Internal documents: Swedish technical university cancels positions if male applicant found most competent

As a male candidate you are welcome to apply for a position as Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University. However, internal documents tell another story: the faculty only provides the necessary funding for the position if a woman is to receive it. If a male applicant is about to get the position, the appointment is canceled. Then the department can make a new attempt to get a woman by advertising a new position, and so on. One of the faculty’s researchers has reported the obviously discriminatory scheme to the Equality Ombudsman, who is now investigating the case.

At the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University (LTH) it is seen as a concern that there are so few female professors. The proportion of female professors in 2006-2016 has increased from 11.8% to 15.5%, but the distribution over different areas is very varied, according to an internal policy document. Women who have become professors have mainly become so through promotion.

This is far from the Swedish government’s goal that as many women as men should be recruited as professors by the year 2030, which is not a minor intervention in university autonomy.

In the case of LTH, it could be argued that women generally are not particularly interested in many of its research areas. A measure of actual interest is the proportion of beginner students in the various programs. According to current governmental statistics, the proportion of female beginners in electronics, computer technology and automation is 15%, which reflects the proportion of female professors in those fields. In other higher education areas, the inverse relationship prevails. At Sweden’s largest departments in gender studies, the female students represent an overwhelming majority, and there is only one male professor—in all the departments combined.

But LTH and Lund University, like all public authorities, have to abide by government policy. To oppose political authority with rational arguments based on empirical evidence is thus futile. Rather, something, however drastic, needs to be done.

Against this background, LTH has come up with an intricate scheme for how to employ more women without discriminating against male applicants, which is a bit like squaring a circle. Has the faculty succeeded in the seemingly impossible?

The idea is to “improve the recruitment base” of women for senior teaching appointments (Assistant and Full and Professors) by hiring four female Assistant Professors, a tenure track position, per year for four years, where the main funding comes centrally from LTH. But according to Swedish law, positions have to be publicly advertised—with the risk that they go to more competent men. How to get around this unfortunate legal obstacle?

As a first step, the departments should actively look for women whom they wish to associate with their activities. When they have found suitable candidates, they write an application to the faculty describing the situation at the department and their favorite candidates. They can then apply for the opportunity to announce one or more Assistant Professorships with these candidates in mind.

The faculty then ranks applications from the departments and decides with which proposals to proceed. Subsequently, the department, together with the recruitment committee, writes a targeted call that fits the favorite female candidate(s). The positions that have already been posted have started with the following declaration:

At LTH we see that heterogeneous groups often contribute to a more creative environment – important when we together explore and create benefits for the world. We want to be an attractive employer for the underrepresented gender, and we work actively for equality at the Faculty. That is why we are making a long-term investment to inspire more women to apply to male-dominated research areas—and vice versa.

Already this text should have a deterrent effect on overly competent male applicants. (Of course, the “vice versa” clause is not applicable in practice: there are no female-dominated research areas at LTH.)

Anyway, when the application period has expired, a routine expert review of the applications is then made. If the result of the review is that a female is best suited for the position, she is hired. In this case, and only in this case, the faculty finances the position with 80% of the funding the first four years. For the last two years, the department finances the position itself, without the support of the faculty.

However, if worse comes to worse and it turns out that a male applicant is considered the best fit for the position, despite all efforts to the contrary, then the faculty will not fund the position at all. This becomes clear in an internal document sent to the departments:

If the recruitment process result is that an Assistant Professor of underrepresented gender cannot be hired, LTH funds will not be used. The department can then choose to go ahead with the proposed applicant and fund it with their own resources or interrupt the recruitment process. If a recruitment process is interrupted, another Assistant Professorship may be advertised, such as the one that came in 5th place when allocating funds, or alternatively five jobs may be announced the following year.

In a situation in which most (11 of 19) LTH department are in financial difficulties, they are unlikely to fund costly positions on their own. So, in the unlikely event that a department fails to recruit a female applicant, it will most certainly cancel the appointment and make another attempt.

A researcher at LTH who was appalled by the scheme decided to file a complaint to the Equality Ombudsman (DO). The purpose of the complaint, he writes, is to have DO investigating whether or not LTH’s hiring strategy unlawfully discriminates against male academics.

Academic Rights Watch regards the hiring scheme as clearly discriminatory. According to the Swedish Constitution, hiring decision for public office should only be based on objective factual grounds, such as merit and skill (Chapter 12, section 5 of the Instrument of Government). As the complainant points out, there is nothing in the duties described in the positions that have been advertised so far that justifies a preference for a certain gender. The Swedish Discrimination Act further states that everyone should have equal opportunities and rights to public office regardless of gender. The opportunities here are obviously not equal: a woman who is considered most suitable gets the job, a man who is considered most suitable with practical certainty won’t.

This is not the first time Swedish universities attempt to “promote equality” by discriminating against male applicants. A survey conducted a few years ago by an independent NGO found that most universities had introduced special “merit funding” for qualifying as a professor that only women could apply for. This, too, resulted in a complaint to the Equality Ombudsman, who took the case to the Swedish Labour Court. The Ombudsman won the case and the court decided that the reported university must compensate the victim. We hope for a similar development in the present case.

For full documentation (in Swedish), the reader should consult our Swedish homepage: