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Lost Excellence?

Exploración de las ciencias de la vida

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Women continue to be in the minority when it comes to senior positions in science and research. Why is this? An attempt at finding explanations, with recommendations for action.

When, in the first year of university, an equal number of male and female students populate the lecture halls, the problem is still invisible. But then, shortly thereafter, we lose our promising female researchers and scientists. What happened? “I thought that if I just persisted and performed well, I would reach my goal. I now ask myself: if I had been a man, would it have taken me less time to arrive at where I am today?” Professor Borna Relja has achieved her goal. Today, she is head of the Department of Experimental Radiology at the University Hospital in Magdeburg, Germany, and she holds the position of Deputy Director of Research, Technology and Equal Opportunities at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg. She enjoyed research, and it continually motivated her. “However, the assumption that we women only need to be strong enough to be able to persist in this male-dominated environment is only partly correct. While performance is definitely important, women need to do more than simply prove that they are as good as their male colleagues – in many cases, they must be better.”
This inequality between the sexes in the context of research is difficult to resolve. According to a survey by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in Germany, the gap opens up at the time of habilitation: in 2018, only 31.6 percent of those qualified to lecture at universities were women. No sufficient data exist which may allow conclusions to be drawn on the international level – not all countries collect the relevant data, and there are limits to the way in which academic titles may be compared. According to the UNESCO Science Report 2021, however, Germany falls behind the European average: in 2018, women constituted close to 40 percent of female professors in Europe.

Initial difficulties and hurdles
It is a fact: one has to be able to afford a scientific career – both on an economic as well as a social level. For prospective female researchers from nonacademic homes, the bar is set even higher, knows Silke Tölle-Pusch. She spearheads the national coordination for university cooperation within the nonprofit organization ArbeiterKind.de (working-class child), and she is familiar with the challenges of those women who are the first in their families to attend university: real and perceived financial concerns, the absence of family support, a lack of knowledge about university procedures, and careers in science in particular. “These are aspects which may render a precarious career in science unattractive”, she says.
Once a career in science has been chosen, new obstacles await: “The foundation of a scientific career is laid between the age of 30 and 40. This is the time when most people will decide in favor or against a family – a certain need for security sets in. This is when female researchers turn down temporary appointments and inflexible work models”, states Professor Relja. The consequence: many female researchers decide against employment that promises an uncertain future.
In 2018, only 24.7 percent of full professors in Germany were women, and across Europe, only 11 percent of top academic positions were held by women. This imbalance continues in the realm of research: globally, 33.3 percent of researchers are women – across Europe, this number is 33.8 percent; however, these numbers continue to rise, and an upward trend is noticeable. In some countries, the proportion of women is significantly higher: 75 percent in Myanmar and 62 percent in Venezuela. When will Europe come around?

Role models are important for the system as a whole
In order to spark enthusiasm for science and research in more women, it will take a variety of measures which will need to take hold early. In cooperation with scientific institutions, more women who have built successful scientific careers should be engaged in visits to schools where they can speak about their paths, explains Ms. Tölle-Pusch. “By serving as a role model, they can present perspectives. This is particularly critical for students who experience little educational support at home.” Initiatives such as the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science”, initiated by UNESCO and UN Women, are successful in increasing visibility – and thus staying relevant: during the previous action day, women were introduced who had contributed significantly to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
To further the task of inspiring women to pursue careers in research, structures will need to be established to help retain prospective female researchers. The recently founded network “Equal Opportunity & Diversity” at the University of Magdeburg combines different areas – one of the most crucial pillars, according to Professor Relja. “If the front wheels turn while the back wheels are blocked, we will go nowhere. This is why, in addition to gender equality, our network also considers other areas such as the family.” This collaboration would enable the formation of sustainable alliances and support flexible working hours, digital work models and part-time careers – which will, of course, will also benefit men.

Creating more room for strength
Networks of this kind make exchange possible – hot topics included. “My position allows me to address deficits”, says Professor Relja, who leads the network. “But for a graduate student or postdoc, who is in a dependent working relationship, speaking up requires a lot of courage. It is risky to take a stand.” In addition to structured programs at universities, protected spaces of trust are needed. Ms. Tölle-Pusch confirms: “We know that experiencing stigmatization within one’s own university can prevent people from pursuing good offers.”
The question of whether the effort is worth it should no longer be asked. “Not tapping into diversity borders on arrogance. The world is a dynamic place – research, thinking and technology all continue to evolve”, says Professor Relja. “It is my duty to pave the way for future generations of researchers.” Ms. Tölle-Pusch agrees that a lack of diversity is especially problematic for the scientific community: “Different perspectives introduce fresh ideas and research strategies, which are needed to drive science forward.”

Listen and view

Podcast “Lab Gap”
To this day, research potential continues to be wasted because not enough highly qualified women work in research. In her podcast Lab Gap, moderator Victoria Müller interviews leading female scientists from Germany.

Podcast “Talk Nerdy”
Cara Santa Maria is a science correspondent for the popular National Geographic TV show Brain Games, and she is also the founder of the weekly science
podcast Talk Nerdy.

Film “Picture A Scientist”
This film tells the story of Professor Nancy Hopkins and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): in 1994, they published a report which proved that preference was given to male colleagues; they were in possession of indisputable scientific evidence.