Woman Scientist of the Month: Cathrine Holst (10/2019)

In regular intervals, EPWS interviews a distinguished woman scientist in 10 questions.

In this section, we are interviewing European women of various ages and disciplines, recognized by the scientific community for their achievements, who are also concerned by the gender-equality goals of EPWS. They are true role models and a source of inspiration for the future for other women scientists.

Read all the Interviews here

This month EPWS gives the floor to Prof. Cathrine Holst. She is Professor at Department of Sociology and Human Geography and Research Professor at ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, Norway, and also connected to the Centre for Research on Gender Equality (CORE), Institute for Social Research in Oslo.



cathrine.holst@sosgeo.uio.no // www.sv.uio.no/iss/english/people/aca/cathho


EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?

From the very beginning, I loved school, and to do reading and writing. I think I also from rather early on was triggered by the intellectual environment and competition that school offered, that it was a place where I was judged more on the basis of merits and achievements than on the basis of conventions, looks and social skills. In my closest family, I think my mother’s encouragement was immensely important. She told me early on, when she noticed my preoccupation with school and books, that I could be a university professor one day. I also had academics in my family, one of my uncles was a famous Norwegian social anthropologist, another one a distinguished cancer researcher. I think this helped putting ideas into my head about an academic career.

When I became a university student, I was also lucky to have professors that saw my interest and talent for academic work, and that encouraged and tutored me. I first studied history and philosophy, but ended up taking my master and PhD in sociology. Both my theses had a rather cross-disciplinary profile, and I have continued enjoying myself the most at the interface between fields, such as sociology, political science and philosophy.

As for my general orientation, I took early on an interest in the relationship between academia and the public sphere, intellectual and political life. I am, on the one hand, a ‘political animal’, and believe academic work ought to contribute to improve human welfare and ways of living. Several of my intellectual concerns spring, I believe, from broader existential and political projects – I think it is like this for many committed academics. I have for example taken a special interest in gender perspectives. This is also a reflection of my own personal struggles and alienation as a woman entering the university. Academic life bears so much promise for human emancipation, but it has also been deeply entrenched in patriarchal traditions and ways of thinking. This still comes through even if ‘gender equality’ has become the official norm. On the other hand, I believe I find academic life so meaningful and worthwhile because of its ethos of impartial knowledge seeking. At universities, we are allowed, even obliged, to search for significant truths, relatively independent from political trends and immediate use value. This role of academia cannot be overestimated, and it worries me that intellectual and academic freedom is now under pressure in many countries, even in Europe.



What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?

I have broad interests but, were I to sum up, I think my research mostly circles around one of two topics. First, I work on the role of experts and expert knowledge in democracy and policy-making. I do empirical work on how knowledge is transmitted into public policy and new and old policy advice mechanisms, from expert commissions and science advice, to think-tanks and consultancy. I am interested in who those we refer to as ‘experts’ are, and why we give their knowledge authority as ‘expert knowledge’. I am also interested in normative questions in this area: What characterize ‘good’ experts? Which are the better ways to organize the relationship between knowledge production and policy-making? When experts are delegated extra power in political processes, be it economists in the Central Bank, court lawyers, or science advisors in agencies and ministries – what are the implications for decision quality, and for democracy? How can we engage experts to ensure knowledge-based policies while at the same time respecting the participatory and representative credentials of democratic procedures?

Second, I do work on gender issues. I have a longstanding interest in feminist political philosophy, social theory and epistemology, but in recent years, my research has focused mostly on family and gender equality policy. My expertise is mostly on the policies and governance of the Nordic countries, including the so-called Nordic model of gender quality, its preconditions, features and effects. I have however also done work on policy-making in the EU, EU institutions and European integration. A newly published book combines these interests: together with colleagues, I study how ‘europeanization’ has affected Nordic gender equality policy – and whether Nordic policies in the gender area have been uploaded to the European level. We find in our studies that EU law has contributed to strengthening Nordic anti-discrimination legislation significantly. At the same time, the Nordic work-life balance regime and women-friendly family policies do not travel easily to other EU countries and to the EU level. A well-known example is the failure of the proposed new maternity leave directive to win through.

Thus, the fact that my research topics have societal relevance goes, I guess, without saying. Both the relationship between experts and elites and ‘the people’, and the societal role of gender, are deeply contested issues, and I experience a lot of interest for my research among civil society actors, policy-makers, and in public debate. There are however also internal puzzles and unsolved problems in my fields that I hope my research can contribute to shed light on. For example, how can it be that society and policy-making are increasingly ‘expertized’, in the sense that we allow ourselves to rely more and more on the guidance of professionals and the knowledgeable, while we at the same time see the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics, distrust in experts and populism?



EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?
Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?

Along with many others, I guess I have particularly warm memories of the many ‘first times’: The first time I got an article published in a good journal, the first time I received a research grant, the first time I got a position, the first time a distinguished scholar in my field quoted me, the first time I saw my research cited in the newspaper, when I received my professorship, etc. However, what I am maybe most proud of, is that I over time have become overall more self-confident and assertive. I think that I now, much more than some years ago, speak ‘academic’ in my own voice and with my own signature. It is hard to pinpoint any exact moment as a turning point; it is rather many small instances over time. These are personal victories such as stating my views despite opposition or disregarding an insult.

However, the instances I believe have brought me forward also include many disappointments; when a paper I had worked hard with or a grant application was firmly rejected, and I did not give up, but got up the next morning to make it better. As for the teaching, I think what makes me particularly proud is when bachelor students tell me in person, or in evaluations, that they like my lectures and seminars. It can be tough to get through to junior students, and among my most rewarding moments there is when I really feel that I connect.


EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?

I am from Norway, and I was educated at the University of Bergen, and have currently positions at the University of Oslo. I spent however a year at New School for Social Research in New York when I wrote my PhD. Later, I have been a guest researcher at Freie Universität in Berlin, at European University Institute in Florence, and at the Quality of Government Institute at Gothenburg University.


EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

The short answer, and high on the agenda, is to revise and submit several papers. Together with Hallvard Moe, I am just now finishing an article on the role of informational quality and expert users for online democracy to be published in Political Studies. Together with Mari Teigen, I write on an article on how ‘gender equality’ is relied on as ‘national branding’ in Norwegian foreign and security policy. Together with Eva Krick, I write on the relationship between ‘governance by committees’ and ‘social democracy’. Together with Silje Langvatn, I write on descriptive representation of women in international courts for a special issue of Journal of Social Philosophy. Together with Johan Christensen, I am finalizing an article for a special issue in Scandinavian Political Studies on Norwegian think-tanks. Johan and I, together with Anders Molander, also write on a book with the working title ‘Experts, policy and democracy’. So, I am not really short of deadlines in the months to come.

In addition, I spend a lot of time on supervising master and PhD students, and on bachelor and master level teaching. This fall I have lectures on two introductory courses to sociology and a theory course on social theory. Last week, I co-coordinated a PhD course in Paris on the methodology of normative political theory. I am also so lucky to be part of a Horizon 2020 project on Trust in governance starting up in 2020 and with Dublin philosopher Maria Baghramian as PI. In 2020/2021 I will organize a research group at the Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS) in Oslo together with philosopher Jakob Elster on the topic ‘what is a good policy?’


Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?

I think I have generally been extremely lucky. I have been part of friendly environments and experienced a lot of encouragement throughout in my academic career. Still, the male domination of academic traditions has sometimes been overwhelming, and I have struggled with finding a place for myself and believing that I am ‘good enough’. I have also experienced my share of ‘mansplaining’, and had the experience of been underestimated because I am a woman. For some men in academia it seems like only other men matter. They tend to see intellectual life as a competition between men and to consider the women around them, including female researchers, as belonging to their ‘crowd’, or to their male competitors’ crowd. They cannot really understand that many female researchers are their ‘own’ and respect them on equal terms. Luckily, these men are increasingly in minority, but they are still around. I experience also on a daily basis work-life balance issues. I have two children and a husband who is both a publisher and an active researcher. We both want to be present and available for our kids, but things do not always add up.

As for mentoring, I have not been part of any formal mentoring program, but I have profited from several informal mentors. Maybe of special importance have been more senior female scholars inside or outside my field, that I feel have been on ‘my side’ and that have inspired me greatly both intellectually and careerwise. I have however also had male supervisors and advisors that have been extremely important for my career and academic development. For sure, I would not been a professor today, had not this bunch spotted me, recognized me and supported me during vulnerable phases.


What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?

In my main discipline, sociology, women are well represented, while political science and philosophy are more male-dominated fields. This is connected, I think, to deep-seated cultural codes and to topical differences. Sociologists work with family-society relations, the welfare state, etc. Such questions maybe more easily attract women, and female researchers have been decisive for the development of many of the central sociological research areas. Philosophy was always an affair primarily for ‘men only’ and for ‘geniuses’ and ‘the brilliant mind’. It requires a certain kind of self-perception and self-esteem to enter this area, and women have not been considered – or considered themselves – to have the right kind of ‘rationality’. This is honestly bullshit, but it tends to stick. Recently, a Norwegian university offered ten – 10! – permanent positions in philosophy – and ten – 10! – men were hired. This is a serious problem for both intellectual life and our societies. To address it, you need cultural changes of a more radical sort, and this does not happen overnight.

Meanwhile, I think we need to think much harder to construct recruitment processes in academia that combine meritocratic criteria and pluralism. I am sure this can be done. I think many would agree that, when a discipline is dominated by one social category, then this is not only a ‘political’ problem but also a problem for adequate ‘truth seeking’ and for ‘science’. In addition, I am a strong believer in mentoring and networking – and in a healthy work-life balance regime. The latter requires family, welfare, and gender equality policies that make it possible for both women and men to pursue a career and have a family life at the same time. In this area, I have to say I am a strong ‘Nordic model’ fan. Our societal model combines central social justice and equal opportunities concerns with high levels of innovation and productivity. This is what happens when both halves of the population are given not only formal, but also material.


Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?

I did, in a range of connections. For me, the informal support by other women, seniors and women at my own career stage, have been crucial. I also like to cooperate in pluralist research teams, where we come from different disciplines and have different backgrounds, including different genders. This being said, I have also experienced that women’s network has developed into not-so -healthy ‘female camps’ or enclaves, where we hold each other down and emphasize ‘sameness’ and ‘common experiences’ in the wrong and claustrophobic kind of why. I think many female scientists have strong personalities and embrace a certain kind of individualism. We need forms of cooperation and support that take this better into account.


If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?

I would definitely choose my vocation as a scientist once again. I wake up almost every morning thinking I have to be one of the most privileged people in the world, being allowed to spend so much time on doing stuff I find so utterly meaningful. I love social science, but maybe, where I to choose again, I could easily have gone for a different scholarly area, such as law or economics, maybe medicine or psychology, or a humanistic field, such as linguistics or antique history.


Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

I think we should take more space. My experience is that talents are relatively equally distributed between women and men. There is no good reason for women’s underrepresentation in parts of academia and their lower average scores on excellence criteria. I believe in mentoring and networking among female scientists, but it is just as crucial that male academic leaders are able to spot and encourage female talents, and I think they could take on this responsibility much more strongly. Women should moreover challenge their own comfort zones more often, and spread even more widely across academia. I cannot stand the idea that since we are women, we should stick to certain disciplines, methods or certain ‘female’ ways of thinking.

For women to step forward even more, requires certainly the right kind of intellectual and institutional culture, but as a policy scholar I cannot but also remind of the importance of the right kind of family and welfare policies. As for the latter, it is disappointing that the EU has not taken on more of a leading role, but maybe not so surprising, given the times we live in, with conservative, populist, euro-skeptic and anti-feminist trends unfortunately on the rise in many parts of Europe.