Author(s): Peter Aldhous
Seven years ago, Stockholm University's cell and molecular biology program had only one female professor among twelve. Today, this situation has changed greatly: half of Stockholm University's senior biology faculty are female. The female-friendly policies begun by the Social Democratic Party (now out of power) several years ago are beginning to bear fruit.
Although Sweden does have an affirmative-action policy written into law, the new professors did not consider this a major factor in their appointment. Instead, the professors cite the following reasons:
- A series of retirements among male faculty professors.
- Open appointments.
- Mitigation of the influence of "old boy networks."
- Societal support for working women.
The recently appointed female professors also appreciate the "benevolence of the Swedish welfare system," which includes subsidized child care and more than a year's paid leave after childbirth.
The new appointment process helps reduce the effects of the "old boy networks." Applicants are ranked for scientific merit by a panel of three independent experts, of whom usually only one is Swedish. Aldhous writes, "Because the foreign reviewers rarely know any of the candidates, there's little room for cronyism." This system was introduced in biology departments about a decade ago, just before the sudden rise in female professors at Stockholm.
It is hoped that as other universities older faculty retire, more room will be available to incoming women. However, some disciplines face other obstacles. In physics, the pipeline is less than full: women made up only 11% of Swedish Ph.D.s awarded between 1988 and 1992. In addition, the "crippling" national deficit threatens the social welfare system that provided so many benefits. If the cost of child care rises, lower-paid women beginning their careers may be hit hard. However, the head of Stockholm's molecular biology department is confident that academics, with their higher salaries, will still be able to afford to continue. Aldhous closes by reminding us that "since women account for around 50% of new Swedish Ph.D.s in fields like molecular biology, immunology, and microbiology, [many] believe women will soon repeat their Stockholm success elsewhere."
--abstract by Juliet Midgley