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“Unfair to women”? Equal representation policies in Swedish academia

Helen Peterson (Department of Sociology and Work Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden)

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ISSN: 2040-7149

Article publication date: 9 February 2015




The purpose of this paper is to highlight how women managers in Swedish higher education (HE) both support and resist policies about equal representation, and to discuss which factors influenced if, and how, these managers took on the role as change agents for gender equality.


The paper draws on qualitative semi-structured interviews with 22 women in senior academic management positions (vice-chancellors, pro vice-chancellors, deans and pro deans) in ten Swedish HE institutions.


The paper highlights how these women situated themselves in an academic context where gender relations were changing. They supported equal representation policies in their everyday managerial practice and also by accepting management positions that they were nominated and elected to on the basis of such policies. However, they also resisted these policies when they experienced a need to “protect” women from being exploited “in the name of gender equality”.

Research limitations/implications

The paper addresses the call for research on the role of women managers in promoting, or preventing, change towards more gender balanced organizations. The paper builds on a small qualitative study with women only interviews. The study is therefore to be considered as explorative.

Practical implications

The paper makes a contribution to the research literature in the area of gender and change in academic organizations. The findings highlight how policies have different consequences in different settings and that people use their own (different) experiences when interpreting the effects of these policies. The findings thus show the varying impacts equal representation policies can have on women.


The discussion in the paper is situated in a unique empirical context characterized by demographic feminization and organizational restructuring. Most international literature on women in HE and in HE management is based on US or UK contexts. Swedish HE therefore provides an interesting setting. The analysis also addresses the call for more research that takes into account the multifaceted character of HE and that discusses disciplinary differences.



The author wishes to thank the women who made this research possible by their participation. The author is indebted to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful and insightful comments on earlier versions of the paper. Financial support from Forte: Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare is gratefully acknowledged.


Peterson, H. (2015), "“Unfair to women”? Equal representation policies in Swedish academia", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 34 No. 1, pp. 55-66.



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Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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