Last week, I participated in a roundtable discussion organised by the county administrative boards of Norrbotten and Västerbotten. The topic was gender equality in relation to the expected social transformation in the north. Representatives from industry, the regions, municipal authorities, and academia came together to discuss and be inspired by each other's work on gender equality.
There is a strong consensus that gender equality in the workplace and equal living conditions are key issues in attracting people to move to northern Sweden and to stay here. But despite good intentions, there is a risk that the matter of gender equality will disappear when all focus is on ecological sustainability and development for climate transition. Not least, there is a risk that gender equality will be reduced to getting more women to choose technical and scientific courses of study to provide the new industries with the workforce they need.
Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of education
Photo: Mattias Pettersson
Representatives of the major industrial initiatives spoke of ambitions to achieve a totally gender-equal workforce, and several of them already have gender-equal management teams. The path forward is through planning and clearly defined goals, said one of the participants. The company she represents uses, for example, the model that half of all temporary holiday workers should be women. The hope is that this will encourage more women to pursue technical and scientific education and, eventually, employment in industry.
But in the main, it is still a matter of motivating women to change their gender-based choices and dare to try something new. How do we influence our male students to choose what are becoming fully or partially female-dominated study programmes and professions? And an even more pressing question: how do we influence young men to take on student loans and an education path instead of going for well-paid jobs directly after upper secondary school? Today, the proportion of male students at Umeå University is 36% and the number is falling. In the classroom, the gender bias is even more evident: only 25% of our degree programmes have a gender balance within the 60-40 range. Our benchmark is that the student population should correspond to the population in the country in terms of gender and social background, but perhaps we should set targets based on the composition of the population in northern Sweden instead.
The willingness to study and the interest in education fluctuate in step with the labour market. We saw this very clearly in the influx of students during the last two pandemic years when there was a shortage of jobs. Currently, however, Västerbotten has the lowest unemployment rate in Sweden and almost all areas are struggling with labour shortages. What is the university's contribution in these circumstances?
Umeå University offers breadth and stability. For the fantastic industrial development in the north not to lead to new company towns but to thriving, inclusive communities, we need to provide education in all areas and for a variety of professions, from librarians to civil engineers, recreation teachers and social workers. We cannot afford to create or maintain gender-based norms for professions and education. Women and men are needed in all categories. This will make both education and work-places more stimulating, and in the long term, we may truly create gender equality.