What is your picture of a scientist?

27 May 2021

A man in a lab coat with glasses and a serious face? A maverick with fly-away hair and a wild gleam in his eyes? Or a woman?

This question is the starting point in the documentary Picture a scientist, directed by Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney. The film contains many stories about both systematic and thoughtless discrimination of women, some of them shocking, some of them simply foolish. A particularly thought-provoking example is when a young woman says that as a woman in academia, you become used to being underestimated.

Heidi Hansson,Deputy Vice-Chancellor of education and have responsibility for equal opportunities.

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

This means that a woman needs to work harder and produce more to compensate for the low expectations on her contributions. This unthinking disregard can have disastrous effects on individual women's performance and work environment. An even more serious consequence is the effect on the development of knowledge itself. As a university, we cannot afford to ignore or undervalue the knowledge and perspectives of women academics. We need to ensure that education and research is relevant not only for half of us, but for everyone.

The Swedish Higher Education Act states that "equality between women and men shall always be taken into account and promoted in the operations of higher education institutions". Equality is a matter of law, in other words. Umeå University's core values state that we have a zero-tolerance policy against all forms of discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The core values state that we work actively to promote equal opportunities and diversity and that we are open and inclusive in our interaction with each other and with students. These core values have been formulated as reminders of what kind of work-place culture we aim for and as tools to help us identify harmful structures and situations. I am convinced that students and staff at our university all subscribe to these core values, but in everyday interaction, we may still go against them. This is especially true when it comes to subtle, sometimes almost unnoticeable instances of disregard for the efforts and contributions of others. Gender equality is obviously a matter of justice and fairness, but for the operations and success of a university it is also an essential aspect of quality. If women's perspectives and abilities are ignored or undervalued, research and education will suffer and, at worst, become inaccurate or irrelevant.

Despite the fact that the majority of our students are women today, the academy as a whole is still not an equal workplace. Areas where a majority of the researchers are women tend to be underfinanced and undervalued. In other areas, women are primarily present as assistants or in other supporting roles, and have few opportunities to shape the orientation of the field. It is even more alarming that women do not always feel safe or comfortable at work. This has to change, and one of the most important things we can do to make this change happen is to share stories about women's experiences and throw light on unacceptable and problematic behaviour.

One step in this direction is the panel discussion organised at Umeå University on 27 May focusing on equal opportunities and gender equality in the academy. The film Picture a scientist provides a starting point for the discussions. I look forward to introducing the panel debate. To identify solutions we need research, discussions and in-depth analyses, and we need to carry out this work together.

Please note! The film Picture a scientist is available to everyone at Umeå University with an Umu-id and can be streamed on Academic Video Online throughout 2021.

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