Mojca Svetek: Sexism and feigned ignorance at the University of Ljubljana

Ivan Svetlik, the Rector of the University of Ljubljana, used the round table discussion on inequality in academia held on 2 December by the Free University network to air his views on the position of female academic staff at the University of Ljubljana. His claim that female academic staff face no systemic gender-based hurdles with regards to promotion is a myth easily disproved by merely looking at the data. The absurdity of his comments becomes clear by simply examining the status of women in society at large. What is even more alarming than the data itself is the fact that the Rector is not familiar and does not wish to acquaint himself with it, and continues to shirk responsibility instead of advocating the elimination of inequality in academia.

The Rector’s belief that knowledge serves as the only criterion for academic performance is undermined by the facts. These show a high share of female graduates (60%), which may be the legacy of past feminist movements that won women equal access to higher education. In 2010, 46% of Slovene doctoral theses were written by women (in itself a substantially lower number compared to the percentage of female graduates), the share being highest in education (82%), the humanities (68%), agronomy and veterinary medicine (65%) and the natural sciences (50%), somewhat lower in social sciences and health care (47%) and extremely low in engineering (15%). And yet women represent a mere 20% of full professors. Even in the humanities, where female PhD holders substantially outnumber their male counterparts, only 28.7% of full professors are women; in the natural sciences, despite the number of female PhD holders being equal to that of men, the share stands even lower at 7.5%. This is a clear indication of the difficulties faced by women in terms of promotion opportunities and working their way up to senior positions, something best explained by the glass ceiling and the sticky floor effects. This is evidenced by the low share of women in senior positions (including full professorships and executive positions in higher-education institutions, only 8% of which are held by women), which in turn helps maintain bias in decision-making and science policy-making as well as setting criteria and rules (for hiring, promotion, employment, assessment and fund allocation policies, among others). (Source: European Commission, Gender in Research and Innovation, She Figures 2012)

Far worse than the statistics is the Rector’s pretence that there is no discrimination at the university (a belief shared by a mere 8.9% of academic staff) and his misrepresentation of the university as an entity isolated from society. If universities really were removed from their social contexts, they would be redundant, expendable social structures. This comment by the Rector rejects the university’s role as a socially relevant institution and with it, its responsibility to society. The university cannot sidestep its social relevance or its role as an institution that socialises as well as educates, considering the tremendous numbers of people enrolled in higher education (as many as 62% of people born between 1985 and 1990 have pursued higher education between the ages of 19 and 26), who in turn actively participate and influence society during and after their studies. This serves as a testament to the great social responsibility of the university; it is outrageous that the most senior representative of an institution with such a key role for social progress (apparently) fails to see that.

This is not the Rector’s only attempt at shifting responsibility away from university structures. He went on to say that women themselves were to blame for their limited numbers in senior positions in academia, citing personal lack of ambition and the duty to care for “the Slovene family”. The first part of his line of reasoning seeks to individualise the causes behind the slow progress of women in science by ascribing some kind of a personality flaw to women, while the second part of his argument attempts to justify their position with a conservative interpretation of social roles based on a patriarchal ideology. Women’s ambition is evidenced by the share of women with a university degree or a PhD. Even if that were not the case, it would be wrong to individualise collectively expressed characteristics, which by their very definition point to social rather than personal causes, meaning their roots of the problem are to be found in social structures, including the university.

The Rector continues to mislead the public, claiming that reviewers are typically unaware of the author’s gender. It is clear that this may be one of the factors why a woman’s scientific paper may be judged more harshly. Indeed, many studies have shown that even in academia, men’s products and skills are received better than the same products and skills by women (source). Naturally, the gender of academic staff is readily apparent when hiring and promoting, as well as in the allocation of funds and projects, which makes prejudice virtually inevitable if the institution has no active prevention measures in place. Moreover, if the new draft of the university Statute is passed, sexism will play an even more prominent role in the promotion process as it proposes that “meeting criteria for appointment to a position shall only be a condition for reviewing the appointment application and cannot be construed as a right to appointment”, with appointment being “an exercise of independent academic judgement”. While the current Statute made promotion possible whenever academic staff fulfil (objective) criteria, the proposed draft would make promotion hostage to the whims and biases of the commission, which is bad news especially for female academic staff in fields where sexism runs rampant.

This is not the only article jeopardising the position of women in science. The draft of the Statute includes an explicit misogynist measure – the elimination of Article 212 of the current Statute (source), which allows the appointment term to be put on hold during maternity, paternity or parental leave (as well as prolonged sick leave).

The abolition of the article would have catastrophic consequences for women planning a career in science since it would mean that if they were appointed to a position for a three-year term and took maternity leave, they would either need to make up for lost time in just two years or work during their maternity leave. The implications of this are as clear as day. This is why the Rector’s remarks on how women’s priority is to take care of the Slovene family sound less like an off-hand comment and more like a proclamation and an order for women to abandon their aspirations in science in favour of family duties. The same measure also actively prevents men from taking paternity leave, which is detrimental to gender equality.

The problematic articles of the draft Statute must be scrapped or amended to ensure the proper functioning of the university and to enable it to implement gender equality. And not, as the Rector may wish, to have the public search for solutions and him for excuses as to why the university cannot make them a reality, but rather by having the university itself formulate and provide solutions and let them be evaluated by academic staff, students and the general public.


Mojca Svetek (Photo: personal collection)
Mojca Svetek (Photo: personal collection)

Author: Mojca Svetek, MA student of psychology, department representative at the Slovene Student Organisation, member of a number of progressive student and feminist groups and a coordinator of the feminism working committee at Študentska Iskra. Her interests include the social psychology of gender, feminist theory, the naturalisation and (re)production of the gender hierarchy and the effects of socio-economic status on outcomes in life.  


Translated by: Urša Klinc.


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