University democracy and gender balance in academia
I co-authored two new debate pieces this week, one on university democracy, where Vigdis Broch-Due, who is running for Pro-Rector, was the primary author, and one on the need to improve gender balance at the University of Bergen.
Both are important topics. After all, the main point of electing the university leadership rather than the University Board simply hiring a rector is that the democratic system allows us a space for debate. It’s important to have at least two teams running in order to have a true discussion of important issues in the university – and it’s important that this democratic process is a truly open one and doesn’t slip into corridor politics. I’ve been dismayed before at how decisions are not really made in the meetings, and I certainly want a more open democracy. On the other hand, I remember my grandfather’s advice about how to really get things done in a university, and realise that a lot happens behind the scenes. I’m ten years older than when I wrote that post, and as I grow older, I see people I studied with or knew in my twenties begin to take on positions of power in society in general and at the University. So how does one get things done in a truly democratic fashion?
Gender balance is another very important issue in academia, and over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen how strong the backlash against the (slow) improvements here can be. As Curt Rice wrote in his response to a particularly nasty editorial in Bergens Tidende:
Bergens Tidende writes about equality without touching the idea, before ending with a debate-strangling sentence about a person who “wants more equality” shouldn’t “create suspicion and division”. This reads like imperialistic advice from another era. Bergens Tidende skriver om likestilling uten å berøre tanken, før de avslutter med en debattkvelende formulering om at den som «ønsker mer likestilling» ikke skal «skape mistanke og splid.» Dette fremstår som et imperialistisk råd fra en annen epoke. (The English is my translation and no doubt Curt would have written better English…)
Gender balance at the University of Bergen has improved in the ten years since I finished my PhD here. Then I wrote about the discomfort I felt at only have one female colleague I regularly saw apart from the secretarial staff. Hilde and I are still the only women in Digital Culture (but we’re a small group, six academic staff members) but now our three PhD candidates are women, we have women post.docs. coming through and I have established a much better network with other women academics at UiB. Less than 10% of professors were women then, we have 22% now. Last semester, after presenting alumni plans to the Humanities faculty leadership team (the dean, pro-dean, faculty director and heads of department) and realising they were all grey-haired men except the head of the centre for gender research and the pro-dean, I organised a seminar for all the female academics in our (large, multidisciplinary) department, from PhD students to professors, and just getting to know these thirty women better was invaluable.
The last couple of days hateful comments against women in public debate have been discussed in several media, after a Swedish documentary. Hilde Sandvik at Bergens Tidende wrote about a 14 year old girl who wrote an opinion piece for the newspaper receiving absolutely horrific, violently and sexually aggressive comments. This is not isolated, many, many, many other examples were given. Gunn Hild Lem talks about the fear women are brought up to feel, and how this fear stops us doing things that might expose us to violence and attacks – including participating in public debate. Avoiding walking home alone at night may be sensible (I certainly tell my teenaged daughter not to) but it also stops women from participating in society as men can. But what if the verbal aggression against women who speak in public or take part in debates is also something we (understandably) almost instinctively avoid? What if women avoid positions of leadership or taking part in public debates because of this “passive fear”, just as we avoid walking home alone at night?
I doubt any university professor would stoop to violent comments of the caliber referenced in those articles. But we have so very few women in university leadership, significantly fewer than any other Norwegian university. Only six of 35 heads of department are women, and only one of six deans.
We have to do better. We need a culture where women are encouraged to run for election, and are encouraged to apply for positions as heads of department. We need a culture that sees the need for diversity in leadership and in teaching and research. I’m very happy that my colleagues in Team Atakan agree with this.