“A degree from a Norwegian university has legitimacy in my home country,” says Padmaja Barua from India. According to Padmaja, Norway is known in her home country as an egalitarian society, concerned with human rights and gender equality. She is among the few who have been selected for admission to the Master’s programme in gender and development at the University of Bergen, funded by the Norad Fellowship Programme. “Oppression of women in India is widespread across diverse cultural groups. The subjugation of women has an immense impact on the development of the country. However, social structures are changing, especially in the cities and among educated people,” Padmaja says.
In the summer, she is going to carry out her fieldwork in the Indian countryside for her Master’s thesis. She will research the role of female politicians in local governance.
“I have chosen this topic because the government passed an amendment to the constitution in 1993, that at least 33 per cent of the seats in local government, right down to the village level, would be reserved for women. I want to find out if women really have got the power to change gender structures in our society, if the women politicians emerge as a pressure group for issues concerning women, influencing the distribution of resources and improving women’s status at the village level,” explains Padmaja.
Prior to her studies in Norway, Padmaja worked for an international funding organisation called Action Aid: “My job was to identify partners for a South Asian campaign against human trafficking. It was extremely challenging and provoked my interest in gender issues.”
Tired of watching oppression
Michael Kizito from Uganda has had enough of seeing women being mistreated. He is on leave from his job as an associate coordinator of a human rights project at the University of Makerere in Uganda. At the University of Bergen he is attending the Master’s programme in gender and development.
“Women’s rights are human rights. Men and women should have the same rights and be treated in the same way,” states Michael. “The biggest challenge to gender equality is the patriarchal system, which raises men above women and gives men power and control over resources. We have to change attitudes that continue to suppress women and dare to ask questions concerning our culture,” he adds.
“It is important to study gender in order to reveal how power and resources are distributed in a biased way. Policy-makers should be sensitised about gender issues and encouraged to integrate a gender perspective into planning and implementation of policies and projects. As a result, this will impact on the development of the country as a whole,” Michael says.
Dialogue and knowledge
“By emphasising dialogue with our students a world of knowledge opens up,” says associate professor and coordinator of the Master’s programme in gender and development, Haldis Haukanes. “The foreign students extend our experience and challenge our perceptions of issues concerned with gender and development – what are the problems and what are the best ways to obtain knowledge to illuminate these issues.”
“In India the relationship between teachers and students is highly hierarchal, while here we experience a teaching situation that is much more informal. The teaching environment has created a learning environment that is receptive to students’ contributions and to dialogue between teacher and student, aswell as between students. I find this situation fascinating and really like this kind of interaction.”
A long way to go for gender equality in academia
In spite of the fact that more young women than men choose to pursue an academic degree in Norway, women are evidently underrepresented in higher positions within academia.
In Norway today less than one in three researchers are women. Only 17 percent of professors are women. Within disciplines such as mathematics, natural sciences and technology the gender bias is even stronger.
The fact that women are still underrepresented in Norwegian research is a democratic problem, because it means that women are to a lesser extent than men setting the agenda and priorities for research, stated Norwegian Minister of Education and Research, Øystein Djupedal, when he opened a conference on management for gender equality in academia.
The leader of the Norwegian Association of Researchers, Kolbjørn Hagen, said that academic institutions’ failure to recruit women deprives them of talented researchers.
“The most important tool to obtain gender equality is an improvement in work conditions and the opportunity for career planning,” he says, which means fewer temporary positions and conditions that allow time for research.
Also, new gender challenges are shaped by a stronger investment in research-intensive production and scientific subjects.
“To prevent increased engagement in specific areas leading to a poorer gender balance, we have to aim at recruiting more women in science subjects at all levels,” Djupedal said at the conference.
“Several European countries demonstrate a situation with greater gender equality in science than Norway, in particular countries in southern Europe and the Baltic. It would be useful to understand why these countries have a better gender balance in the research sector than us, says Djupedal.
Moreover, greater emphasis on international collaboration and networking promotes new gender challenges for academic institutions.
“A family situation with young children may interfere with extensive stays abroad, but even shorter periods give opportunities to participate in the international network and a taste of operating in the international science arena,” says the vice-president of international relations at the University of Bergen, Kjersti Fløttum.
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