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More women in research

We spoke to Enno Aufderheide, Secretary General of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation about the situation in Germany and what can be done to involve as many creative female minds as possible in science and research.

Mr. Aufderheide, every year, the Humboldt Foundation enables more than 2,000 researchers from all over the world to spend time researching in Germany. What is the situation in Germany like for women in research, and how does it compare with other countries?

Enno Aufderheide: Even though things are gradually improving, by international comparison Germany doesn’t do particularly well. Compared with other industrialised countries Germany falls in the lower mid-range. The situation in the USA is much better: just take the number of women appointed to professorships. The average there is about 33%, although in Japan the situation is much worse, while in some Mediterranean countries, such as Turkey and Portugal, the percentage of women in research is a lot higher. But this has to do with poor pay which means that fewer men aspire to professorships.

“More women in research!” This demand has received increasing support in the last few years, but in 2009, not even every fifth professorship in Germany was held by a woman.

Progress is important. And progress requires creative minds. This should involve as many people as possible. If we frighten off 3/5 of women, who are by no means less creative, we are losing out on enormous innovative potential.

But I don’t think we actually have formal or open discrimination in Germany. You won’t find the explanation in statistical differences in pay between individuals either, because pay varies a lot in academia in general. However, in some disciplines, the figures speak for themselves. Medicine is undoubtedly the most emphatic example: two-thirds of medical students are female, but not even every tenth chair is held by a women.

What would be your target in terms of the proportion of women?

The question is: what is a realistic goal? Can we expect to achieve a proportion of 50% of women in research, for example? Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, is of the opinion that 50% is impossible because she thinks that women are neither prepared to subject themselves to the extreme competitiveness inherent in academia, nor to the huge demands it places on mobility, nor to the work ethic in research groups (which, in my opinion, is sometimes excessive).

On the topic of competition: according to surveys, women are less inclined to expose themselves to fiercely competitive situations. Men, on the other hand, perform better under competitive conditions – they have a greater disposition towards competitiveness.

Another issue is the “work-life balance”. Women value a balance between working life and private life more than men, so they are more likely to shy away from the enormous pressure which is often found in working groups.

The third point – and this recently featured in a report in Science Magazine – is that women are more inclined to make their career decisions dependent on whether they involve moving away from their partners. This perhaps means they are not so likely to comply with general expectations with regard to mobility.

What approaches are being adopted?

Basically, there are two ways of approaching the issue: trying to improve circumstances in general and targeted sponsorship.

The DFG’s Research-Oriented Standards on Gender Equality belong in the first category, for example, as do general social criteria like the fair distribution of family duties, such as childcare. Special quotas for women might help to improve the general conditions, although I’m not convinced about this, unless they are used less as an instrument for promoting the women who benefit from them directly, and more as a way of changing the culture of everyday life amongst researchers so that women find the profession more attractive.

And what about targeted activities to promote women?

These include initiatives like the one adopted by the Max Planck Society. More than ten years ago, they started to appoint an increasing number of women to W3 (full professorships) and W2 (research group leadership) positions. It’s not strictly a quota, but more women are achieving high-visibility positions.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has introduced a number of programmes. It offers financial incentives to universities that appoint female professors. If a university appoints a woman to a professorship, part of the costs of this professorship are funded by the BMBF during the first five years. It’s a form of “positive discrimination”. But I don’t think that giving “preference” in this way endangers the quality of the appointment because the financial incentives are only valid at the beginning; later on, the universities have to pay as usual. If they were to compromise on quality they would only harm themselves. So really it’s an additional motivation to look rather more closely and see whether a female candidate wouldn’t be the best person for the job in the first place.

Amongst the various gender equality programmes one of the most effective is mentoring. These programmes involve younger female academics receiving support from an experienced researcher – whether male or female – and being introduced into their networks. Programmes that separate women off, such as networks or groups exclusively for women, have not been so successful. They can be helpful in individual cases, but not for promoting women on a sustainable basis.

In the community

What can be done to improve the situation of women in science and research?

Tell us about any initiatives you have come across in your working life or field of work.

Share your opinions in the group Studies and Research.

Group

Ambitions and reality: where does the implementation of demands for gender equality break down?

It’s an incredibly emotional topic for which there’s no “single solution”. In some cases even good principles may turn out to be wrong. The Foundation itself is very clear what it wants: to be able to give our fellowship-holders more money for childcare. We already pay allowances of this kind, but we should be paying more. Unfortunately, the ministries did not comply with our request.

One important point to end on:

We hope that women will embark on our procedures with a healthy degree of self-confidence. The flexibility of the sponsorship provided by the Humboldt Foundation allows women, in particular, to follow their preferences. That’s why we tell them: send us your applications! And our message for German academics: choose outstanding women researchers from abroad to nominate for one of our awards.

Author: Sabine Müller, addinteractive

March 2012

Comments

Irena Vassileva
16 July 2012

I can only hope that the initiative of the Humboldt Foundation will reach the university authorities in Germany - a country with one of the lowest shares of women in professorial positions!

Viola Erlenmaier
13 July 2012

Thanks for your interest in the topic! We have just started a new gAlumniportal Deutschland has started a new group: \"Gender/ Karriere und Familie\". In this group, we will discuss the role of gender in the fields of family, career, education and media. \r\nwww.alumniportal-deutschland.de/group-gender

Olanike F. Deji
12 July 2012

Many thanks to the Humboldt foundation for the equal opportunity- gender equality strategy, and to the gender sensitive Gen Sec- Dr Enno Aufderheide. Yes, because of the cultural variability of gender, it may be difficult to have an holistic gender equality strategy, hence the need for rigorous gender analysis of the specific situation for effective gender integration. \"Empower the women to empower the society\". Vielen Dank.\r\nOlanike F. Deji\r\nA female Humboldtian in Nigeria.

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