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Gender equality and meritocracy : contradictory discourses in the Academy

Powell, Stina


This thesis examines how gender equality measures and discourses are reconciled with notions of merit in academia. Gender equality is often defined as equal rights for women and men and has become a widely accepted political goal and vision. Meritocratic principles build on the assumption that everyone, regardless of gender, class, race and sexuality, has the same opportunities to advance provided they are sufficiently hardworking and intelligent. Meritocratic principles thus build on the assumption that objective evaluations are possible. Along these lines, inequalities in academia are a natural outcome and not the result of discrimination. However, feminist studies have shown that meritocratic practices fail to reach these objective evaluations and that gendered norms influence who is considered merited and not. This awareness of discrimination leads to academic organisations being required to act upon inequalities and ensure that gender equality measures are taken, despite the strong conviction that meritocracy is already in place. Thus, we have two contradictory discourses that have to be reconciled in order to co-exist in academia. Through which processes does this reconciliation take place? With a view to answering this, I examine a gender equality project at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. The material includes interviews, focus-group interviews, surveys, participant observations and literature reviews. The research methodology is based on action research and the analysis on relational and critical discourse analysis. The research finds that meritocracy and gender equality are reconciled through three processes 1) by creating the gender inequality discourse as a matter for the individual, not the organisation 2) through depoliticisation of gender equality where administration rather than inequalities are in focus and 3) through a process of decoupling where gender equality is separated from the permanent organisation. These processes make it possible for meritocracy and gender equality to co-exist as two important principles of academic practice, despite their contradicting values. However, this separation of discourses contributes to the persistence of inequality in academic organisations. Further, these three processes work to silence counter discourses on gender equality that have become visible in the Gender Equality Project.


gender equality; gender equality measures; meritocracy; academia; projects; gender and environment

Publicerad i

Acta Universitatis Agriculturae Sueciae
2016, nummer: 2016:17
ISBN: 978-91-576-8536-0, eISBN: 978-91-576-8537-7
Utgivare: Department of Urban and Rural Development, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

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