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Always for the benefit of the user

The idea that digitalisation is very much a work environment issue and not just a technical one is something that pleases me a lot.

The work environment comes under Sweden’s Work Environment Act. As such, the Act’s guidelines can be used to steer digitalisation in the right direction and ensure that we have a digital work environment that is usable, efficient, and does not expose the user to undue health and safety risks.

I started my first studies into digitalisation as a doctoral candidate in the early 1990s. Back then, our most important case was an issue relating to the national tax administration that had been highlighted by the HR department, which suggested that a lack of usability was a work environment problem. The word ‘digitalisation’ had not come along yet; we talked more about ‘computerisation’. Digital tools had been introduced, but they hadn’t really changed operational processes. In a close collaboration between HR and IT, and with active support from the union side, we managed to boost awareness of the system’s usability and gradually work on systems development in a more user-centric way.

Now, 30 years on, we can see how the digital work environment has come to be of strategic importance in achieving an operation’s goals. Usability and UX, or user experience, are sought-after facets of all systems development. The digital work environment is increasingly regarded as an important aspect of systematic health and safety work. The Swedish Work Environment Authority is increasing its focus also on the digital work environment. The Usability Assessment has been made a Swedish standard by SIS. Our book on digitalisation and the work environment won HR Book of the Year in 2018.

And today, June 17,  as the icing on the cake, I’m proud and delighted to receive the Levi Prize from the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers. Instituted in 2004, the prize is named after Sweden’s doyen of research into stress, Professor Emeritus Lennart Levi. It is awarded, as I mentioned, by the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers and aims to highlight the role of engineers in developing a good work environment.

Although the prize is awarded to an individual, the fact that digital work environment is an increasingly well-established concept is of course down to the tireless, diligent efforts of many people. Previous prize winners include Bengt Sandblad, my former tutor at Uppsala University, and Helena Tobiasson, a former doctoral candidate of mine at KTH. Thanks to everyone who has made and continues to make a contribution. Now we take the next step!




Gender-based vulnerability in academia and at KTH

For the first time, Swedish universities and colleges have conducted a national survey on gender-based vulnerability and sexual harassment in the academic sphere. A total of almost 39,000 employees, doctoral candidates and students have responded. The responses confirm that women are particularly vulnerable.

The survey included various kinds of questions aiming to capture the complex phenomenon of gender-based vulnerability and sexual harassment. One of the questions is based on the legal definition and is limited to the past year. To that question, roughly 4 percent of respondents say they have been subjected to “unwanted sexual attention in the place of work/study”.

Among students who are women, 6 percent say they have been subjected to this, while the corresponding figure for employees who are men is 2 percent. Women consistently perceive a higher level of vulnerability, whether employees, doctoral candidates or students. To capture vulnerability from a broader perspective over a longer period, eleven questions refer to different forms of behaviour.

Previous experience in the research sector shows that many people hesitate to answer a direct yes to questions regarding harassment and discrimination, partly because they are uncertain what actions and behaviours should be included. Since the questions in this latest survey instead give examples of actual situations involving vulnerability, more of the respondents can identify with them.

Context is a factor, as are the situation and relationship, in when a behaviour is perceived as problematic. To the overall question, a total of 38 percent of respondents say they have experienced one of these behaviours at least once during their working/student life. By this measure, the doctoral candidates who are women are the most vulnerable at 53 percent. We also have a selection of the results from KTH, which are similar to the overall results for the sector as a whole.

The patterns are, however, even more distinct at KTH than in the wider sector. Women at KTH perceive vulnerability to a higher degree than women in the sector, while men at KTH perceive a lower degree of vulnerability than men in the sector as a whole. We have good reason to use the results from KTH in workshops moving forward, in order to develop preventive work on the working and studying environment. The results clearly show that we have some challenges in our academic culture.


How can Sweden reach the cutting edge of digital competence?

Despite intensive debate and many measures taken to increase the total number of people who excel at digital, the need for skills and personnel in business and the public sector remains as high as ever.

Campaigns have been run to increase the number of people in advanced digital education, increase the availability of training opportunities in what we call “lifelong learning” and – last but not least – improve gender equality. However, need is increasing at a faster rate than progress. Not least, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shown the strain under which our existing digital systems can be put – proving that an even higher level of excellence is required.

In April 2020, I blogged about “Digital excellence – the new Renaissance man”(In Swedish) based on the inquiry commissioned by UKÄ and the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth, requested by the Minister for Digitalisation. Our mission was to investigate and propose a definition of digital excellence. Recently a scientific article has been published that describes the results of this work: what digital excellence is, or what it should be.

The government assignment is continuing and will come to an end at the close of 2022. The inquiry has already led to the publication of a report with a preliminary proposal, in order to inspire discussion and debate about what is now needed from the political sphere, academia, business and the public sector for Sweden to be able to meet current – and future – requirements for cutting-edge digital expertise. Under the title Digital Skills Sweden the inquiry has asked the government to contribute significant educational and research investments, to improve cooperation by establishing a state-run collaboration council for digital excellence, and to give a clear mandate for the collection of statistical data in order to be able to make reliable forecasts for how things will be in the future. The inquiry commission welcomes comments and input which will help sharpen the proposal further!

Alongside this, I am also now part of another assignment connected to the inquiry along with representatives from Linköping University, Örebro University and Uppsala University to investigate the consequences of different policy decisions that are intended to promote digital excellence. We will carry out a forecast and develop a number of scenarios relating to the development of competences required for digital excellence. This assignment will be concluded with a debate on 13th June 2022 – feel free to listen in and participate!




How can we monitor cultural change?

How can we measure progress when it comes to gender equality? One way is to make a list and then tick things off. Statistics Sweden has created a set of gender-based statistics that are invaluable for all change work in Sweden.

Statistics of the gender balance in different categories and salary mapping are produced in a similar way at KTH to detect unreasonable salary differences. The integration of gender equality, diversity and equal treatment into study programmes is monitored in the quality assurance system. All the above are taken into consideration when gender equality work is analysed. But how can we monitor initiatives that cannot be measured quantitatively in the first instance? There are qualitative methods for monitoring and analysing cultural change, for example, in the same way as there are qualitative methods in research.

I have been using a couple of interactive methods for many years, where I can obtain and get a sense of values, norms, and cultural notions. I often do this to take a cultural temperature reading to provide guidance in how a course can be organised to achieve the best results based on the circumstances of the group. Over time, these exercises build patterns that help make changes more visible.

One method I tend to use in groups is the gender equality scale, where participants are asked to position themselves on an inequality to equality scale. The second step in this exercise is where I ask them why they have chosen a certain position, from which different dimensions of equality/inequality are then revealed, described and evaluated.

Experiences of inequality usually result in lower positions on the scale, while positive experiences result in higher positions. Something that has occurred in recent years is that change work as a dimension has often been raised at KTH. Both students and employees say that despite various examples of inequality being raised, ongoing work to increase equality helps balance up the total picture. Many people maintain that this issue is on the agenda and is taken seriously, which influences their overall assessment.

I interpret this as a win, a sign of a cultural change.

Does Sweden have a digitalisation policy?

Some weeks ago, I was summoned to a meeting with the Swedish National Digitalisation Council, a renowned group of people established by the government to act as a sounding board for the Minister for Digital Development.

I have had the opportunity of working with digitalisation policy for ten years now. It was in 2012 that the Minister for Information and Technology, Anna-Karin Hatt, asked me to lead the government’s Digitalisation Commission and later to be a part of the Digitalisation Council. During this time, six digital development ministers from three different political parties have come and gone. Since 2012, Sweden has had the goal of being “the best in the world at utilising the opportunities created by digitisation” and in various rankings, Sweden often ranks in the top three, even though we rarely take first place.

I often pursue issues related to digital competence, which is one of the most important goals for us to become the best in the world at utilising the opportunities created by digitisation. Universities and university colleges play an important role in developing digital excellence, but all educational actors, from primary and secondary schools to higher vocational education and study associations, have a vital contribution to make in raising the level of general digital competence.

Issues concerning digital inclusion and the digital work environment are also close to my heart, issues where great ambitions are easily expressed, but which entail a long process before the required action is actually taken to achieve the goals. In these times, issues of digital security and integrity are also high on the agenda, because we can easily see that the digital environment is also being attacked in times of political instability in the world.

A common complaint is that the government is not doing enough when it comes to digitalisation. Digitalisation is a complex policy area and it is completely understandable that, for fear of proposing political initiatives or efforts to promote digitalisation, nothing is done at all. Therefore, it is an area that requires a policy and politicians who are familiar with the field. Now, for the first time, we have a digital development minister who comes from the industry. It inspires hope. Khashayar Farmanbar, or ”Khash” as he is often called, obtained a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree and became an IT entrepreneur before entering politics.

An interesting discussion at meetings of the Digitalisation Council concerns the lack of political debate about digitalisation – it is easier to make policy if it is a debatable political matter. Today we do not have a political party that ”opposes” digitalisation. This, combined with the fact that it is a complex area, often makes it difficult to get a complete picture of the digitalisation issues politically, which means that major investments end up becoming conspicuous by their absence.

Digitalisation should preferably be seen as an area to invest in  – it pays off in the long run – and not just be regarded as a cost. This applies to business, the public sector and not least politics.

Gender equality or social equality

On one of our courses, the question was asked whether it would not be better simply always to talk about social equality. In other words, why do we need the concept of gender equality when social equality already includes gender and other power dimensions? This is a relevant and frequently recurring question.

There are historical explanations behind these concepts. Social equality dates back hundreds of years to freedom movements to end class-related differences between people and groups. Sometimes, women and feminism were part of this struggle, but were flushed away when the changes took shape. This has often been clear from the start, such as in the slogan of the French Revolution, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ”.

Research shows how women and women’s rights have been subordinated or obscured under the banner of equality, in both revolutions and in trade union campaigns. The concept of gender equality was created in the 1960s as a reaction to this, based on the persuasive fact that the problem needed to be actively animated. Similar patterns can be seen in other countries. Where are we now? Can we not draw a line through history? Unfortunately, it is by no means self-evident that women and women’s rights are included in human rights in 2022.

Even if Sweden’s form of government states that the public should combat discrimination of people on the grounds of gender, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, language or religious affiliation, disability, sexual orientation, age or other conditions, research shows that inequalities prevail in society.

Not everyone is treated equally, irrespective of gender, and this also affects their living conditions in different ways. Having said that, the concept of gender equality also concerns other aspects of social equality and cuts through all aspects of equality. Gender equality can accordingly not be disconnected from social equality or viewed as a narrower issue than social equality.

That gender always plays a part but that it is never the only thing that plays a part is an important starting point.