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Have you heard about the leaky pipeline?

It is an image that is often used in the EU to show how the academic system works based on a gender perspective. The image is called the leaky pipeline. It was created based on facts from the most recent 20-year period on how the gender balance has changed over time within the university world.

The gender balance is pretty even these days within a large part of university study programmes. Women even make up the majority in many study programmes, especially within the humanities and social sciences. Within academic careers from doctoral student, via academic posts such as assistant professor, associate professor and up to professorships, something happens to the gender balance. The female share gradually shrinks while the male share increases.

Within technology and natural sciences, the gender balance is already uneven with more men in many of the programmes, and the gap there then increases in the academic career ladder. In other words, the pattern is the same, women disappear and men stay in research. This pattern can be seen, with certain variations of course, in most EU countries. In this respect, based on statistics, the image of the leaky pipeline is spot on. And yet the image has also been the subject of early criticism, not least in Sweden, in terms of what it communicates in other respects.

It suggests that women passively drip out of an otherwise perfect pipeline, which makes one wonder what they are doing wrong. While men are doing things right, in actually making sure they don’t leak out. Or is this true? In actual fact, the image of the pipeline that leaks women is very misleading. Research into how universities are gendered in both structural terms and academic culture shows instead how men are favoured in academic organisations, albeit somewhat unconsciously. In other words, there is an active and ongoing process that enables men to progress, as though they were doing this entirely under their own steam. At the same time, women are actively disadvantaged in academic careers and it is more the case that they are squeezed out of the pipeline rather than dripping out.

The image works in illustrating statistics, but is directly misleading when it comes to understanding the process behind these statistics. Time for other images to be used, perhaps?