Genie leader Pernilla Wittung Stafshede.
​"I have met so many inspiring people around Chalmers!” says Genie leader professor Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede.​​​​
​Photo: Oscar Mattsson.

"Many people at Chalmers want to engage in gender equality"

​​After a year of running Chalmers’ gender equality initiative Genie, the leader Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede looks back on a time that has focused on setting up a foundation, gathering  knowledge and, most importantly, building trust among Chalmers employees.
She anticipates a bright future.
"There are many people at Chalmers who want to engage in gender equality and there are lots of good ideas," she says.

It is easy to describe Chalmers’ gender equality initiative Genie quantitatively.

The goal is to increase the proportion of women in the faculty (at each level) to at least 40 percent.

Within ten years.

With a budget of SEK 300 million.

But the numbers are not most important. Genie is truly about cultural change. For this, we must become aware of our unconscious biases and begin to create a more inclusive work environment. Scientific studies show that this benefits everyone, both men and women, and that it also increases scientific excellence.

Reaching the goals of Genie is not going to be easy. Since the initiative started in January 2019, Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede has spent a lot of both working and le​isure time on Genie, which is the largest financial investment ever in gender equality in academia.

"It's been such a fun year," she says. “I have learned how differently the departments function, and what a wide-range of research is performed around campus. I have also gathered lots of knowledge about gender equality studies, and I have met so many inspiring people around Chalmers!”

Genie is a prioritised initiative, funded by the Chalmers foundation, that started as a proposal among Chalmers’ faculty about two years ago.

Consists of two major parts

Genie consists of two major parts. One is about work environment and culture. Genie’s mission is to support each of Chalmers’ departments with concrete, tailor-made efforts, in order to remove structural and cultural barriers affecting women's careers.

The second part is about recruitment with the goal to increase the female faculty at the university. Genie provides funding for direct recruitment of female faculty, and a visiting researcher programme has been introduced. It is vital, too, that everyone at Chalmers helps to ensure that other recruitments, for example due to retirement, attract strong candidates and are gender-balanced.

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede together with vice-leader Mary Sheeran has spent a lot of time during the first year to assemble Genie's leadership team, develop an operational plan for Genie, and get to know the departments and formal processes at Chalmers. Together, they have also spread information about Genie and gathered input from researchers, teachers, and students.

Great leadership group

“Genie has a great leadership group today. Mary and I work well together - we have different scientific profiles and sometimes different opinions, but we listen to each other and we give each other energy”, she says. “Without Mary, I could not have done this. In addition, our coordinator Maria Saline is essential. She is a great asset and fits perfectly in her role.”

During the first year, Pernilla and Mary have met individually with all the heads of department for initial conversations about the situations in the different departments. The Genie team has also met with various groups at Chalmers (e.g. HR, graduate students and the Faculty Appointment Committee) to learn and discuss how to work together.

“I think it is important that Genie was initiated by Chalmers faculty and that we, the leaders, are faculty members. Genie is not part of the ‘line organisation’ of Chalmers. Of course, we work with the heads of department and the president of Chalmers, and it is very important that they are involved, and provide support and feedback. We have two heads of department in the Genie leadership group, and they act as a direct link between Genie and the other department heads. To bring about a cultural change, one cannot force people. It is therefore very important to build trust and confidence in Genie at all levels of Chalmers”, she says.

Several actions already taken

The Genie team has already taken several actions to increase gender equality. In early 2019, the Genie initiative provided salary and start-up packages to enable the hiring of five female assistant professors who were highly ranked in the 2018 recruitment round by Chalmers’ Areas of Advance and Basic Sciences. Before the summer, Genie opened an internal call for projects that combined gender equality with excellence in education or research. A total of 73 applications were submitted, and after a thorough external review process during the fall, 30 projects were selected for funding. Almost SEK 24 million will be distributed over a period of two years to these projects, and every department will benefit.

“With a unique call for proposals like this, many activities will be started that will increase awareness of gender equality around Chalmers.”

The Genie team has also arranged lectures on gender equality, and open lunches for informal discussions; they have dedicated a sum of money to each department for work on gender equality in the coming years. This money comes with a great deal of freedom to use as the departments find best.

“We trust the departments. To provide inspiration and support, we have put together a ‘toolbox’ list with a range of concrete actions one can take to increase gender equality”, says Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede.

Professor Paul Walton plays a key role

To support the leadership group, Genie has an advisory board that includes external faculty, a social scientist and representatives from industry. In particular, Paul Walton, professor of chemistry at York University in the United Kingdom, plays a key role. Walton managed to raise the proportion of women at his department from zero to 40 percent over a period of ten years. In the last year, he visited Chalmers several times and met with, among others, the heads of department.

“Paul Walton has long-term practical and theoretical experience of gender equality work in academia around the world. We are very happy that he gives us in-depth advice. One thing he repeats often is that change takes time – we must first get people onboard and raise awareness of the topic.”

Genie also has a steering group that makes the big decisions and is headed by the president of Chalmers. To secure a broad foundation within Chalmers, the president of Chalmers’ Student Union and Chalmers’ HR director are members of the steering group.  The advisory board met with Genie's leadership and steering groups in the fall, which, according to Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, provided extremely valuable input on how to think and proceed.

Opportunities in the crisis?

Recently, there have been headlines about the financial crisis at Chalmers. With large financial savings requirements until 2022, a well-funded initiative like Genie might be an obvious target, but Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede believes that Genie will not be affected.

“The president has said that the Chalmers foundation initiatives * should be prioritised, which means that Genie does not see the crisis as a problem – instead, maybe there are opportunities in this? Many efforts to improve the culture and work environment will not cost money. But, at the same time, research shows that financial savings often lead to increased inequality, and the departments may focus only on saving money. Departments should talk to Genie if they need help to counteract increased inequality due to the crisis”, she says.

Stimulate communication

In talking about the future and Genie’s second year, Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede stresses that this year will focus on the departments’ gender equality work, which Genie will support as needed and desired. For example, many of the departments want to test observers in decision meetings, perform cultural studies, or educate their employees. These are concrete activities to which the Genie initiative can offer support.

“We want the departments to learn from each other and share ideas. Therefore, we will arrange recurring joint meetings with one Genie representative from each department. We want to stimulate communication among the departments, and facilitate joint efforts; we also want to find out how we can best support them. During the second year, Genie will continue to give faculty and students the chance to bring their ideas and hear about Genie’s plans over lunch or coffee”, she says.

Lessons learned

What lessons has she learned from the first year? She mentions the importance of being patient – there is enthusiasm within Chalmers, there are many fantastic people in the departments, and there are many great ideas.

We  have got a wonderful start, we have momentum, but we must also be prepared that sustainable change will take time. I also learnt that it is difficult to write a ten-year operational plan, which is a requirement from the foundation, because we are still learning about concepts and best practices. The more we work with Genie, the more we learn. One of the things that I haven't thought much about before is that changing the culture in an organisation is very much about psychology.”

Although Genie is an internal effort, Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is keen to disseminate information and knowledge about the initiative outside Chalmers. She has been interviewed in the media, written debate articles, and she and Mary Sheeran have both given several seminars about women in academia and Genie in scientific contexts.

“We want other universities to know that we recognise our problems and try to address them now. Maybe we can inspire other universities to do the same? We have already seen such interest.”

More info about Genie - Gender Initiative for Excellence

As a strategy to become more excellent, Chalmers aims to increase the proportion of women among its faculty. The Genie initiative is funded by the Chalmers University of Technology Foundation and has a budget of SEK 300 million over the course of ten years. It was launched on 1 January 2019 and run through 2028. As far as Chalmers knows, it is by far the largest individual investment in gender equality made by any university.
The overall goals of the project: 
Increase the proportion of female faculty
Remove the structural and cultural obstacles that hamper women’s careers
Create a working environment that is diverse and inclusive and supportive of excellence in research and teaching
Leaders of the Genie initiative are Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, Professor, Biology and Biological Engineering, and Mary Sheeran, Professor, Computer Science and Engineering.

Text: Robert Karlsson
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The Chalmers foundation initiatives are Genie, Chair and Tracks.

Published: Mon 09 Mar 2020.