Audio description: Paul Walton

Gender equality a powerful tool for higher quality

​Thanks to dedicated work on gender equality, his department went from 0 to 40 per cent female faculty in 20 years. Now, Paul Walton, Professor in Chemistry at York University, offers his advice on Chalmers’ big investment in gender equality.  
 “I’ve visited more than 200 hundred universities and departments all over the world to talk about gender equality. But Chalmers is different,” says Paul Walton. 
He is referring to Chalmers ten-year investment program, the Gender Initiative for Excellence, or Genie. With a budget of 300 million kronor, the aim of the investment is to increase the proportion of female professors at Chalmers from today’s figure of 17 per cent, to 40 per cent. 
“This is by far the biggest single investment in gender equality that any university has made. Chalmers has a big problem with gender equality, but has now understood that in a very clear way. There’s a real determination to tackle it. It was obvious from the faces in the audience today that there’s real commitment here,” says Paul Walton, referring to the lecture he earlier delivered for Chalmers staff and management in Palmstedtsalen. 

Equality and quality go hand in hand
When Paul Walton started working with gender equality in academia 25 years ago, the primary motivation was to make it equal and fair. But several years on, research has shown that a better gender balance leads to greater scientific success, and increased quality is now one of the main motivations. In fact, he believes that equality measures are one of the most powerful tools a university can use to improve itself.  
“We know that we, and probably all universities, have internal structures and cultures which favour men’s career development over women’s. Even if it’s only small differences, it ends up affecting a lot of people over a long time, which leads to big effects. We need to make better use of the competence of the entire population, to take the next step in quality,” says Chalmers President Stefan Bengtsson.

So how do you achieve gender equality? According to Paul Walton, it’s important to share data broadly and openly, for example, data concerning pay and qualifications in promotions, and to incorporate gender aspects into all statistics. Leadership is also key, in particular at the departments. 
“It is mainly at the department where the cultural changes can occur, and where the Head of Department has an important role. Everyone will follow your example as Head of Department,” he says. 

Hug a social scientist
You also need to embrace and learn from research from the social sciences, concerning factors behind inequality between the sexes. For example, everyone – women as well as men – is guilty of unconscious biases. Tests show that people generally rate a CV with a male name higher than an identical CV with a female name, as an example. 
In the UK, it has become common to try and rectify this problem by training people to become aware of their own unconscious biases and correct them themselves.
 “Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. The only way we’ve found to correct for bias is that in committees looking at employment, promotion, pay and so on, you need dedicated observers with the single task of monitoring other members for unconscious bias. For example, the observer can time how long they give to discussing each candidate and count the number of negative and positive comments,” says Paul Walton.  

A globally unique investment
Paul Walton thinks that Chalmers, with this big investment, has the possibility to try new and interesting methods for combating inequality. This could include positions reserved for women, and new ways of recognising academic success. 
“The world will be watching on this one! This is the biggest gender-equality investment that I have heard of in academia.” 

Things could get uncomfortable
One challenge will be the backlash, which, according to Paul Walton, is an accompaniment to anything which seems to give an advantage to women. You need to be ready for things to get uncomfortable – that’s something which Thomas Nilsson, Head of the Physics Department took from Walton’s lecture. He likens the road to becoming a professor to an obstacle course. 
 “The way up is determined by those who are already in the system, which means that the system repeats itself. We must use all the tools available to improve our gender balance,” he says. 

Text: Ingela Roos



Facts about the Gender Initiative for Excellence (Genie)
  • The investment is financed by the Chalmers Foundation, and has a budget of 300 million kronor over 10 years, beginning in January 2019.
  • One of the goals is to achieve 40 per cent female professors by 2029.
  • The work consists mainly of two parts:
    • To identify and remove structural barriers which hinder women’s careers through systematic and tailored work at the departments, inspired by the Athena Swan programme in the UK. 
    • Direct recruitment of top female researchers, together with ensuring that at least half of further recruitments go to women, internal funding to projects which increase equality, and programs for female visiting researchers. 
  • The Genie management group will consist of Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, Professor of Biology and Biotechnology, Mary Sheeran, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and Anders Karlström, Head of the Electrical Engineering Department. 
  • The advisory board includes Paul Walton, Professor of Chemistry at York University, Agnes Wold, Professor of Clinical Bacteriology at Gothenburg University, Liisa Husu, Professor of Gender Studies at Örebro University, and Anders Linder, head of Surface Radar Solutions at Saab AB. A steering group will also be set up, which will consist of the Chalmers President, and the Student Union President, among others. 
  • The contact person for Genie is Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede​.

Published: Thu 18 Oct 2018.