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Report 2011: 6 R

Research careers for both men and women? — Statistical follow-up and review

This is a summary in English. The report is available only in Swedish.

What does a research career in higher education involve for women and men who have taken a doctoral degree — do men still have a better chance of becoming professors than women? This is a key question in the statistical analyses we have carried out. How can possible gender differences in a research career be explained — what information do we have about this, based on studies in Sweden and other countries? This is a crucial question in this review.

Statistical analyses

These statistical analyses have been conducted on the basis of data for 15,710 women and 29,005 men who took their doctorates in the period 1980—2007, and who were less than 60 years of age at the time. Two stages in a research career at an academic level have been monitored: on the one hand the first stage in gaining employment as a post-doctoral research fellow or associate senior lecturer and, on the other hand, the final stage in the form of an appointment as a professor.

Post-doctoral employment — overall small or no gender differences

Both post-doctoral research fellow and associate senior lecturer posts qualify the person in question for a future career in higher education via teaching and research experience. In the most recent doctoral groups that we have followed up (defending a doctoral thesis in the period 2000-2007), women and men have been employed as post-doctoral research fellows and associate senior lecturers to roughly the same extent (i.e. without taking subject areas, etc. into account). More precisely, there is a small difference in favour of men, 2 years and 4 years after the doctoral degree, but this evens out after 6 years so that there is, in principle, no gender difference.

Subject-oriented analyses of doctoral groups who took their degrees in the years 2000-2003 (who could be followed up until 6 years after their degree) have produced mixed results. In the humanities and natural sciences, there is virtually no gender difference as regards the transition from taking a doctor´s degree and employment as a post-doctoral research fellow or an associate senior lecturer. On the other hand, in the medical and agricultural science fields women do better than men while, in the social and technological sciences, men are more successful than women.

There is, however, one gender difference that is quite clear: men who took their doctorates when they were relatively young received employment that qualified them for a future academic career to a greater extent than women of the corresponding age. This correlation is particularly clear in the case of those who were under 30 when they took their doctoral degrees, but it also applies to those in the 30-34 age range. In the case of the over-35s, there is either no gender difference or women have received such employment to a greater extent than men.
According to our analyses, parenthood has no general negative impact on employment as a post-doctoral research fellow or associate senior lecturer. Women with children of school age have actually been appointed to such positions to a greater extent than women without children.

On the whole men tend to be more likely to become professors

It takes some time to become a professor, which is why we have regarded 12 years as the minimum period between doctor´s degree and appointment as a professor. We have also studied possible gender differences over a period of 18 years after taking a doctoral degree. The results show men were appointed as professors to a greater extent than women, both 12 and 18 years after being awarded a doctor´s degree. In the case of the 12-year period, we followed up doctors who took their degrees in 1980—1997 and, in the case of the 18-year period, those who took their degrees in 1980—1991.
There has been a gradual narrowing of the difference between women and men with a 12-year interval between taking a doctoral degree and appointment as a professor. In the case of an 18-year interval, no change can be noted, but it is still too early to follow up the latest group of doctoral awards (1992—1997) over this longer time span.

The greater likelihood that men will become professors some years after taking their doctoral degree applies to most subject areas and subject groups (subject groups are a narrower definition than subject areas). However, in the medical subject area and some medical subject groups, women and men have been appointed professors to virtually the same extent.

There is a clear difference between the probability of women and men becoming professors, and this involves the age at which they defend their doctoral thesis. Men who have taken their doctor´s degree at a young age tend to become professors to a greater extent than women who took their degree when they were young. For example, in the case of the combined group of doctoral students who took their degrees in 1992-1997 and who were under 30, 9.4 per cent of the men, but only 3.3 per cent of the women became professors within 12 years of taking their degrees. This gender difference in favour of men may only be partially explained in terms of the doctoral degrees awarded to young men and women in different subjects and at different higher education institutions. On the other hand, there is very little difference in professorial appointments over the age of 40, that is to say men and women became professors to roughly the same extent (doctoral students who took their degrees in 1992-1997).


In this review, we have assembled research and other studies that may help to explain gender differences in the academic career context. The aim is to get a picture of which results are strongly supported by the research and those that have a weaker basis. This review focuses on four aspects that are often analysed in the literature in the field, namely gender differences as regards:
(1) those who leave or remain in the academic world after taking their doctor´s degree,
(2) scholarly publication,
(3) approval of research grants,
(4) employment and promotion.

More men than women leave the academic world

Overall, the studies indicate that a somewhat higher proportion of men than women leave the academic world after taking their doctor´s degree. In the case of Sweden, such studies show that this has been the case since the early 1990s (previously the proportion of women was higher than for men). Studies in the US and Norway point in the same direction, although they are not as unambiguous as studies in Sweden. It also appears that men´s and women´s reasons for leaving the university world differ. It seems to be more common for women to leave the academic field because they are not happy with their work situation or due to the difficulties of combining a career with family requirements. On the other hand, it seems to be more common for men to leave the academic world for higher pay, or because they have different plans for their careers.

Women publish less than men

The research indicates that women have a lower rate of academic publication than their male colleagues. On the other hand, there is no indication that male researchers´ publications are of higher quality. There are several possible explanations for this state of affairs. This review indicates that it is not clear whether women are at a disadvantage in the publication process, and the role played by parenthood and marital status is also unclear. Studies in the Nordic countries indicate that parenthood — particularly when the children are young — may have a negative impact on the extent to which women publish, while marital status is irrelevant. In other European countries, both parenthood and marital status seem to hinder women to some extent. The US results are less clear. As regards the time available for research, Swedish studies do not indicate any major gender differences, while studies in other countries suggest that men do more research than women. Several studies from different countries also indicate that the circumstances for research by women and men differ. Women, for example, have resources and networks that are less satisfactory, they cooperate to a lesser extent with other researchers, and they are more likely to feel that they encounter various forms of opposition.

Some gender differences in approval of research grants

Studies in various countries comparing the approval of research grants for women and men sometimes show differences for approvals, and sometimes not. Swedish studies indicate that gender differences as regards the approval of individual grants, where they exist, may be largely explained in terms of differences in factors that may be included in grounds for professional qualification, for example career age, publication record or position in the academic world, although a couple of studies suggest that applications for research grants discriminated against women. Studies of assessment processes have focused on the concept of research quality and the application of this concept. Reference is made in this context to cognitive bias. Empirical studies have indicated that different assessors apply the quality concept in different ways, and assessors interpret the criteria differently, based on different theories associated, for example, with the discipline concerned, and this may be a problem from a gender equality viewpoint. There seem to be some gender differences as regards the application process. Several studies indicate that women apply for research grants to a lesser extent than men, and that they apply for smaller amounts.

Women make less progress in their careers than men — but the reasons differ

Studies in Sweden, other European countries and the US consistently indicate that a smaller proportion of women than men receive promotion in the academic world and, in addition, that it takes more time for women to achieve promotion. There are several possible explanations. In the case of the applications pattern for women and men, the results are not clear-cut — some studies show that women apply for posts and promotion to a lesser extent than men, while other studies do not confirm this difference. The results also point in different directions as regards the question of whether there is discrimination against women in the employment process. Some studies indicate differences in the way women´s and men´s qualifications are evaluated, while other studies indicate that, in fact, a higher proportion of women are offered employment. In addition, the results are not unambiguous as regards the importance of parenthood and marital status. In the Nordic context, the results point in different directions, while studies in other European countries and the US indicate more clearly that female researchers find it more difficult than men to combine parenthood with a research career. As regards the research situation of women and men, studies in Sweden and other countries suggest, for example, that women feel they receive less support from their institutions, and that they have less access to networks and resources.
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