"Men are geniuses, women are hard working?"

By Astrid Kunze

15 May 2017 10:10

"Men are geniuses, women are hard working?"

Gendered organisations and unconscious biases in academic institutions were the topic at the seminar “Gender equality expertise in leadership positions” with Anna Wahl last week.

Anna Wahl talked about unconscious bias in academic organisations.
Anna Wahl talked about unconscious bias in academic organisations.
Deputy Rector Sunniva Whittaker introduced the topic and gave the welcoming speech.
Deputy Rector Sunniva Whittaker introduced the topic and gave the welcoming speech.
Professor Mette Bjørndal talked about her experiences at NHH.
Professor Mette Bjørndal talked about her experiences at NHH.
Professor Siri Pettersen Strandenes became NHH's first female professor in 2002.
Professor Siri Pettersen Strandenes became NHH's first female professor in 2002.
Professor Øystein Thøgersen who will enter the position as Rector in August, presented his thoughts on the gender situation at NHH.
Professor Øystein Thøgersen who will enter the position as Rector in August, presented his thoughts on the gender situation at NHH.
Vice Rector Gunnar E. Christensen asked: What can NHH do to accerlerate the pace to recruit more female faculty?
Vice Rector Gunnar E. Christensen asked: What can NHH do to accerlerate the pace to recruit more female faculty?
From 1 Augst, Øystein Thøgersen will be in charge also of the gender balance at NHH.
From 1 Augst, Øystein Thøgersen will be in charge also of the gender balance at NHH.
Professor Mette Bjørndal talked about her experiences at NHH.
The panel (from the left): Anna Wahl, Øystein Thøgersen, Mette Bjørndal, Gunnar E. Christensen and facilitator Hilde Sandvik.

This was the second seminar in the series at NHH on gender equality which was launched in February 2017.

The topics of the first seminar was how to acquire external research funding from NFR, the EU or other prestigious funds, what it means to take a gender perspective on research and whether men and women have equal chances.
Read more about the seminar.

This time the seminar looked at expertise on gender issues among leaders at universities and business school. Anna Wahl who is a Professor in Organization and Vice-Rector of gender diversity at KTH in Stockholm, presented the topic. Sunniva Whittaker, Øystein Thøgersen, Mette Bjørndal and Gunnar E. Christiansen presented NHH’s measures and experiences with gender equality.

Are gendered organisations a problem?

Anna Wahl opened the presentation by pointing out that talking about gender and discrimination within organisations often creates discomfort. For women it creates negative connotations, stigmas, which indicates that there is a problem with “women”. For men it may indicate that there are wrong actions among the male dominated leadership, which in turn might create guilt. A consequence is that some women also want to distance themselves from other women because they believe that they themselves are not affected, Anna Wahl said.

She continued talking about organisations’ cultures which include perceptions of ways of thinking, language, sense of humour, or such things as dress-code or interior design. Because of historical patterns and the male dominance in professional life, most cultures in large organisations are driven by traditional male norms, male work norms and cultural habits.

The university sector and academia are no exception to this. Only 18 percent of all NHH professors are female (2016). And it wasn’t until 2002 that NHH got its first female professor. To become aware of the gendered structure of an organisation a first step is to understand the problem. The more difficult part is to learn and understand the culture.

Of course, also NHH has a double gender segregation challenge since the institution is more male dominated the higher up in the hierarchy. This may also affect the gendered cultural norms at NHH.

The academic professions are quite special compared to other professions in the sense that the success of academics depends to a large extent on fitting in and being included. The criteria for fitting in may be applied very differently to women and men, Anna Wahl stated. Since the minority of professors and managers in higher education are women, it is much more difficult to grasp what women are like as managers and whether they act and perform differently from men. It is also problematic to compare women to men, which essentially is the “norm”. This often leads to highlighting individual women, as good or bad examples, because they are in such a minority in many contexts.

Implicit biases in academia

Do implicit biases in academia matter for why there are so few women in the highest positions?

At NHH, faculty members evaluate and are subject to evaluations in a wide range of contexts: Students evaluate our teaching quality; we assess candidates for positions, we evaluate and are evaluated in connection with applications for research grants internally and externally, for journal publications and conferences.

Are all of these assessments objectively based on academic merits? Is it even possible to assess people’s merits objectively? All may try, but Anna Wahl pointed out that evaluations are gendered. All of us carry unconscious biases, prejudices and views. And, even though academic quantitative research supports that these biases also affect evaluations, this evidence is widely ignored at academic institutions. Examples are that students tend to give young female scholars worse evaluations in teaching. Others show that committee evaluations for female associate professors and full professors are actually less favourable when there are women on the committee.

The debate

Unconscious bias challenges leaders at NHH as well as everybody else. The panel discussion confirmed that academics are not fully aware of that.

Anna Wahl referred to a striking example of this. A study found that a manager was perceived as ambitious, brilliant and wanted if male. Was the manager a female, however, the same person would be perceived as not sympathetic and too much goal orientated.

The seminar shows that NHH must have even more focus on gender balance and even more so extend the view on other forms of gender discrimination that are insufficiently measurable with existing numbers. NHH may take up policies of gender mainstreaming as other big institutions elsewhere have done, and to learn and implement best practices that create an inclusive academic environment for all faculty members – women included.

Feedback is welcome

The programme committee consisting of Sunniva Whittaker, Tina Søreide, Karin Thorburn, Astrid Kunze, Ingeborg A. Kleppe, and Ingebjørg Tyssedal, appreciates your feedback.  

The seminar series was organised by senior adviser Ingebjørg Tyssedal.

Test yourself

Test your implicit gender bias with Harvard's Project Implicit Social attitudes test.

Book: "179 Years of Solitude"

Anna Wahl is one of the authors with connections to Stockholm School of Economics of the book "179 Years of Solitude" about their experiences while working at the school (2016). 

Video and photos: Astri Kamsvåg

Read more about the seminar in the calendar

NHH's handbook for local gender equality work - for improved gender balance in academic positions (PDF)

More internal news