New study finds: government introduction of gender regime at Swedish universities caused multiple violations of academic freedom

A new journal article finds that the introduction of so-called gender mainstreaming at Swedish universities led to multiple violations of academic freedom. In addition, it may have increased an already existing bias against men’s research merits when hiring for the rank of professor, the study concludes.

Based on a decision from 2015, the government declared in a decree from 2016 that all Swedish state universities should “develop a plan for how the university intends to develop the work on gender mainstreaming in order that the activities will contribute to attaining the equality goals”. In the words of the then Minister of Education:

If Sweden wants to be a prominent knowledge and research nation, we must have a more equal university. It is for example a waste of the available competence that so few women become professors. I am convinced that if universities and university colleges would employ a gender mainstreaming method, this is a step toward a more equal university.

The Swedish Secretariat for Gender Studies was designated to lead the implementation, playing a double role as an academic division at Gothenburg University and a “national unit” dedicated to “promote gender research”. The Secretariat supervised the implementation of gender mainstreaming during the period 2017-2019.

However, a new study in the journal Societies by philosopher Erik J. Olsson and social scientist Jens Stilhoff Sörensen finds that the introduction of gender mainstreaming violated academic freedom in several respects by the international standards set by the UNESCO Recommendations Concerning the Statues of Higher-education Teaching Personnel (1997):

[W]e conclude that gender mainstreaming was introduced as a form of identity politics though government action and de facto supervision; that the latter was problematic from the perspective of institutional autonomy; that the choice of gender studies as a preferred scientific framework for university policy had a chilling effect on inquiry and free speech in other areas of research; and, finally, that gender mainstreaming led to violations of some scholars’ individual rights.

Both Olsson and Sörensen are also members of the Swedish academic watchdog Academic Rights Watch.

Specifically, the study finds that while there was some variation in emphasis between universities, gender mainstreaming was introduced in a version that was surprisingly radical in terms of its commitment to central identity-political ideas and claims as compared to the directives from the government in its decree from 2016. Olsson and Sörensen refer in this connection to a whistleblower inside the National Secretariat according to whom employees were instructed to “correct” universities’ draft gender plans if they were found not to endorse identity politics and intersectionality in sufficiently clear an unambiguous terms.

Furthermore, gender mainstreaming was introduced “from above”, through the Secretariat, which was placed by the government at one of the universities acting like a “Trojan horse” in the academic system, in a way that posed a direct threat to Swedish universities’ autonomy from the state. The author conclude that gender mainstreaming was essentially government supervised.

Moreover, the form of gender mainstreaming that was adopted by many Swedish universities essentially excludes biological perspectives on sex differences and hence potentially has a chilling effect on inquiry and speech regarding such differences, Olsson and Sörensen write. Their claim is substantiated by reference to two case studies. In one, a professor was investigated for discrimination following a lecture on the biological basis of female homosexuality. In the other, a lecture was in practice forced to use gender quotas for authors in the reading list. In both cases the faculty leadership explained its interference referring to the university’s gender mainstreaming plan.

Olsson and Sörensen also refer to a recent study showing that, when hiring for the rank of professor at the six largest universities in Sweden, men had significantly more publications and citations in both medicine and the social sciences, indicating that Swedish academia was in fact not systematically biased against women’s research merits when gender mainstreaming was introduced in 2017. In fact, the opposite is true. Based on this finding, Olsson and Sörensen conclude that “gender mainstreaming may have increased an already existing bias against men’s research merits when hiring for the rank of professor”.

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