expectations were high for the incentive scheme from the Ministry of Education and Research to recruit women to senior-level positions in mathematics, natural science and technology. Now, however, an evaluation report recommends ending the scheme.

The percentage of women in senior-level positions is less than 10 percent in some MST subjects. The incentive scheme was supposed to improve this gender imbalance. (Illustration: iStockphoto)

“Academia has one of society’s most formalized hiring processes, with committees, systems and routines. This allows for well-functioning gender equality measures, but we saw that the ministry’s scheme missed the mark. The incentive scheme is introduced into a phase of the hiring process that does not have an impact on the outcome of the actual hiring decisions,” says Lars-Erik Becken, a sociologist and general manager of Proba Research.

Together with Ingunn Eriksen, Becken has written an evaluation report on women in mathematics, natural science and technology. In addition to the conclusion that the incentive scheme should not be continued, they make a number of recommendations for alternative measures.

Half of the funding used

The incentive scheme to recruit women to senior-level positions in mathematics, natural science and technology (MST subjects) was launched by the Ministry of Education and Research in 2010. The scheme was supposed to serve as a powerful, flexible financial incentive for gender balance, and the evaluation comes three years after the scheme’s start-up. During that time, the nine institutions included in the scheme have received about half of the earmarked NOK 30 million. Each reported appointment of a woman to a full-time position as assistant professor, associate professor or professor has triggered an allocation of up to NOK 300 000 to the institution concerned.

The evaluation by Proba Research concludes that despite an increase in the number of women appointed in the period from 2010 to 2012, the incentive scheme has had little measurable impact. The number of women has risen quite steadily ever since 2002, when 139 women were employed in senior-level positions in MST subjects. This figure increased to 260 in 2009 and to 311 in 2012, but Proba Research believes that the increase since the scheme began in 2010 cannot in all likelihood be attributed to the scheme. 

“In order for the incentive scheme to actually work, the hiring committee would have to be very conscious of the scheme. As of today they are not, because in keeping with the EFTA Surveillance Authority’s ruling from 2003, they must assess applicants on the basis of their academic qualifications, not on the ministry’s incentive scheme,” says Becken.

Has legitimized gender equality efforts

Although Proba Research recommends discontinuing the incentive scheme, they still believe that it sends an important message. Strong guidelines and concrete measures from the Ministry of Education and Research have legitimized the focus on gender equality efforts at the institutions. The evaluation report shows that the scheme has given political support to gender equality efforts and heightened interest at the central level.

A gender equality adviser is quoted in the report:

There will always be many different desires and needs in various academic environments. People have different hobby horses and [there are] very many intersecting needs. So it is crucial that the department head knows he [sic] has the support of the faculty leadership and that they in turn have strong guidelines from the ministry.

Becken points out that knowledge about the scheme is limited and that other, similar schemes would have a similar legitimizing effect.

“The people in the central administration at the universities and university colleges know about the scheme and have a positive view of it. But we also talked with many department heads and found that many of them know very little about the scheme. Our survey in all the departments confirms this. To the degree that they knew about it, some of them had misunderstood, confused it with another internal scheme or the like,” he says, and continues:

“Any effect of the scheme on the number of female employees is therefore very indirect. We think our recommendation for alternative measures will have a genuine impact on the hiring process, in addition to serving as a legitimizing factor in the same way.”

Unclear information and lack of knowledge

The evaluation criticizes the information provided by the Ministry of Education and Research. Circulars and allocation letters from the ministry did not state the duration of the scheme. Nor was it made clear until later that the scheme only applied to full-time positions and not to internal promotions.

“It’s natural that it takes some time for the details to fall into place in a scheme like this. The ministry could have provided better information, but that is not the reason the scheme didn’t work. The information is good within the central administration, while it deteriorates the farther down in the system you come. Still, it’s not the ministry’s job to inform the departments. It is the institutions that are responsible for this,” says Becken.

According to the evaluation, there is some confusion surrounding the scheme. Knowledge of the scheme at the departmental level is described as limited, insufficient and incorrect, with a few exceptions of course. Several departments had received funding without being aware of it. At one of the departments that had triggered allocations most often, those with hiring authority did not even know about the scheme. The department head was uncertain whether they had ever received funding from the scheme, even though the department had received a relatively large sum that same year.

The evaluation report notes that neither the hiring committees nor the department boards are well informed about the scheme. The ministry has notified the institutions, but has done nothing to channel the information directly to the departments. Since the departments are the most crucial link in the hiring process, Proba Research has concluded that the scheme could not have had a major impact on actual appointments.

Structural causes

Proba Research also looked at the causes of gender imbalance in senior-level positions in MST subjects. The report describes a narrow female applicant pool, preferential treatment related to appointments, and structural factors that may have an impact on who chooses not to pursue a career in academia.

For appointments to senior-level academic positions, most candidates have a doctoral degree and at least one post-doctoral research fellowship. Both of these are temporary positions, which may be less favourable for women than for men. The significant work burden outside of normal work hours is also mentioned as one possible cause, along with a lack of compensation schemes for caregiving and leaves in research fellowship positions.

“Temporary positions and other structural factors are likely important aspects of gender imbalance. By the same token, the topic is complex and lies outside of our mandate,” says Becken.

Alternative solutions

The report lists a number of alternative measures that Proba Research thinks can work better than the incentive scheme. One of these is to set aside funding for resource persons who follow up specific hiring processes with the aim of expanding the female applicant pool.

“Of this type of measure in the NOK 10 million range, we believe that those measures that expand the female applicant pool will work the best. Our recommendation is to allocate funding to hire a resource person centrally within the institution who can be involved in all of the hiring processes. The resource person could ask the difficult questions, evaluate the wording of the job announcements, and quite simply assist with gender equality considerations in the hiring processes,” explains Becken.

The former State Secretary Ragnhild Setsaas, (Photo: The Ministry of Education and Research)

Another recommendation is to set aside funding for search committees that can peruse actual research and identify potential female applicants.

The report also recommends setting aside funding to support promotions to professor level, since the percentage of women appointed to associate professor positions is far higher than to professorships.

It is also recommended that departments consider using adjunct professor and adjunct associate professor positions more often to improve the gender balance.

The ministry considers continuation

When the report by Proba Research was released in July, former Minister of Education and Research Kristin Halvorsen said that the findings in the report would be assessed and that they would then decide which gender equality measures would be continued. According to former State Secretary Ragnhild Setsaas, the report by Proba Research has made a valuable contribution and provided a solid foundation for policy development in the field.

“The report was mentioned in the budget proposal from the Ministry of Education and Research which was submitted in early October,” says Setsaas.

“I also expect the Committee for Gender Balance in Research (the KIF Committee) to assess the report as part of the task assigned to them in the white paper on research (Meld. St. 18 (2012–2013) Long-term perspectives – knowledge provides opportunity). The KIF Committee has been asked to make specific recommendations, including a cost assessment, on how we can more quickly achieve gender balance in senior-level positions at universities and university colleges,” concludes the state secretary.

Translated by Connie Stultz.


In 2012, the percentage of women in senior-level positions at the various MST institutions was 8–25 percent. In all MST subjects combined, women comprise about 15 percent of professors and 25 percent of associate professors. Biology and biotechnology have the most women in senior-level positions, whereas informatics and information technology have the fewest.

The Ministry of Education and Research began the incentive scheme in 2010. It was originally planned to last three years, and a total of NOK 30 million, up to NOK 10 million per year, was set aside.

The nine institutions participating in the trial scheme with incentive funding are the Universities of Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø, Agder and Stavanger, as well as the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Gjøvik University College and Telemark University College.

The Ministry of Education and Research decided to evaluate the scheme after its third year. Proba Research has submitted the evaluation report Kvinner i realfag: En evaluering av insentivordningen for kvinner i høyere stillinger i MNT-fag (“Women in mathematics, natural science and technology: An evaluation of the incentive scheme for women in senior-level positions in MST subjects”) (Proba report 2013-10).

Read more and download the report (only in Norwegian)

Read about the incentive scheme (only in Norwegian)