New Swedish study: merits of recently appointed female professors massively overvalued

by ACADEMIC RIGHTS WATCH posted on 2020-04-03

On the popular view, there are fewer female than male professors because women’s qualifications weigh lighter than men’s. Yet, according to a striking new study from Umeå University in Sweden the situation is very much the opposite: in the period 2009-2014, new male professors in medicine had 64 percent more publications and no less than 260 percent more citations than new female professors. The study was rejected by five journals without refereeing for being considered, among other things, “inappropriate”, until it was finally published after peer-review in the journal Studies in Higher Education.

Despite several decades of active so-called gender equality work, only 27 percent of Sweden’s professors are women. This perceived political failure has motivated the Swedish feminist government to introduce increasingly draconic policies on state universities to counter what it sees as systematic discrimination of women at the professorial level.

In an article recently published in Studies in Higher Education , Guy Madison, a professor of psychology at Umeå University, and Pontus Fahlman examined the usual explanation that women’s academic performance is valued less than men’s. To measure the magnitude of the expected discrimination, they compared the merits of those who became professors between 2009 and 2014 at the six largest Swedish universities (Gothenburg, Lund, Stockholm, Uppsala, Umeå and the Karolinska Institute).

“The number of publications and how many times they are cited are central when assessing scientific competence. Thus, if women are disadvantaged in the appointment of professors, they should have more publications than men among all appointed professors. We saw the opposite,” says Guy Madison in a press release from Umeå University. The researchers found that newly appointed male professors had 64 percent more publications and no less than 260 percent more citations in medicine than newly appointed female professors. In the social sciences, men had 81 percent more publications and 42 percent more citations (law, linguistics, pedagogy, psychology and political science).

Contrary to what the researchers predicted, the threshold has effectively been lower for women between 2009 and 2014, which coincides with a much larger increase in the number of female professors (78 percent) than male professors (28 percent). “Possible explanations could be the application of the principle of always choosing from under-represented gender if differences in qualifications are small, or some other form of discrimination to meet the government’s goal of rapidly increasing the proportion of female professors,” says Guy Madison.

Academic Rights Watch (ARW) has documented numerous cases of discrimination against males in Swedish academia. In a recent post on our international homepage, we revealed that a Swedish technical university systematically cancels positions if a male applicant is judged most competent. Previously, we have documented how male applicants are excluded from professorships at Stockholm University for Arts, Crafts and Design for producing “macho art” or for failing to exercise “norm criticism” (criticism of masculine norms) in their work. Many other cases can be found on our Swedish website, which features a translation function.

The results of the Umeå study are in line with a previous bibliometrical study, which found that, on average, male researchers are much more productive 10 years after their PhD than their female counterparts, but also that there is considerable variation in the relative performance between men and women in different academic subjects. The Umeå article was rejected by several journals without any referee reports. In the acknowledgement section, the authors comment on what they see as a certain lack of appreciation for their conclusions among journal editors and some referees:

The reason that this article is published more than three years since the data collection is the cumulative duration of the review process, at it has been rejected by six journals before it was submitted to Studies in Higher Education. Five of them eventually rejected it without review, stating that it was inappropriate for, or outside the scope of, the journal. One journal rejected it after a first round of reviews, where each of reviewers 1–4 provided increasingly negative and unspecific comments.