"Female academics tend to be too passive"

AcademiaNet Interview with Professor Marlies Knipper

27. 10. 2017 |

Marlies Knipper, Professor of Molecular Physiology at the University of Tübingen, is determined to do her part to bring about gender equality. She has organised a Club of AcademiaNet scientists who meet regularly to discuss challenges they face and to further their knowledge on topics that are relevant today. We talked to Prof. Knipper about what motivates her to stand up for women, and which actions she would like to see more of from fellow academics.

Professor Marlies Knipper
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(© Marlies Knipper)

Professor Marlies Knipper

AcademiaNet: You founded the first AcademiaNet Club together with Prof Krägelohn-Mann in 2014. Today, there are more than 15 of these clubs in all over Europe. How did you get the idea to start this initiative?

Prof Knipper: It actually wasn't as much an idea as it was a thought: I realised it would be great if the AcademiaNet members around Tübingen could all get to know each other. I talked this over with Prof Krägelohn-Mann und we organised this meeting together. Since then, we try to do it regularly.

In a way, it wasn't a deliberate act – it was chance that we were the first ones to do this. Actually, I had already wanted to do something like that for a while. After joining AcademiaNet, I realised what kind of treasure we have here – a database of women academics working in vastly different subject areas. As molecular biologist I don't usually meet an ethicist or an academic from a different Institute. When I realised that, I thought: "This is ideal!"

Why did you want to set up meetings with other female academics?

I think our first interest was to find out which interdisciplinary problems – especially those centred on "women's issues" – we have. We used the first two meetings to talk about our concerns. These chats brought some interesting conclusions – but also controversies and long discussions. For example, we talked about whether Universities supported their female staff sufficiently. We also discussed whether enough efforts were made to bring about gender equality, or how difficult academia was to navigate for a woman with children.

Underlying these issues there is a more pressing question that still concerns me a lot: Don't we, as female academics, also have an obligation to search out opportunities to combat inequality and prejudice? Only if we speak up and participate in University politics, we can bring about change. I often think about why we are still doing this so little. This is a crucial point, one for which I still haven't found a completely satisfactory answer.

What do your AcademiaNet Club meetings look like?

When we first started out, we had this idea of finding new ways to learn something; all of us together. We specifically wanted to tackle topics that were missing from our shared expertise. We would chose a focus and invite someone to give a talk in a very relaxed and intimate setting – typically, 15-25 of our members would participate at these events. About an hour would be set aside for presentations. Often though, they would take much longer, because we tend to have these really interactive sessions that develop into informal chats and discussions. So far, it has been really exciting and enlightening.

For the most recent AcademiaNet Club meeting on the 20th of October you could secure a very interesting speaker: the lawyer and author Seyran Ateş. For more than 30 years, Ateş, a muslim feminist, has campaigned for increased civil rights. In her work as lawyer she specialises on criminal and family law, with a focus on violence against women that is rooted in religion or tradition. What do you expect from her talk?

I have been pondering about women in religion for a while now. Personally, I think that religion is deeply embedded in our culture and society. Over the past few years, the public discourse has been entrenched more and more in a culture of fear– fear of the foreign, fear of the other, fear of Islam. Especially Islam – with its alleged hostility towards women, violence and the lack of secularism associated with Islamic countries – has a big potential to polarise people and to further stoke the already rampant xenophobia.

I think right now this is really an explosive topic. As a woman, I found it extraordinarily courageous of Ms Ateş to defy the prevailing image of Muslim women, and to promote a more liberal take on Islam. I would find it great if we could support people like her – people that fight for more tolerance and freedom. We should champion these people as best as we can. Even if all we can do is send out a small signal.

I am very curious and excited to hear the talk of Ms Ateş. We organised this meeting in collaboration with the Weltethos-Institut of the University of Tübingen. So instead of the usual 25 people, we expect an audience of more than 200! Nevertheless, after the talk our AcademiaNet Club members will have some time for discussion with Ms Ateş. We will retreat together for an hour or two, and hopefully get to chat about how we can further support her and her cause.

How often do you organise AcademiaNet club meetings?

We don't have a fixed schedule. It very much depends on the topics we aim to cover at the time. This year we have two meetings.

If there is one thing I've learned in the past years, it is this: It can take a long time for women to commit to do something regularly. First, they want to get to know each other. Women want trust and a network… but they are not always willing or able to spend time to develop this network. In my experience, especially with women that have been so successful and that are also so busy because of their success – maybe more than a man, who can focus fully at the tasks at hand – it can be hard to take time out. She may try and try again, but sometimes she just can't make time for something. Sometimes, a club meeting will fall out of her list of priorities.

I think we have to check whether women are setting wrong priorities here. If we don't realise when it is time to push for change, if we don't act soon enough, we may miss our chance to help shape the future. That may be a bit alarmist… but I feel I am a bit shaken by the things that are happening in the world right now. And I am happy about any countermovement. We have to fight for democracy, while there is still something to defend.

Before the March for Science in April, in our AcademiaNet newsletter you called for women to participate. There were, and still are, many reasons to protest. What was yours?

I wanted to signal solidarity. For all the things that happening around us. Of course one may claim that here in Germany, we are still doing pretty well. But I don't think that means we should remain silent. This should be a concern to all of us. I would love to see women standing up for free speech and tolerance. Not only for themselves, but also for the next generation. That is where we - as educated women - can make a difference: we can pass on our tolerant and liberal values to our children. If we don't do that, they could get lost. The current rise of the extreme right should be a wake-up call for us.

The March for Science was our first act of activism outside our club meetings. I asked female academics to think about making a stand ahead of the protest. One of my most important motivations is for us to stand together to state "We stand up for this, and we oppose that".

You often express thoughts of solidarity and support. Does your wish to stand together also drive your engagement for women in science?

I would say it's a part of it. Another is to find ways for us – academic women – to help shape the future. I think we need to chip in. Too often, we complain about inequality or the lack of support for mothers without really doing something to change that. We have to search for ways on how we can bring about improvements, with or without the help of Universities. In general, female academics tend to be too passive in this regard.

Women have to put forward more ideas, and participate in politics and decision-making. Not because women are better, but because we are currently underrepresented. Money is allocated and distributed by panels that are predominantly male. The same can be said about decisions regarding the economy. Only when women actually make it into these "men's clubs", they can participate in reshaping old structures.

I think AcademiaNet is a gift. We have an organisation that is full of educated and potentially influential women that can bring about change. If these women connected to form networks … I believe we could make great strides towards more equality.

Which other ways do you see for academic women to make a difference?

I liked this one idea from a member of the AcademiaNet Club Freiburg: She suggested that we - as AcademiaNet women - could go to schools to offer workshops or courses. We could chat with young girls and women, who may profit from having more female role models to look up to.

I think it would be great if we could work on a catalogue of potential themes and events together. To collect ideas about activities that AcademiaNet Clubs may want to take action on. That may also include public engagement activities. We may even use the network of our members to initiate actions.

I want to continue to set signs and proceed in this direction. The Women's March after the inauguration of Donald Trump was, for example, an initiative started by women. We should support actions we believe in and start our own. We should say: "Look, we are making a stand for this!". And I believe that we could also win over girls - pupils and students - to stand with us.

Moreover, I believe we should speak out for more tolerance. We don't need to do this in a way that robs us of a lot of time. It's enough if we participate in these discussions once in a while. We can do that here, at home - but also at the EU- or international level. We can collaborate with like-minded people - men and women - and help to bring about sustained changes.

This is where I really want to see more female participation. Especially that of the highly educated woman. She can do a bit more to champion women in science. All of us could help with that. What we need is a bit more courage – courage, to disagree and courage to help shape the future.

Thank you for the exciting chat, Prof. Knipper.

Questions were asked by Michaela Maya-Mrschtik for AcademiaNet.

  (© AcademiaNet)

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