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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2001

Achieving Gender Equality

E. Lisbeth Donaldson

Hard Work in the Academy: Research & Interventions on Gender Inequalities in Higher Education

Paul Fogelberg, Jeff Hearn, Liisa Husu & Teija Mankkinen, eds. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1999; 288 pp; paper 25.69 EUR.
Much national pride has been evoked because Canada has been consistently rated as having the best quality of life according to United Nations criteria. It almost seems heretical to remind citizens that with respect to the status of women this country was rated seventh in the same comparative surveys.

Pockets of inequity are located not just among poverty-stricken single mothers, and some ethnic groups but also at the other end of the spectrum. For example, we have fewer women leaders in politics and in higher education than most Scandinavian countries. Why? Instead of peering south of the border, where the general status of most women is even lower than in Canada, why not probe how European countries have achieved more success. This book addresses just that task.

Some trends are worldwide. As women gained access to institutions offering higher education, participation and persistence rates have increased to the point where the numbers of women graduating are now higher that those of men. Most female students select humanities and professional types of study while mathematics, natural sciences, and information technology are male-dominated.

A degree, however, does not necessarily result in career path opportunities or equal financial rates of return on the educational investment. Even when the proportion of women working outside the home reaches 50 per cent, the numbers of women in academia have remained marginalized and low. They are clustered in lower paying positions such as sessional employment and fewer than 15 per cent in most countries are senior professors. (p. 21, 78).

Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are European leaders with policies that promote equity. Finland has the highest proportion of female professors (18 per cent) of 15 European Union countries. Unfortunately, this figure is inflated because in 1998 the academic category of associate professor was abolished, thus many women acquired the title of professor during a period when salary levels were not upgraded correspondingly and the total number of professors decreased.

Nevertheless, the 1995 Equality Act formalized a policy making all government committees, advisory boards and research councils meet a minimum quota of 40 per cent female memberships "unless there are special reasons for the contrary." (p. 31) In a further attempt to reduce male gate-keeping, the same Act states that all employers with a staff of at least 30 will provide equitable training and labour protection support.

Sweden has "positive affirmative action policies" that include hiring (90 per cent of chairs recently have been filled by women) and the government sets a target of gender recruitment for universities, freezing funds when these targets are not met within a three-year period. (p. 39)

The First European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education was held at the University of Helsinki, Finland, Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, 1998. This prominent host university was established in 1640 but it did not accept female students until 230 years later. It was another 12 years before one graduated and the first female professor was not nominated until 1930.

The Helsinki conference attracted 152 participants, 130 women and 22 men, from 21 countries. Fifty-six participants came from the host country, 22 from Sweden, and 13 from the U.K. Some neighbouring countries were relatively under-represented (none from Iceland, Estonia, or France) and, of 11 non-European participants, one was Canadian. This book is one of the outcomes and includes edited versions of 30 presentations representing perspectives from 15 countries.

The conference program and summary of topics are included in an appendix. Another appendix provides contributor profiles. A third appendix provides the address of another outcome of the conference: EQ-UNI list, the European Network on Gender Equality in Higher Education, was launched in February 1999 and now has subscribers from 30 countries.

Contributions to the book are organized in seven sections: national politics and policies, students, academic work and careers, management, sexualities, women's studies and strategies and interventions for change. Some points in each chapter become repetitious because employment and educational barriers are so similar.

Keynote speaker Jane Roland Martin, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts and author of Coming of Age in Academe: Rekindling Women's Hopes and Reforming the Academy (Routledge, 1999) used the metaphor of alienated immigrants who struggle simultaneously to adapt to a new culture while resisting acculturation. She long has argued for the development of gender-sensitive policies and programs. Awareness does not necessarily result in a less chilly academic climate.

The Canadian contribution, by Lucie France Dagenais, from the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Commission, is "Inequality and Higher Education in Canada." Successes of the past 20 years are acknowledged using data that indicate: improved accessibility to educational systems, scholarly achievements and attainments, narrowing of gaps in wages and earnings by educational attainment and civil status (married/ single).

However, gender differentiated roles in family responsibilities and subsequent labour market participation continue to influence women's career paths more than academic qualifications. As Dagenais concludes, "the implications of the new female presence in education and its broader effects on ... society" need to be explored further. (p. 249)

"Addressing gender inequalities and pursuing gender equality in the academy is hard work: it is definitely work, and it is definitely hard!" (p.11) This opening sentence of such a worthwhile publication and conference invites further such openings. The first symposium on Women in the Academy was held at the 2000 SSHRC Congress in Edmonton. It was hard work and it was a good beginning. Canadian academics, it is time to work hard to reduce inequities at our respective campuses.

E. Lisbeth (Betty) Donaldson is a professor of education and director of teaching and learning curriculum projects at the University of Calgary, and coauthor with C. Emes of The Challenge for Women Academics: Reaching a Critical Mass in Research, Teaching, and Service in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, fall 2000 (in press).

To subscribe to the EQ-UNI list, send an email with the message "subscribe EQ-UNI" to

In Norway, the University of Tromso's latest attempt to pay attention to the gender problem at the organizational level "The Rules of the Game at the University of Tromso" can be viewed at