Sunday, June 3, 2012

Women and Science

 Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, 1981
Being a woman and an astrophysicist is unfortunately still a rare combination, particularly in the Nordic countries. Women have held leading political positions for many years in Norway. Former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, being the most prominent and influential one, lead the way acting as Minister of Environment in 1974-1979. Later in 1981, she became Norway's first female Prime Minister starting the process that resulted in what today is gender equality in Norwegian political representation.

In spite of this strong female representation within politics and in spite of decades with a steady increase of female students on all levels at the universities, we find very few women in top academic positions; as professors and institute leaders. Statistics from the Research Council of Norway also show that scientific projects/grants still are dominated by male leadership and participation.

Since I worked on recruiting women to science, technology and medicine back in the early 90ties, I'm sad to say not much has changed. The statistics are about the same, the same obviously wrong explanations are offered, all in all pretty much status quo. 

My own very subjective understanding of this landscape has not changed after I worked on recruiting women to underrepresented fields of science. It can be summarized in a very simple conclusion:  Life is not fair. It is a conclusion that makes it easier to act and maneuver in the battlefield; a battlefield where we all fight for the best possible position for ourselves. As long as you know what you are up against, it is easier to develop an effective strategy. 

There are disadvantages and advantages being a woman in the research community. For instance, as a woman you are highly visible and you will get a lof of attention. However, that visibility also means that all your mistakes, small or big, will be noticed.

Prof. E. Hustad and Prof. A. Bechina Arntzen. Photo B L Bye
Being a woman in science was the topic of a workshop led by Prof. Eli Hustad at the University of Agder in May 2012. Prof. Hustad wanted to establish a network that could help women succeed in the world of science. Her more specific goal was to initiate concrete projects and collaboration, literally right on the money.

And money was what I talked about as one of the invited keynote speakers. Having access to resources is key to success within academia as in business in general. My knowledge about the research system and particularly the different funding instruments were the main reasons for me being there. The title of my presentation was "Challenges and Opportunities for women in science: the role of social network. How to make good research applications: experiences from The Research Council of Norway and project applications".  You can find my presentation here and although it is mostly pictoral, there are some useful information to be found too.

Prof. Aurilla Aurelie Bechina Arntzen is an expert on automation, artifical intelligence and general information system management. Based on her extensive experience from leading and participating in EU-projects, she gave the audience good advice on how to succeed with research applications. After she had told us some sad statistical stories about women in science....

At the University of Agder they try to encourage women to enter the world of science - as politicians ask them to do. Mrs Ragnhild Lager, advisor on gender issues at the university, informed us about their strategy plan to increase the number of female academics.  I am not sure if I was surprised or not when she said that the plan has a specific number with respect to % of female academic employees, but not a specific time when they should reach this number. It is a fail with respect to generally being a good strategy plan, that is for sure. Deadlines are given in good plans. Just saying.

Then two ph.d students told us about their work; Soffi Westin is a ph.d student coming from a global enterprise combing her phd work on improving quality in engineering projects through Information Management, while maintaing parts of her work in and for the company Aker Solutions, and Karen Stendal brought us into a virtual world being used by people with reduced functionality in the real world. All pretty interesting presented in an entertaining fashion.

University of Agder was the youngest university in Norway until 2011. (University of Nordland was born 1. january 2011). The University of Agder received funds from Gender Balance in Research to organize the workhop.

It is always a pleasure visiting the deep south of Norway and I am happy to say I will return this month. 

Kristiansand Fortress. Photo B L Bye

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