Let’s Talk Leadership 16: Sigbritt Karlsson on the fight to get women into STEM

Sigbritt Karlsson thinks academics might be easier to fool than others. “You have a lot of education, you think you’re so smart, you can’t see straight and you don’t dare to ask the relevant question because if you do that you might come across as ignorant.”

The president of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology is referring to a scandal that has rocked global academia and, in particular, her native nation of Sweden.

Swiss-born star surgeon Paolo Macchiarini worked at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute and gained worldwide prestige when he claimed to have developed the world’s first synthetic organ transplant, replacing a patient’s trachea with a plastic tube. plastic. Most of his patients subsequently died, and it emerged in the mid-2010s that he had misrepresented the success of his surgeries and the results of his research. In 2019, an Italian court sentenced Macchiarini to 16 months in prison for forgery and abuse of office. In September 2020, he was charged in Sweden with aggravated assault.


THE Campus views: Boosting female representation in STEM is crucial for global innovation


Karlsson, a chemical engineer, says the revelations have been like a “bombshell” in the scientific community and have seriously damaged public confidence in science in general. In the wake of the scandal, Sweden set up the National Research Misconduct Assessment Board and, thanks in part to science’s role in tackling the pandemic, trust has all but been restored, she says.

Karlsson notes dryly that as a polymer expert, she would have known that the plastic Macchiarini chose for his operations wouldn’t work. It’s a shame she didn’t assess her papers: “They could have asked me. I could have told them it was nonsense from the start.

That reflects a downside of working in silos, she says, pointing out that if polymer experts like her didn’t talk to ecologists or political scientists, they probably wouldn’t find the best answers to their problems. “In this case, he was a doctor and thought he could just choose any material for this solution.”

Since then, Karlsson has been hyper-aware of the potential for fraud in research, but she distinguishes between the few researchers who deliberately deceive and those who take shortcuts.

“This drive to cut corners comes from this huge focus on how many scientific papers you should have to be successful researchers,” she says. “I think we need to take a step back and talk about the quality of research rather than the quantity.”

At KTH, she tries to look at quality over quantity when considering promotions, but she admits it’s complicated because “what does ‘quality’ mean?”

Karlsson acknowledges that early-career academics today struggle more than she does. “I think that has changed. It’s more pressure now than before because I had time to develop myself as a researcher. It worked for me to combine family and a research career.

She admits that her researchers sometimes complain that they are like businessmen because they spend too much time looking for funding. Is she troubled by this? “I’m afraid we’re losing talent because they think our environment isn’t good enough,” she says.

Not addressing gender equality

Born in Stockholm and the first in her family to attend university, Karlsson describes herself as stubborn – a useful trait given that she is making little progress on one of the main tasks she set for herself by becoming president of KTH.

When she took office in 2016, Karlsson made gender equality one of her top priorities. Yet the proportion of new female students at the tech- and engineering-focused institution has remained at 34% every year since 2012.

“Sometimes I despair and wonder, what will we have to do to increase the number?” she asks. They have tried various tactics to improve the gender balance – including introducing a provocative slogan, “The future is too important to be left to men”, which has prompted accusations of sexism (Karlsson observes ironically on his blog that there were also long lines for tote bags emblazoned with the slogan).

She is clear that the culture of technical universities needs to change and she can cite examples of progress: an older physics professor told her that more women were needed because otherwise they would not be attractive to members of younger generations, men and women. .

Karlsson has noticed that women prefer degrees that are more overtly tied to practical outcomes and solving real-world issues, and enrollment in KTH’s new energy and environment course is nearly 50 percent. feminine. “Maybe we shouldn’t generalize, but women are more interested in seeing the usefulness of their education, in seeing that they can contribute to it,” she says.

One of the results of the male-dominated culture is that its female students are more dedicated. “The women who apply to us have given a lot of thought to why they chose us. Men think, ‘OK, I can still apply to KTH. I can still be an engineer,” but they didn’t really think about it. As a result, men are also more likely to fail modules and have to retake them, meaning they take longer to complete their studies, she says.

Some subjects at KTH are sorely lacking in women: only 19% studied computer science in 2020, below the global average of 23%, according to data from the THE World University Ranking. However, other programs are more balanced between men and women – civil engineering and architecture, for example.

Some might argue that some of the criticism directed at universities regarding gender imbalance should be redirected to schools, or even parents. After all, by the time girls turn 18, they have often already chosen not to take STEM subjects.

Karlsson thinks schoolchildren need better education in math and science. “If you look at kids up to 10 years old or something like that, they’re also interested in technical solutions and dismantling. But around the age of 10, girls and boys separate. And there, we lose a lot of women because they don’t choose the subjects that prepare them to enter STEM.

“If you’re 19 and have a bit of a weak background in math, I don’t think you dare to continue in STEM,” she adds.

On this Karlsson, has really put his money where his mouth is. When her own children’s school decided to major in music, she told the principal that she should major in math and natural sciences instead. He told her to move her children to another school. Unsurprisingly, her children all went to KTH and became engineers anyway, with the added support of their engineer mother.

arts and technology

Sweden is renowned for its excellence in technology and engineering. Recently, global tech giants such as Google have touted the benefits of humanities graduates, and other famous tech institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have increased their humanities offerings, citing benefits for solving problems. Does Karlsson think Sweden puts enough emphasis on the arts and humanities?

At KTH, she says, they recognize the importance of integrating the arts and humanities with more technical subjects. They teach environmental humanities, philosophy and social sciences, and students in more technical disciplines can take modules in these subjects.

But Karlsson also notes that Sweden far exceeds its weight when it comes to global engineering and technology companies, citing Volvo, Ericsson and Scania. “Considering that we are maybe 8, 9 million [in population]it served us well to focus on engineering.

Immigration rules and brain drain

Last year, Sweden was accused of risking a brain drain when it introduced a new immigration law imposing restrictions on granting permanent residency to international doctoral students.

Until recently, non-EU doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden for four of the previous seven years, putting them on the path to citizenship. However, that changed in July when laws to control the number of asylum seekers came into effect. Now, all non-EU foreign nationals who apply for permanent residency must have either permanent employment or employment lasting at least 18 months.

For Karlsson, it remains to be seen if this decision will really cause some fear of the brain drain. People also cried the alarm when Sweden introduced tuition fees for master’s degrees for non-EU international students, she says. “Everyone said, ‘It will be devastating for universities, they’ll never come back’ and things like that. But 10 years later, we are almost back to the same numbers we had.

She notes that the government was reacting to a massive influx of migrants in 2015 and “they didn’t think about what it meant for talent”. She also thinks it was unfair to move the goals for doctoral students already in the country.

When it comes to running a university, Karlsson says she’s learned what not to do from others she’s worked with throughout her career. “I’ve been close to narcissistic people, who use people for their own benefit, don’t recognize the things other people in the research group are doing and things like that.”

His style, on the other hand, is to listen: “Being able to be flexible to bring in ideas from as many people as possible and not think that you are the only one who can present the solution.”


Fast facts

Not:Stockholm, 1958

Academic Qualifications:MSc in Chemical Engineering and PhD in Polymer Technology, both from KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Lives with:Husband, his children are grown

Academic Hero:Marie Curie


This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with leaders from the world’s top universities on how they solve common strategic problems and implement change. Follow the series here.


the Times Higher Education The Innovation & Impact Summit, in partnership with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, will take place from April 26-28. There is an early bird registration deadline until March 11. register here.

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