Equal terms — utopia or…

According to Christian principles we are all equal before God. According to humanist principles we are all equal to each other. The equal value of all people is set down in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, and it may seem something big and fantastic, but it is also a kind of utopia.

THE QUESTION MUST NEVERTHELESS be asked: How do you create an environment and a context in which people have terms that are as equal as possible?

Patrik Edgren is an investigator in the review unit of the Equality Ombudsman (DO). He thinks the hardest thing in the work of creating a workplace free of discrimination and harassment is changing the attitudes that the workplace’s employees are consciously or unconsciously the bearers of. Even if people do not want to discriminate against anyone it is absolutely possible that this may happen, e.g. when recruiting.

“Recruiters have a picture of the kind of person who should be getting the job, so their background will affect their choice. This is shown by research results DO has received,” says Patrik Edgren.

He thinks that there are workplace norms about what the correct behavior is and what confers status, and that those norms lead to power hierarchies. Some people benefit from the norms and others do not. 

“The attitudes are sometimes expressed in jargon that may be hard to access. Managers sometimes share the jargon. But some people can be offended by things perceived as being jocular. If they do not let people know how they feel, the jargon can develop and lead to serious violation of rights. “One difficulty is working on employees’ self-organization, e.g. on the basis of class background, ethnicity and gender,” says Patrik Edgren.


Are there forms of discrimination that are particularly common within the higher-education sector?

“Quantitative objectives in equality work are common at the country’s colleges of higher education. The aim is usually to create even distribution of women and men in dominant groups, amongst researchers, PhD students and professors. To more thoroughly tackle the norms, values and power hierarchies that form the basis of discrimination applying qualitative objectives is less common.” 

Two faculties at Gothenburg University (described in the report Equality in the Faculties by Gothenburg University) may, according to Patrik Edgren, be demonstrating progress in terms of quantitative distribution in management assignments and representation on committees. 

“The report considers that the figures provide an unfair picture of the university as practicing equality. Interview investigations in the Faculty of Science and Technology show that the official decision-making structure is sometimes not applied. Employees with responsibility for major research projects and the ability to attract further research funding are given a strong position. 

Within the parameters of these power relations the prevalent norm for the ‘ideal researcher’ is a standardizing force in relation to who is included and given influence, whilst those employees who to a varying degree deviate from this ‘ideal researcher’ norm are given less influence and talking time. 

“The ‘ideal researcher’ norm described in the interview investigation is to a great extent characterized by supposedly masculine qualities, and the unofficial power hierarchy thus incorporates power relations permeated by gender-bound hierarchies,” says Patrik Edgren.


THE STUDY Equality in the Faculties states that female employees reportedly encounter greater skepticism and tougher criticism, and are allowed less talking time. The interpretation of employee criticism of the unofficial power hierarchy is that the challenger is being poorly equipped for academia and scientific production. Suspicion is cast on the deviating party, who is often a woman, and that person is marginalized. 

“The consequence is that women show less interest than men in a continued academic career after their PhD, thus more men than women are appointed as senior lecturers and professors in relation to the gender distribution amongst PhD students.” 

Patrik Edgren points out that the ideal of the ‘right’ researcher is that that person must adapt their life so it harmonizes with scientific undertakings. According to the study the ideal is masculine: ‘More women than men are understood to be teaching and administrating. More men than women are said to be engaged in full-time research. A crucial result is that these hierarchies can be made comprehensible against the background of the ‘ideal researcher’ norm and this norm’s reproduction of a certain kind of masculinity.’ 

“Supposedly male qualities such as competitiveness, persistence, focus, self-centeredness and abstract thought constitute the ideal, and are contrasted with the alleged female orientation: a caring attitude and a focus on relationships and collaboration. This distinction is used as an explanation of why women are more often to be found in other scientific fields and in fields of work such as teaching and administration. The analysis shows how at an early stage these hierarchies and gender patterns sort and predestine men and women in the world of study for different fields of work and positions. Career and inclusion are to a very great extent perceived as being dependent on behavior that does not challenge the power relationships described here. 

On the basis of the interview data from this investigation there is a consensus about what is worth striving for in terms of equal terms of work and opportunities. The focus on equality in the internal discussion is confirmed and remains ‘harmless’, provided the discussion does not go beyond the actual concept of equality. The results of the investigation indicate a need for thorough and active change work regarding internal power structures and systems of norms.” 


How can this be achieved?

“The planned work currently in progress is not succeeding in changing the current order. This was a joint assessment at the conference Our Beloved Equality at Linköping University in April 2012, in part because the work has been technocratized. In the short term the instrumental work is important, but in the long term normative work is necessary to change attitudes. Norms and structures must be clarified. Colleges of higher education are currently finding it hard to engage men for executive positions regarding this work. The opposition must also be handled. It is crucial that management be committed, that it follow up work and that its demands for results be as serious as the requirement that a budget be adhered to.”


What can you do if for any reason you feel discriminated against?

“Anyone who is harassed must first report the matter. This is one of the conditions for continued violation of rights to be deemed unwelcome (harassment as defined by the law). If an employee is harassing someone then the harassed party should take the matter up with the employer so as to bring about a solution. If the employer will not cooperate the union can take it to the Swedish Labour Court as a discrimination case. If the person being subjected to discrimination is not a union member he/she can report the matter to DO.” 




Information about discrimination

The responsibility for non-violation of human rights largely rests with the government and state and municipal administration. The Swedish Discrimination Act (DL) was established in 2009 to oppose discrimination. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, cross-gender identity or expression, ethnicity, religion or other belief, disability, sexual orientation or age. 

In 2009 the state authority Equality Ombudsman (DO) was set up, with the remit of ensuring adherence to the Act.

During 2012 DO received a total of  1,600 reports of discrimination. Of those, over 500 were in the field of working life. The commonest grounds for discrimination were: Ethnicity (24%), gender (21%) and age (13%).



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