About role models and quality

When I took up my post as President one-and-a-half years ago, a great deal of attention was paid to the fact that I was KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s first ever woman president, and to what the conceivable consequences of this might be.

I answered then – as I do now – that laying the foundations for women in the world of academia to study, conduct research and make a career for themselves, on equal terms and on the basis of equal expertise, is a matter of quality. We can’t afford to reject, make things difficult for and, in the worst-case scenario, miss out on this expertise. That would be pure stupidity.

But I also said that equal opportunities between men and women concern everyone’s day-to-day work. KTH works in a variety of ways on these issues to ensure that equality remains a consistent feature of all our activities, on both the educational and research front (in the same way as we work with sustainable development and internationalisation). Developing, improving and reinforcing these three areas is crucial in terms of our ability to assert ourselves in the international arena.

I have been constantly reminded – sometimes almost on a daily basis – of the value of the messaging relayed by being a female president, and of the importance of role models people can identify with. I’ve also been reminded of the demands that can easily be placed on a female leader in particular, and I imagine that the demands and benchmarks that apply in the case of a man in the same position are quite different. This is interesting to study and take note of – and then leave it at that.

On the other hand, it’s a matter of concern that the latest survey results from the VA Barometer that came out before Christmas revealed that only half as many girls as boys could envisage a future as a researcher. Only 22 percent of the girls and women who participated indicated they could conceive of this, while the corresponding figure for the boys and men was 44 percent. A further figure to keep track of over the years is the level of confidence in research, which generally continues to be high. But the survey showed that 89 percent of men had great or very great confidence in researchers at universities and institutes of higher education, while the corresponding figure for women had fallen to 76 percent from 91 percent the previous year. It is hard to know what caused this decline and how it should be interpreted. But I think it serves as a reminder of the significance of female role models, and it suggests that the ability to identify with women in academia increases credibility, in any case in purely subjective terms.

The fact that just under 20 percent of all the biographical descriptions on Wikipedia are about women is also quite telling. Just for fun, you can do your own little test at home. Search for a few male and then a few female researchers who you admire, and you will probably become aware of the bias. At the same time, the proportion of women applying for higher education courses and study programmes is increasing, according to the statistics for spring 2018 ( in Swedish). This means that women are interested in higher education and that they recognise the need for and value of a university education. But they don’t see themselves as researchers – or is that the image conveyed to them is that of a man?

On Thursday 8 March, those who wish to contribute to redressing balance can do so by creating online content about prominent women.

KTH, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Wikimedia are organising a writing session at the KTH Campus as part of the global WikiGap campaign. Students will write, update and publish articles on prominent women in the field of technology.

As I said, it’s all about quality.