Published: 31-07-2015 15:07 | Updated: 31-07-2015 15:49

The lesson from Norway: a success case in gender medicine and academia

How did the University of Tromsø, in Norway, become the leading example of sex and gender balance in academia.

University of Tromsø is the largest research and educational institution in northern Norway, its counts over 9.000 students of which a rising number of international origin. In spite having to deal with a great variety of educational programs - from law to biotechnology - the University succeeded to create a more gender balance academic body, with a rise in women professorship in the last 10 years from 10 to 30%.

One of the new challenges faced by Tromsø, however, is to help its academics to secure international fundings. Prof Curt Rice thinks that to do so, the University should point towards Gendered Innovation, the use of sex and gender (S&G) differences as an aid - not an obstacle - to inspire development.

Prof. Curt Rice

Discounting sex difference during research may cost money. “If we look at the cost of withdrawing medicines from the market because they are causing unanticipated side-effects in women that weren’t caught in sex-balanced testing, we’re may be talking about hundreds of millions of dollars” says Prof Rice.

Prof Rice is also Head of the Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research, a government body that provides tools for policymakers and leaders in the research sector that aim “to achieving (e)quality among your staff”. From his leader position, Prof Rice is well aware of the new role that sex and gender will play in the nearest future for academia and private sector. In the new european R&D program (Horizon 2020) a novel request was inserted for researchers who wish to receive funding: to account for male and female difference when conducting science. In particular, the proposed projects “shall ensure the effective promotion of the gender dimension in research, and assure that it shall be adequately integrated at all stages of the research cycle”.

Sex and gender perspective in industry

But understanding what this all means is not trivial. Science leaders, stakeholders and science strategy decision-makers do not seem prepared to account for a “gender balance” in innovation. Or probably they simply don’t know what it means. The automobile industry employed for years only male dummies for its crash tests, and today just 18% of manikin used in industry are women-shaped. Also the Silicon Valley is not immune. Beside failing to some extend to truly promote women in its companies, when the leading Californian firm Apple released its Health app, they forgot to include menstrual cycle as fundamental factor that affects half of its customers parameters, like sleep and temperature.

EnGendering Excellence

To ensure that researchers, teachers and future tech leaders will understand what Gendered Innovation means, the Research Council of Norway and Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research joined forces to make EnGendering Excellence, an internationally opened seminar on this matter.

Prof Curt Rice talking at EnGendering Excellence

Centre for Gender Medicine CEO Karolina Kublickiene attended the seminar together with collaborators Londa Schiebinger from Stanford University, Noel Bairey Merz form the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and Jeffrey Mogil form McGill University in Québec. The aim: to brainstorm on Gendered Innovations, what are the Horizon 2020 expectations from academics, and how to do equip researchers to meet funding requests.

At the meeting, Prof Rice shared his ideas on how to help researchers to include more sex and gender consideration when doing science. At his University in Tromsø, he did supported the funding of additional Adjunct Professors to be added to research teams. But before considering the proposal submitted by researcher for the open position, group leaders must have attended a course on S&G equality and its role in innovation. Getting researchers to attend the seminar was apparently not at all difficult, and the eight groups who received the supplemental funding all reported interesting and publishable results.

Equality in academia

Yet what Rice is looking for is a change in mentality that may not be easy to achieve. “There was a bit of resistance from scientists to take part in the course we organized. Although perhaps not of the kind you anticipate. The resistance that I met was due to my claim that working to enhance gender and sex perspectives in research is properly considered to be the work of gender equality improvement. Some people who had a more traditional view of gender equality work had to be convinced that this kind of work counted.

Professor Rice continues: “My claim is that an explicit emphasis on sex and gender perspectives makes it clear to young researchers — especially young women — that the research group they are considering joining cares about all of society and not just half of it. Such signals, I speculate, can be important in recruiting women to research and can therefore be construed as belonging under the broader heading of gender equality work”.

It is too early to see whether these the collective efforts of the University of Tromsø will help researchers to attracts more funds from Horizon 2020, “yet they are certainly going into the right direction, and this is something we should implement at Karolinska Institutet” says Dr Kublickiene, CEO of CfGM.