färgglad korridor
Photo: Susan Yin/Unsplash

Working conditions in academia affect career opportunities for gender researchers

What do career paths look like for gender researchers in Sweden? A new report shows that most are employed within the higher education sector, and their expertise is also is in high demand outside of academia. At the same time, many of those in academia have experienced stress and excessive workloads, especially early in their careers.   

Jubilee 25 years

"Overall, the employment rate is high. Most gender studies PhD graduates and gender researchers remain in academia, while others have left for various reasons. Some because they want to make use of their knowledge outside academia, but some also state that it is difficult to reconcile life in general with the conditions in academia", says Kajsa Widegren, PhD in gender studies and analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg.  

She has written the report Career paths and working conditions for gender studies PhD graduates and gender researchers, together with  Susanna Young Håkansson, analysts at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research. The report examines issues on employment rates, qualifications and specialization in the context of working conditions in academia, and is based on surveys and focus interviews. 

Gender expertise is in high demand

The survey study shows that most of the participants who currently have a permanent position in academia are senior lecturers. About half of those have been able to devote themselves mainly to research during their career, while half primarily have been engaged in teaching.

Around a third of the gender studies PhD graduates and 11% of the gender researchers work outside of academia. They work in for example central government, voluntary organisations or in private companies, and their expertise is in high demand.  

"Many state that they use their expertise as researchers to a great extent in their current employment. This shows that employers in different sectors are interested in these skills," says Susanna Young Håkansson. 

Conditions in academia create vulnerabilities

Common to almost all are experiences of temporary employment with short contracts early in their careers. The first few years after the dissertation is the period when most people experience anxiety, stress and a very high workload, explains Susanna Young Håkansson.  

"Many find permanent positions, but only after a long period of short-term employment with a high workload. Many have also had so-called "stacked" employment and some have moved frequently to obtain positions. Several indicate that the stress and anxiety associated with these conditions have led to negative health consequences," she says.  

Researchers who want a career in academia attempt to adapt to the established paths, which according to Kajsa Widegren results in a vulnerable position within the system.   

"When you plan a career path, you do so under the terms and conditions that exist in terms of employment opportunities, advertised positions and requirements for work performance. The PhDs must have a job and therefore they agree to various short-term forms of employment," says Kajsa Widegren.   

Action for transparent career paths is needed

Gender studies is an interdisciplinary subject area that in Sweden has grown out of the research that in the 1970s and 1980s integrated gender or women's perspectives in various research subjects, and which in the 1990s began to be called gender research. According to the report, researching across different academic fields can create complications for PhDs in gender studies. Several state that they are worried that their interdisciplinary research does not make them eligible to apply for positions in other subject areas, while gender studies cannot employ everyone with a PhD in the subject area.   

"A discussion about career paths and career planning is needed among those responsible for postgraduate education in gender studies and among managers. Many state that they did not receive any career guidance at all during their doctoral studies," says Kajsa Widegren.  

At the same time, the study shows that the increase in merit-based appointments throughout the sector in the 2000s has also been beneficial to later generations of gender studies PhD graduates and gender researchers.   

"Merit positions are intended to give new PhDs the opportunity to do research, so that they eventually have the qualifications that make them eligible for permanent positions. It is positive that gender studies PhD graduates and gender researchers have access to merit positions and thereby to more transparent career paths," says Kajsa Widegren. 

Career paths and working conditions for gender researchers

The analyses in the report Career paths and working conditions for gender researchers are based on data from two surveys sent out in december 2021. One was sent to gender studies PhD graduates, and one to a sample of gender researchers. In autumn 2022 two focus group interviews were held with researchers from these two groups.

The initiative for this investigation came from the doctoral student and postdoctor network within the SGF, Swedish Gender Research Confederation. During the course of the project, a reference group has been consulted, consisting of representatives from: