case study:
Villum Foundation and Novo Nordisk Foundation

How can a diverse STEM-research environment enable world class research and education?


Statistics show that female scientists leave academia more than their male colleagues, creating a 'leaky pipeline’. A missed opportunity for Danish universities to create optimal conditions for ground-breaking research and potential challenge to Denmark's position as a world leader in STEM. The Villum Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation seek to understand barriers of female researchers and point to potentials for increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM to enable future world-class research and education.


Through an ethnographic approach, we explore the daily lives of academic female and male scientists to see the world for their perspective, deep dive into their professional and personal stories, uncovering daily interactions, formal and informal encounters and conversations influencing the experience of being a female scientist. By identifying patterns across individual stories, we unfold challenges and opportunities for increasing diversity and inclusion at Danish universities.


We have identified five areas of barriers and opportunities for increasing diversity and inclusion which have given the Villum Foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, and the universities a deeper understanding of the barriers, female scientists experience throughout their careers. Henceforth, the insights will be used as the point of departure for designing interventions to change the status quo and increase diversity and inclusion one experiment at a time.

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Paving the path for a diverse STEM-research environment enabling world class research and education.

"We experience that when the group is working as a collective, we are able to write better applications. We get a greater exchange of knowledge and are able to build on experience by being open. I know that is not the way it is everywhere, but we have proven that it is possible.”
Nikoline, Professor
the challenge

Despite a societal emphasis on gender diversity and inclusion, statistics show that women continue to be underrepresented at higher levels and positions as researchers in Danish universities.

The Villum Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation initiated this research to gain a deep understanding of the barriers that top female STEM scientists face throughout their careers and how we can overcome them. As a result, we sought to identify the underlying factors that contribute to women leaving STEM careers, as well as potential ways for universities and foundations to contribute to attracting and retaining top female talent. The goal has been to shed light on these barriers and develop actionable insights to address them, with the ultimate goal of creating a more equitable and inclusive STEM research environment in which talent can thrive and contribute to ground-breaking research.

"I have a male colleague who, every time I say something, sits and shakes his head. And I have been thinking that there must be someone who will say something. I don’t want to say anything myself, because I won’t be the whiny person. I can also just not look at him. Still, I without a doubt he doesn’t think that I should be in the position that I am in.”
Amalie, Associate Professor

the approach

To get behind the numbers and gain a comprehensive understanding of the everyday challenges women in STEM careers face, the research study adopted an ethnographic approach.

This involved engaging with male and female research talents at various career stages across different STEM departments and faculties. Through observations, semi-structured interviews, and focus groups, the researchers told us about the everyday experiences and career journey of being a scientist. Through analysis, we identified patterns related to the barriers and factors influencing scientists’ careers in academia.

Additionally, the study encompassed interviews with experts from academia and other industries who had actively addressed diversity and inclusion within their organizations. By incorporating these diverse perspectives, the research aimed to develop a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted issues surrounding the retention and advancement of women in STEM fields.

"My post doc supervisor is extremely good at the strategic aspect of academia. She advised me a lot on what to say at the job interview for my tenure track. I basically changed what I would say one week before the interview because of her.”
Erik, Assistant Professor
The Result

We provided anthropological insights into academic top talent's lived realities, as well as opportunities for attracting and retaining female top talent in Danish STEM research environments.

Overall, our findings aimed to rethink the narrative of the research rockstar, as our analysis revealed that no talented scientist succeeds on their own. While academia expects exceptional individual performances, the study's top talents revealed that no single research rock star succeeds on their own. To thrive in their academic career and deliver work-class science, even the brightest talents must gain experience fitting the profile, belonging to a group, understanding the name of the game, playing the game, and being more than a scientist.

The insights formed the basis for a co-creation session with university leadership, scientists, and diversity and inclusion professionals to discuss and co-create inspiration for initiatives that could be launched to increase diversity and inclusion. The co-creation session ensured that we received multiple perspectives on various initiatives and that potential initiatives were relevant and feasible for universities to launch.  

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Interested to find out more? Contact the

Villum Foundation and Novo Nordisk Foundation

case owner

Louise Vang Jensen
Co-CEO & Partner 71 74 16 76