Prof Tatjana Parac-Vogt
Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Tatjana Parac-Vogt and I’m a chemist. I’m originally from Belgrade which used to be in Yugoslavia but is now in Serbia. I moved and changed fields many times which has made me kind of a generalist, but despite all that, I managed to get a nice career here in Belgium. I hope this shows young women and other people that as long as you know what you want to head towards, you’re on a good track. I only got my first permanent position at 39 but I’m now heading a group of nearly 20 people working on multidisciplinary areas such as bioinorganic chemistry, materials science and catalysis. I’m combining everything I learned in my past.
Did anything or anyone inspire you to pursue science?
There was a girl I knew whose mother had a PhD in science and I thought that was really cool, so I’ve known since I was twelve years old that I wanted to do a PhD. I vividly remember thinking that it was something I wanted to do as well. And I always liked metals and inorganic stuff and their link to biology. Metal clusters are beautiful structures, they’re so symmetrical—I can imagine them perfectly. I always strive for beauty in everything I do and chemistry is a beautiful science.
It’s interesting, I studied in Belgrade where chemistry is dominated by women, in sharp contrast to Western Europe. So I had a lot of inspirational female professors that I could point to and say ‘I want to become like them.’ I think having good role models is very important because it helps you identify something you cannot identify on your own.
Why do you think there’s a difference in the STEM gender balance between Belgium and Serbia?
I think one of the reasons is that in countries which are economically not as well off as Western Europe or America, men tend to go for the better paid jobs and that’s not science. It doesn’t really appeal to those who want to make money. So men become lawyers or economists or whatever. That leaves room for women to explore and find their place in science.
Conversely, if you look at Belgium and how many girls start out studying science here, it’s maybe 40/60, so not too bad. But when you look at the later career stages, the women tend to disappear.
I think many women think that they would be letting somebody down by having babies along the way
You mentioned you got your first permanent position aged 39, which is quite late if you want to start a family. Do you think that has something to do with it?
Yes. When I came to Belgium for my third postdoc, I was in my thirties and my boss was one of the few women we had in the department. When I found out I was pregnant, I felt so bad about it. I remember thinking, how could I do this? I had to work in a lab, it’s not a job you can do pregnant. I acted like nothing had happened because I was so ashamed. After four months, a colleague asked me directly and I realised I couldn’t keep hiding it, so I finally told my boss. She was so happy for me and very supportive. It turned out it was all in my head. I was very lucky.
I think many women think that they would be letting somebody down by having babies along the way, because it means time away from science and you worry it’ll be detrimental. But my boss said, ‘the most important thing is that you come back’—and that was the best thing she could have told me.
Now, in my group, we have a few babies. I mean, why not? It’s great!
You’re also involved with the Belgian Women in Science Association, known as BeWise, and you were the president for a number of years. What attracted you to inclusion work?
I joined this type of organisation rather late because I didn’t realise there was much of a problem when I studied in Belgrade or when I was working in the United States. But when I came to Belgium and got a higher position, the struggle began. I would go to meetings and be the only woman there. So I looked for support and found the BeWise Association.
It was great: women in a similar position being supportive of each other, facing the same issues and problems. We wanted to help more women, so we developed this mentoring programme where we actively mentor younger women. It’s been a big success.
People often ask me, why would you take this on, on top of everything else? But it’s been really rewarding. I also think I’ve hugely benefited from it, I got a lot of visibility without looking for it. I was just doing it because I’m passionate about it, and then I got recognised by my faculty, who wanted me to develop a similar programme. Now I’m the chair of the diversity council at my university, which is also a great and very rewarding experience.
There’s a huge change compared to twenty years ago ... now people care
Do you feel hopeful for the future in terms of further inclusion for women in STEM, maybe particularly in Western Europe?
Oh, I’m very hopeful. The problem has been recognised by the universities now. There’s a huge change compared to twenty years ago where this was not a subject at all, few people cared. Now people care.
The good thing is that you also see a lot of men who are supportive. Recently I was on a big scientific panel where we were evaluating some excellent proposals. The chair was a man and at one point he asked, ‘okay, how are we doing gender-wise?’ Of course it’s about excellence, but the awareness is there now.
There are some attempts to do blind proposal reviews but it’s very difficult because you see people’s publications and so on. There is always unconscious bias. Now we have diversity watchdogs on many panels, especially in hiring committees—people to make sure that unconscious bias doesn’t happen and that the panel doesn’t overlook certain people. There is more and more goodwill.
Finally, if you could say anything to young women in science today, what would it be?
They are often much better than they think they are. And they should find a mentor, someone who believes in them. Look for that support because there are lots of ways nowadays, especially with remote communication. There are people out there who want to help them succeed.
We should inspire young women to give it a chance. Succeeding in academia takes a lot of personal strength, luck and hard work. Don’t give up easily, look for help, look for allies, and try to be patient.
That’s fantastic, thank you very much, Prof Parac-Vogt.(© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)