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Gender bias is not the key explanation of the gender gap at the top of academia

Women are underrepresented in professor positions, but a new study shows that female candidates are considered more competent and suitable for permanent employment compared with equally qualified male candidates.


The proportion of women who enter higher education has been on a steady rise for a long time. Today, female students outnumber men among students in several disciplines, but women still remain underrepresented in professorial positions within those same disciplines.

— We wanted to investigate whether the persistent gender gap in academia could be explained by the fact that women’s academic competence was evaluated to be lower than that of men. The results demonstrate that this is not accurate - in fact, the truth is quite the opposite,’ says researcher Arnfinn H. Midtbøen, who conducted the study together with Magnus Carlsson, Henning Finseraas and Gudbjørg Linda Rafnsdóttir.

Women’s CVs score higher than men’s

The researchers used a survey experiment to study how faculty respondents rate hypothetical male and female CVs. A total of 775 employees, working in the fields of Economics, Law, Physics, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology at universities in Norway, Sweden and Iceland, participated. They were asked to assess the applicant’s according to their competence and hireability for a permanent position as Associate Professor.

To uncover the effect of gender, each faculty respondent either assessed two CVs with female names or two CVs with male names. One of the CVs included more international publications than the other, and participants were also randomly assigned candidates with either two children or no children.

The study shows that in terms of both competence and hireability, the female CVs were assessed as being somewhat better than the male CVs.

— As expected, the CVs with more international publications were ranked higher than those with fewer publications, and men and women have the same benefits from having a more extensive list of publications,’ Midtbøen explains.

The study shows no indication that having children effects the evaluation of the candidates, and there were no significant differences between different disciplines.

Why do gender differences persist in academia?

Although the study demonstrates that women’s academic competence is assessed to be at least as good as that of men, women still remain a minority at the top of academia.  

Midtbøen points out that a study of this kind examines assessments of men and women with identical qualifications, but that this does not necessarily reflect the actual situation.

— Our investigation does not look at whether there are systematic gender differences at earlier stages of the career path that have an impact on who reaches a position where they are up for evaluation for an Associate Professor role. Nonetheless does this study say anything about whether certain fields or methods are considered as being of lower status than others’, Midtbøen concludes.

There can still be many different reasons why gender differences persist at the top of academia. However, the findings from this study indicate that women who progress far enough in their academic career that they are in a position to apply for a permanent position as Associate Professor (in the Nordic countries)  are not assessed as being less competent or less suited for employment than their male counterparts.

Read the full article: Gender Bias in Academic Recruitment? Evidence from a Survey Experiment in the Nordic Region

By Hege Kandal
Published Dec. 4, 2020 2:32 PM - Last modified Dec. 7, 2020 1:14 PM