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How gender equal is your university?

Elisabeth Kohler

Yesterday I had a discussion with Emmy, the daughter of my best friends.  She is very enthusiastic about her university where she is doing a PhD in chemistry.

  • My supervisor is very kind. He says that I am very well organised and doing a conscientious work, that I am thoughtful and a person of integrity.

  • What does he say about the scientific quality of your work?

  • Nothing special. He thinks that Alex is brilliant and has very promising results. We are both working on similar topics and getting along very well. He invited me to attend his first presentation at a major conference two weeks ago.

  • Why did you not make a presentation yourself?

  • I didn’t know about this conference and the call for papers.

  • Emmy, this a typical gender bias. It seems there is a lack of awareness raising at your university. 


Researchers have shown how much the perception of academic excellence and scientific skills are coded as implicitly male. Being brilliant is seen as a masculine quality while girls are encouraged to be reserved, caring for others and to conform Thus, girls’ good grades are for conscientious rather than brilliant work. Letters of recommendation for PhD students usually emphasize a female candidate’s qualities as a person but says little about her work whereas such letters for men stress their qualities as scientists more strongly. During their theses, female students feel they suffer from a lack of support. 

Your supervisor should stress your scientific skills and encourage your scientific work as he does for Alex. He should make sure that all his students have equal access to information like the announcement of the conference. 


  • Emmy, may I have a look on the home page of your university? Nice pictures! I wonder why the poster for the postgraduate program is showing the female student sitting hunched over a microscope while the male student is standing behind a telescope and looking up to the stars? Don’t you think this is also a typical genre bias?

  • Maybe but globally, I think that sexism is past story. In my undergraduate programme, there were more female students than male.

  • And now how many women are doing a PhD in chemistry?

  • I would say we are a bit less than 50%.

  • That is not bad but it is far from being the same in all scientific fields, especially like mathematics, physics, engineering, computer science.

  • What about your professors? Is there a good gender balance?

  • In the undergraduate programme we had quite a lot of female early career researchers and assistant professors but it is true that most of the full professors are male. 

  • And what about the governance of your university?

  • The rector is a man but there is one female vice-rector.

  • Emmy, don’t you think it is wired that the more you get to the top-level the less women there are. Have you ever heard of the leaky pipeline, glass ceiling or sticky floor? Because it is exactly what you are describing. The gender inequality in academic careers seems obvious at your university.


Female graduates, despite being the majority in undergraduate and master courses, are less likely than men to secure graduate-level jobs and on average earn less than men after graduation. The statistics in SHE figures show that as they are moving up the academic ladder, women are less represented. In the EU-28 in 2016, women represented 48 % of doctoral students and graduates, 46 % of grade C academic positions, 40 % of grade B and 24 % of grade A academic positions. The gap between women and men was wider in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics); while women made up 37 % of doctoral students and 39 % of doctoral graduates, they held only 15 % of grade A academic positions. In the EU-28, there are only 22% of women among heads of institutions in the higher education sector.

To improve the situation universities have to take serious action to move towards gender equality. They should for example actively support the equal participation of women and men in all scientific events and activities, give priority to evaluation criteria that are not implicitly favourable to men, encourage women’s access to positions of authority, better take into account maternity leaves, and foster work-life balance… 


  • Has your university implemented initiatives to prevent sexism and gender-based violence?

  • Yes there are flyers with a phone number that you can call in case of sexual harassment or discrimination.

  • Interesting but what do they do to prevent such situations? Aren’t there any seminars, trainings or awareness raising events such as theatre forums?

  • Not that I know of. But I don’t think GBV is a actually a critical issue at my university. 

  • Don’t underestimate these issues. They are ranging from banter and sexist jokes to harassment and assault.

  • It is true that I feel uncomfortable when fellow students and sometimes even professors comment the way I dress or make sexist jokes. Now I remember also that friends of mine told me that a female student had left the university without graduating because a professor sexually harassed her.

  • And did anyone of you protest? Was the professor prosecuted?

  • No, we were sort of incredulous that something like that could happen at a prestigious university like ours 

  • Emmy, this can happen everywhere no matter how intelligent the perpetrators are and how prestigious the university is.


Deeply rooted in traditional gender norms and gender stereotyped culture, GBV adds to discriminatory treatment of women and represents a dramatic obstacle to equality of opportunity for women and for all in academia, with often severe consequences for survivor/victim mental health, physical health, and various work-related outcomes. The scant and fragmented literature on GBV in academia shows high prevalence rates in all European universities (including also countries considered champions of gender equality) and in all academic disciplines. Nonetheless, to date the measures taken against GBV in European academia are insufficient. Major issues are: raising awareness of GBV behaviours and methods to prevent GBV; identifying clearly the role and responsibility of senior management to address GBV; empowering and protecting those at highest risk of GBV; incentivising support from bystanders; discouraging and prosecuting the perpetrators; lowering institutional GBV tolerance levels.


  • Emmy, does your university have a Gender action plan?

  • Not as far as I know.

  • This does not mean that they do not have an action plan but if you are not aware of it they definitely missed the point. To be effective a Gender action plan has to be widely disseminated, supported by the top management and implemented at every level, and monitored towards its objectives. The trainings should be adequately tailored to meet the target groups’ features and needs and to by-pass their potential resistances. Moreover, there should be a long-term strategy to make the action plan sustainable.

  • So do you think my university is not gender equal?

  • Emmy, your university seems to be far from being gender equal and I would strongly advise them to take appropriate steps to achieve gender equality if they want to continue to attract brilliant female students like you.


Elisabeth Kohler

Photo by j zamora on Unsplash


Bondestam F., Lundqvist M., (2020): Sexual harassment in higher education – a systematic review, European Journal of Higher Education, DOI:10.1080/21568235.2020.172983

Devine P. et al, “A gender bias habit-breaking intervention led to increased hiring of female faculty in STEMM departments”, Journal of experimental social psychology, 73 (2017)

European Commission, 2020. Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. Achievements and key areas for action.

Gender Equality in Academia and Research – GEAR tool

Guidance to facilitate the implementation of targets to promote gender equality in research and innovation

Jackson L., Nesterova Y., 2018. Gender Inequalities in Universities.

Linková M., 2017. ‘Academic Excellence and Gender Bias in the Practices and Perceptions of Scientists in Leadership and Decision-making Positions.’ Gender a výzkum / Gender and Research, Vol. 18, No. 1: 42-66. DOI:

Lipinsky, A. Farnete, A. & Pantelmann, H. 2019 Gender-based violence in academia -from practical interventions to research and back. CEWS Journal, nr 120: 31-36.

Madera J. et al, “Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact”, Journal of Business and Psychology, 2018

Moss-Racusin C. et al, “Science Faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 109(41), 2012

SHE figures 2018 

July 30, 2020

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