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Centers of Excellence: Where are the women?

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On June 12th, 2002, the government of Norway announced the names of 13 groups that had been selected to create Norway's first Centers of Excellence. These centers would receive privileges most researchers could only dream of. Well-equipped with all they could need, they would take Norwegian research to new heights in Europe and beyond.

The Center of Excellence program was portrayed as the flagship of the Research Council of Norway. In the inevitable public debate following the press conference that morning, the selection process itself was characterized as the most rigorous ever implemented by the Research Council.

During the announcement, the 13 of us who would lead these centers were called forward. We stood there proud and hopeful, feeling like crown princes in the fiefdom ruled by our Minister of Education and Research. And we certainly looked the part, standing there together in our dark suits and ties -- all 13 of us. One could be forgiven for finding it difficult to distinguish among the members of the group; every one of the new Center Directors, after all, was a man.

The press conference that spring day was not just about the Centers of Excellence. There was one more competition winner to be announced.

Elementary school classes all over the country had spent months carrying out demanding scientific investigations, vying for the title of Curious Pete (Nysgjerrig Per). The award for 2002 would be presented to one of these classes by the real Crown Prince, HRH Håkon Magnus of Norway. Scores of giddy schoolchildren were present and several of the classes demonstrated their projects. The youngsters were brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for science. There were many, many boys present. And there were many, many girls, too.

It was no accident that these two awards were made at the same press conference. The organizers' clever idea was that the young schoolchildren would look at the Directors of the new Centers of Excellence and see their own futures. We would inspire them, motivate them, help them to realize what they could become.

The Directors of the new Centers of Excellence and the winners of the Curious Pete competition were in that auditorium together, at the same time. But it felt like a time warp. We were supposed to be a picture from the pupils' future; but the 13 of us collectively looked much more like a stiff painting from their past.

And it wasn't just the girls that morning who couldn't see their futures in the group of Directors. It was the boys, too. True, the boys could at least see individual role models of the same sex, which the girls could not. But the striking thing about the winners of the Center of Excellence competition became clear only when looking at them as a group. Even for the schoolboys who were present, that group couldn't reveal a snapshot of the future. When those boys are adult scientists, after all, they won't be working exclusively with men. There won't be groups that look like the one that was standing in front of them that morning. And while it was easy to see how our selection had in some sense failed the girls in attendance, it turned out that we had just as profoundly failed the boys.

This story is the introduction for my new eBook 6 steps to gender equality and other essays on how universities can get more women to the top and why they should, available in pdf format for free, or in kindle format at the link below.