3 / 2022 // LEOPOLDINA / NEWS 9
“ Make them feel welcome ”
Interview with member of the Leopoldina Presidium Ute Frevert on women in science
The Leopoldina has just published its statement on women in science . Ute Frevert ML , Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin / Germany , is the speaker of the working group behind the statement . In her work as a historian , she has long had an inter est in the construction and interpretation of gender differences .
After thoroughly examining the statistics , the statement comes to the conclusion that women are still “ glaringly underrepresented ” in science in Germany . Where is this particularly evident ? Ute Frevert : It is already evident among postdocs because after completing their PhD women are much more likely than men to look for a job outside of science . The lack of representation continues among young academics completing their habilitation to become full professors and is most striking among professors at the top of the pay scale and among directors at non-university research institutions .
Did the data surprise you ? Frevert : Yes , on the one hand . After all , there have been calls to end this disparity for a long time . And academic institutions have been taking action for around 20 years . But they only ever act slowly and in response to pressure . And , as I know only too well , there are setbacks and obstacles to contend with . Which is why I am not surprised .
What do you think are the main reasons for the situation ? Frevert : The notion that science is for men has been deeply embedded in both men ’ s and women ’ s minds for a long time . But even those women who do want to pursue a career in science often find it difficult to progress due to long-established structures and forces of habit . Male directors and department chairs are more likely to consult other men and to view them as potential successors . Women need to be very assertive to compete with that ,
Ute Frevert is the speaker of the “ Gender Equality in Science ” working group and a member of the Leopoldina Presidium .
Image : Andreas Reeg
which isn ’ t for everyone . Ambition still tends to be a virtue seen as proper for men but unpleasant in women .
Women are strongly represented in the humanities and social sciences as well as in medicine up to PhD level . How can we keep them in science ? What are the most important recommendations ? Frevert : Talented and highly qualified women must be encouraged to pursue a career in science and be given advice and support . We also need to make women feel welcome and to demonstrate that we are proud of their achievements . We must develop the structures and working conditions that women ( and many men ) want . This means creating environments that are cooperative , non-hierarchical , nonsexist and flexible in terms of working hours . Everyone must be offered realistic opportunities to progress . This is especially crucial at the postdoc stage , which is a time that often coincides with starting a family . Women in leadership positions also need support and visibility .
STEM subjects are proving particularly problematic . How can we inspire more female students to study them ? Frevert : First and foremost , by creating female role models . A subject with hardly any female professors is less likely to attract female students . Past experience has shown that representation of around 30 percent is needed for a group of people to no longer feel like a minority . Academic institutions also need to develop degree programmes that have a “ purpose ”, since many women have a pronounced need to only do something if it seems worthwhile . A degree with the title “ Physics of climate change ” would therefore be more appealing than one simply called “ Physics ”.
The statement opens with a clear expression of the working group ’ s commitment to diversity as an important factor for the success of science . You emphasise that this declaration should not be understood as “ binary ”, but you do not discuss the issue of gender identity again . Why is that ? Frevert : We still have very little knowledge of the discrimination experienced by non-binary people in science – and our statement focuses exclusively on science . The data we do have is also unclear . This is why we decided not to comment on the issue , but to focus on women as a large demographic group .
What gives you hope that more women will pursue a career in research in the future ? Frevert : Scientific work is a wonderful and fulfilling career choice . The more women who enjoy success in science and who share their enthusiasm with others , the more women we will attract . But it is absolutely imperative that we keep up the momentum . This requires us to keep exert ing pressure on policymakers . Without this , the science system would sadly remain much too static , or at least it would in this area .
■ THE INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED BY ADELHEID MÜLLER-LISSNER
Statement “ Frauen in der Wissenschaft ” ( English version in progress )