DANWISE strives for gender equality, equal rights and opportunities in Denmark

The Danish Society for Women in Science (DANWISE) is a non-profit organization to address gender inequality in Denmark, representing women from academia and industry within the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) and Humanity fields. Katherine Gill, External Communications Officer of DANWISE and a postdoctoral scientist at DANDRITE, debates on the purpose, goals and efforts of DANWISE.

Katherine Patrice Gill, External Communications Officer of DANWISE. Credit: Tibor Salzer
Katherine Gill gave a talk on “The science behind bias” at a pop-up event hosted by TEDx Aarhus, located at the Kvindemuseet in August 2019. Using her neuroscience background, Katherine spoke about how the brain innately makes associations for predicting future scenarios, and that this is the basic mechanism behind unconscious bias. Credit: Astrid Collin
Members of the DANWISE team during their first Annual General Meeting, held at Aarhus University, April 2019. Credit: Tibor Salzer

DANWISE – What is the purpose of this initiative and how did it begin?

It all began from one little idea. Katherine Gill moved from Australia to Denmark in 2016 to work as a postdoctoral scientist at DANDRITE. After settling into Danish culture, she began to notice that Denmark was not as gender equal as foretold. Katherine made enquiries and searched for established, nation-wide women in science organisations, and failed. She soon realised that an association for women in science was a niche that was fundamentally missing in Denmark.

“I find it ironic coming from Australia which is not gender equal, that it wasn’t until I moved to Denmark- a land of opportunity in terms of more funding and career prospects- to realize that the opportunities for women weren’t equal here. That is when I became even more passionate about gender equality.” Katherine comments.

While attending a BRAINSTEM conference in Copenhagen, Katherine approached research group leader of brain development and disease, Vanessa Hall (today, chairperson of DANWISE) to ask whether she knew of any women in science associations in Denmark, or would be interested in initiating one together. “I knew that Vanessa had established a network after living in Denmark for over 10 years, and that I was limited by my network and couldn’t achieve anything on my own”.

The timing was uncanny. Vanessa had recently learnt about the huge bias in Danish funding bodies; how research foundation boards were predominantly men, thus biasing towards an unequal funding success rate between men and women researchers. At that moment, Vanessa was collecting data and writing a petition, which was launched in October 2018 as the ‘Promote-me Campaign’ to fight male-dominated research funds. Learning that Katherine was ready to spread the word and help create an organization that missioned to reduce the gender gap in STEMM, Vanessa and Katherine founded the DANWISE organization in January 2019.

“Vanessa was pivotal in establishing our initial team. Meeting Vanessa at the right time and place gave raise to this initiative and that is how it all started. We are now at the stage where we are growing, getting bigger and stronger. I do think that there is a long road ahead and that the situation in Denmark is not going to change anytime soon, but I am really impressed at how far this initiative has gone from one little idea.” Katherine says.

Since the official launch on the International Women’s Day, March 8th 2019, DANWISE has ensembled a strong team of Danish and internationals, led by Vanessa Hall and Ida Vogel. The organization has established a modern flat-hierarchy system by distributing team members into circles to manage communications, finances, or events, each led and supported by a team leader. The DANWISE executives are advised by an external advisory board, consisting of key individuals that are highly passionate about equal rights and gender equality, whom support and guide the organization. DANWISE are highly supportive of the internationally recognised Athena SWAN Charter, that acknowledges cultural, structural and institutional factors that create barriers for women in science, particularly in academia.

Become a big enough voice to make change

“The vision is the dream.” Katherine quotes. To date, Danish universities have acknowledged gender imbalance in their academic communities. Both Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen have respective action plans to achieve more gender diversity and equality but little has been accomplished. There is still a dominance of male professors and associate professors at a majority of institutional departments. Katherine comments; “Having a gender quota is not bad strategy, and there is plenty of evidence out there, especially in industry and business, showing that having more women as leaders, especially at higher levels of senior management, that diversity in general promotes innovation, helps productivity, and is more rewarding.”

As highlighted in the Promote-me Campaign, most Danish funding bodies consist entirely, or mostly, of men, with few female representatives. The unconscious bias in these granting committees influences how they select their candidates to receive grants, especially in the fields of STEMM. In general, both Danish men and women are unaware of their own unconscious bias – they think that we live in a balanced culture and that we have tackled this issue a decade ago. But research shows that there is a bias in Denmark that is typically seen in the upper part of the career pyramid. It is well understood that women have to leave the labour market to take care of their children resulting in (multiple) gaps in their CVs. Katherine adds: “Rather than questioning the career gap in women’s CVs, it should be the productivity before and after the leave of absence that is relevant, because typically, women with a family work more efficiently and effectively in the limited time they have. On the other hand, men are offered attractive paternity leave packages, but they generally only take 2 weeks, even though they could take more, thus they do not have severe career gaps to overcome.” Even though Denmark is at the forefront when it comes to social equality, there is room for improvement for gender equality in the area of STEMM. Initiatives such as blind funding calls, which focus on the research project and its significance, rather than the candidate gender, could be one way to overcome gender inequality.

DANWISE is taking action on rectifying the gender imbalance by several different inspiring initiatives. The organization has established a mentoring programme for both academia and the industry. More recently, DANWISE arranged a ‘Science communication and public speaking workshop’ to address female self-confidence in the competitive academic environment, at the University of Copenhagen on the 13th of January 2020. A panel, consisting of Prof. Eva Hoffman, Lynn Roseberry Co-founder of On the Agenda and Rector from RUC, and Hanne Leth Andersen, discussed and shared their thoughts on confidence from a gender perspective, and how important confidence and good communication skills are for career success and progression.

Currently, Katherine is organizing a ‘CV-writing and negotiations skills’ workshop in Aarhus, in collaboration with the career counselling service at Aarhus university. The workshop is based on evidence that women typically undersell and undervalue their skills and competencies when they are job seeking. Katherine is highly engaged in changing the way women think and adds: “Women can do just as good as their male colleagues.” The purpose of the workshop is to coach women on how to build and refine their cover letters and CVs as well as their negotiations skills – specifically, to encourage them to be more self-confident, self-assured, and acknowledge their competencies and worth. Additionally, the workshop aims to show what skills are sought after between Academic and Industry, and format their CVs accordingly.

Together with DANWISE, a national taskforce has been established to push for an Athena SWAN-like initiative in Denmark. The taskforce will meet later in 2020 to push the agenda politically. In future, DANWISE hopes to celebrate the International Women in Science day, together with stakeholders and collaborators, at their conference in 2021.

For more information about the DANWISE initiatives, visit the DANWISE website or contact the team here.