Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Gender equality 101

I live in a country where the political emphasis on gender equality is bordering on the extreme. We have rules for the percentage of women in executive comities and boards of large business and state institutions and rules for the percentage of female university employees, full professors, and top leaders in education. In spite of the good intentions the outcome is riddled with problems like why did she get that position, was she really qualified or was it just to fill the woman quota. On the other hand the awareness of the issue probably does give many (young) women chances we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Half a year ago when it was decided by the higher-ups that my institution should try something new and introduced an “assistant department head” position in each department, almost every single one of the new assistant heads were young and female – me included.

Today I went to my first leader-group meeting as a department head after my temporary promotion (while real department head is on sabbatical). Out of 21 people there, 18 were male and I was the only head of a research-heavy department (the other two women are both heads of organizational levels within the administration). My institution is very focused on the whole gender equality awareness business and has special gender equality committees to watch that hiring committees are taking this into consideration. They even have a special development programme from female employees, which is said to be boring and only focused towards the technical employees, so I’ve never attended any of the meetings, yet. However one of the points on today’s agenda was that we should encourage people in our departments to participate in this, apparently excellent, professional development programme.

The meeting itself was not particularly scary and the topics discussed were mainly things I’d already heard about and had an opinion on. I generally have opinions on lots of things and speaking my mind normally comes easily to me, and actually I am more worried about speaking up with the risk of sounding like a fool at a conference or scientific meeting than at the average “let’s talk about how things are going in general and give out some information” kind of meeting. So I spoke up and asked a few questions and did what I suppose anybody who is invited to a meeting like this is supposed to do.

After we were done and were hanging out and chatting a bit in the hallway the leader of the meeting (who is also the leader of this female employee development programme) came to me and said reassuringly “that she was happy to meet me, and how brave of me to even ask questions at the very first meeting”…… and I was like, HUH? Brave? That's what we are supposed to do here, remember? Somehow I cannot imagine that she was saying the same to the youngish male department heads when they were at their first meeting. In a way this entire meeting had me think that you can have all the quotas you want, but there is still a need for some fundamental changes in the way everybody are thinking.

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