Tale på konferansen EnGendering Excellence

Dear Head of Committee, Director General, distinguished guests, Rectors, ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. I appreciate the opportunity to express the Norwegian Government’s viewpoint on the important matter of gender perspectives in research. I appreciate especially the opportunity to do so in the presence of people who have been such a driving force behind the positive development in recent years.

The Government’s primary concern is to improve the quality in research. Quality: this notion that has been called the most complex, multi-dimensional concept that has ever been reduced to seven letters.

 By quality in research I refer to the traditional aspects of quality, such as

- Originality: demonstrated when research produces startling new knowledge that changes our way of thinking and our practice.

- Solidity: proven through robust methods and results that can be verified, and

- Relevance: confirmed by the extent to which research is interesting and useful to others.

In our opinion, it’s obvious that greater awareness of gender perspectives has the potential to improve research quality in all these respects.

Let me give you an example. Over-reliance on male animals and cells in preclinical research might obscure key sex differences that could guide clinical studies. At one point in time, this was an original research result. Then, in turn, the finding made an impact on perceptions of solidity. It enhanced our general awareness that inadequate analysis of data by sex may well contribute to the troubling rise of irreproducibility in preclinical biomedical research. As a result, funding agencies – with the National Institutes of Health leading the way – are now working to address this problem through new policies that will require applicants to report their plans for the balance of male and female cells and animals in preclinical studies. And the agencies do this, of course, with the ultimate goal of improving the relevance of research to patients, be they male or female.  

Let me give you another example. It comes from Hilde Sandvik, a Professor of history at the University of Oslo. And it is a classic example of how much there is still to be gained from writing her story as well as history.

Let me first tell the foreigners among you that there has been a heated debate in Norway in the past few weeks on the low number of women business leaders. My party colleague, Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland, is impatient with the big companies, and has urged them to step up their efforts to achieve equality. (And the response, reported in the media, has varied from sensible and constructive to rather old fashioned and peculiar.)  

Back to Hilde Sandvik. What she has done throughout her career is to question the absence of women economic actors in historiography on the early modern period. Because quality in research is about originality, she has looked in new places. Because it is about solidity, she has not been satisfied with normative sources, with laws stating intentions. She has dug beneath them into legal usage and administrative practice. And because quality is about relevance, she can enrich today’s debate with historical perspectives.

Sandvik can tell us about women business leaders such as ship-owner Catharina Lysholm. She managed what was probably the largest ship company in Trondheim in the 1770s and -80s. Or ironworks-owners Anna Krefting, both the Elder and the Younger. Together they managed Bærums Verk for almost a hundred years from 1674 and onwards.

And Sandvik can tell us that these women, who were undoubtedly members of a small upper class, were not just rare exceptions. Her research has brought to light a lot of women producers of goods of many kinds. Her research into Civil Service practice has brought to light that tens of thousands of women were characterized as “sensible, economical and frugal” when they applied for the right to retain an undivided estate. That is, when civil servants argued their case, they used exactly the same wording as they used to characterize men. Furthermore, in their applications these women argued the same way, and with exactly the same wording as did men, that to divide the estate would harm their “holding and industry”.

Through the integration of gender perspectives Sandvik has improved the quality of historiography. And she has shown that women have proven for a long time that they can, and will, do business, provided that conditions allow for it.

The Government believes that greater awareness of gender perspectives has the potential to improve the quality in research. Consequently, we were not impressed – or should I say amused - when we learned that no more than 1,7 percent of the research funded by the Research Council of Norway in 2013 was marked with the tag “gender perspectives integrated”. We are not satisfied with this state of affairs, and will monitor the situation closely in the time to come.

I both understand - and accept completely - that gender perspectives may not always be relevant. Of course not. That depends on the research project in question, and I fully respect that. But I refuse to believe, and accept, that questions of gender are relevant in just a meager 1,7 percent of all the research that is funded. 

We have already begun the planning of the national following up of the European Research Area Roadmap and its priority no. 4 on "gender". It is an important fact that gender perspectives are among the new requirements in Horizon 2020. And the Government is committed to a highly ambitious "Strategy for research and innovation cooperation with the EU". Together this fact and commitment make up a strong argument for both researchers and policy makers to pay closer attention to questions of gender. We think that the integration of gender perspectives could be a competitive advantage for Norwegian researchers in Horizon 2020.

Let me end by thanking the Research Council and the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research for arranging this conference. Good luck with the conference.

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