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The glass ceiling can be opened from the inside in ZEMOS, the research building for solvation science at RUB © Feresin
Discussions at the 2017 Gender and Science meeting. Photo: ETH Zurich/D-PHYS Heidi Hostettler
The Bochum group of scientists at the 2017 Gender and Science meeting. Photo: ETH Zurich/D-PHYS Heidi Hostettler

Empowering women and breaking the glass ceiling

The 2017 MUST/RESOLV gender meeting: Just another women meeting? Not really.

“I don’t want to be a quota women”, is a sentence I hear very often – especially from young, motivated women with a promising scientific career. And I have to say: I fully understand that. Gender issues got more attention in recent years and efforts are made to keep women “in the system”. Women are asked to serve as role models in several kinds of activities, from being part of men predominant boards to participate in gender meetings. But finding out that their influence in a men-driven scientific world is limited can be frustrating, thus instilling the feeling of “just being a quota women”.

So what are these gender activities all about? Do we really help the women or are we just putting more work and expectations onto them? Do we really need gender mainstreaming nowadays?

My personal answer is: Yes, we need it. With collaboration from both genders. Let me tell you why…

Just another gender meeting – what is it all about?

On 13 – 14 September 2017 I flew to the third Gender and Science Meeting that took place at the ETH Zürich, organized by the International Female Faculty of NCCR MUST and RESOLV. 12 speakers from all over Europe gave presentations on current initiatives to counter gender imbalance in science addressing questions such as: What does the research show about the opportunities for women and men to achieve a successful scientific career? What are the experiences in the UK, Sweden, Switzerland and Europe? Are there barriers to career development? How do men and women combine family life and scientific research?

More than 80 scientists and a few people interested in gender mainstreaming joined the meeting. Together with Prof. Martina Havenith, director of RESOLV, and six other female research group leaders, postdocs and PhD students from RESOLV I used the opportunity to learn about these kind of events.

The leaky pipeline…

As Prof. Angelika Kalt, the director of the swiss national science foundation SNSF pointed out in the opening talk of the meeting, “diversity enhances creativity, the potential for innovation and robustness of decision due to a diversity of viewpoints.” However, what is the situation at the moment?

Prof. Ursula Keller, director of the NCCR MUST at ETH Zürich reported about the numbers of men and women at ETH Zürich in 2016: Significantly more male students start their bachelor and master studies in physics (more than 80% men). When looking at higher (postdoc, professors) positions the number of men becomes even more pronounced (90% male physics professors). In Chemistry the number of bachelor and master students is nearly gender balanced (42-45% women) but when it comes to postdoc positions the number of females already decreases to 34%. The number of female professors in chemistry is even much smaller – only 13% at ETH. This is what most speakers of the meeting referred to as “leaky pipeline” – even if there are enough women in academia in the beginning, the stream is leaking and women “drop out of the system” when it comes to higher positions in academia.

It is not about “fixing the women”, it is about changing the institutions!

Prof. Tomas Brage from Lund university in Sweden showed how even the use of metaphors influences our perception of a situation. The metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” evokes a picture of a garden hose from where the women “drop out” - ending up on the ground, maybe lying in the mud. Brage suggested that the metaphor of a “vanishing box” would be a much better comparison. Women enter this vanishing box and – by some magic – they disappear from the academic system without anyone really understanding why this happens. “This is a problem for the system”, Brage emphasized.

All talks during the meeting showed a similar attitude in changing the approach. In the past, gender issues mainly focused on encouraging the women to “survive in a men’s world”. Current measures for gender mainstreaming are not about “fixing the women” but about “changing the institutions”. And we can only do this if we are aware of the gender bias we all – men and women – have. During meetings, job interviews or negotiations for an appointment – women and their behavior is seen in a different light. The only chance to change this is to be aware of our bias. And this is a problem especially in science and physics. Science is considered to be objective, and so do the people working on it consider themselves to be. However, the culture in science is affected by sex and gender.

Two women – one mission.

“Changing the culture at a university is a long term process and can only be done by continuous institutional and personal commitment. It needs long-lasting support structures like the clusters of excellence in Germany and the NCCR networks in Switzerland to initiate long-term changes on gender mainstreaming.”

Martina Havenith and Ursula Keller have a mission – they want to foster the careers of excellent women in academia. For this, they founded the International Female Faculty and organize regular gender meetings in Germany and Switzerland.

Keller and Havenith also initiated many other activities regarding gender mainstreaming. Taking the cue from the Women Faculty Forum at Yale University, Keller founded the first Women Professors Forum (WPF) in Europe at the ETH Zürich. The WPF supports the active networking of female professors at the ETH to build membership and collegiality between ETH women professors. It is designed to become the advisory board for the ETH Executive Board for women in leadership positions and to nurture and promote excellent female scientists. The WPF in Zürich in turn became a role model for the foundation of the WPF at the Ruhr-University Bochum – strongly supported and fostered by Martina Havenith.

Gender mainstreaming – A mission for men and women!

Reviewing these successful women network initiatives one might get the impression that gender mainstreaming is something women need to take care for. This is not true as all speakers of the meeting clearly pointed out. Networking is just one tool to empower women and, of course, it needs much more. Appropriate child care options and flexible working conditions are just two examples.

I was very happy to talk to the about 20% men which joined the meeting, they were really open and interested in the topic. Gender mainstreaming is also something fathers want to bring forward for their daughters and husbands want to improve for their wives. And last but not least for themselves, to have more options for a proper work/life balance and spending time with their families.

Inspired by the men’s positive participation I would like to question another metaphor used in gender discussions – namely “breaking the glass ceiling”. Maybe gender mainstreaming is not about us (women) to break the glass ceiling (and thereby breaking our neck or be hurt by painful glass splinters). Maybe it is more about someone opening a window for us and handing us a good ladder, so that we break away from “just being a quota women”. 


Event gallery


About the author

Nina Winter currently works as a science manager at the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV. She is responsible for the activities of the Graduate School Solvation Science. Interested in cross-disciplinary research, she worked as scientific coordinator at the Horst Görtz institute for IT security at RUB beforehand. She holds a PhD in theoretical chemistry.