Interview

‘We didn’t come this far to only come this far’

19.5.2022 | The Volkswagen Foundation is now funding AcademiaNet’s Clubs. We connected with their Head of Funding, Dr. Henrike Hartmann, and Secretary General, Dr. Georg Schütte, for a talk about creating change and moving beyond 25% female professors.
Dr Hartmann, Dr Schütte, we’re thrilled that you’ve decided to support our clubs. What’s your motivation for supporting us?
Dr Henrike Hartmann
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Dr Henrike Hartmann
HH: There are many good reasons to support AcademiaNet! For one thing, you don’t want to always ask the same female professor [e.g. to sit on a panel], because they become overloaded. But sometimes you desperately need and want another woman and then you can just search AcademiaNet. There is an in-built quality check because of the great partners that nominate the members.

Enhanced diversity and equal opportunities for female professors in the international science system is so important because they offer new perspectives on the way research questions are posed and how research is done. And, if we want to attract the best talent, we need role models. These days we see roughly equal proportions of female and male students, while we tend to be proud that we have 25% female professors. That’s not a situation to be happy about. If we want to change that, we need good role models.

Dr Georg Schütte
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Dr Georg Schütte
GS: From our point of view, we try to align our funding in a way that we take advantage of the opportunities that a private actor like a foundation has, compared to public funders. We can be more risk prone and try to create impact.
When we aligned our new funding programme, we defined three profile areas. One of them was that we want to improve our knowledge about the research system in Germany. Then we try to launch initiatives that can continuously contribute to an improvement of the system by and in itself.
To do that, we need to look at the role of women within the system and provide a proper database to act on, as well as provide basic standards and opportunities for women in science and research. We do that by, amongst other things, supporting AcademiaNet.

Do you have any personal experiences driving your work?
HH: It’s been more than 20 years, but I left science partly because I felt that I wouldn’t be able to have a family. The system has improved, but we keep hearing from our grantees and panel members that the criteria used to make grant decisions just aren’t in favour of female scientists. It’s about productivity, it’s about publications, for how long they need to be productive for, and so on.

Every university knows by now that it’s important to enhance the proportion of female professors, so the question is, how can that be done? It’s not easy, but we need to acknowledge that it’s often other incentives that will make a female professor choose a certain university over another, like work-life balance and family-friendly policies. It’s not inferior to the traditional male professor perspective, it’s just different.

GS: My perspective is of course that of a distant observer, but I’ve been involved in science and research management for almost 30 years. We’ve come a long way. If we just take one indicator, the percentage of women holding a professorship in Germany, it’s that 25% that Henrike mentioned, but if we look back to 1994, it was around 7-8%.

I remember when the German Research Council, DFG, included the requirement that projects should provide opportunities for women. There was a fierce debate about this non-academic, non-scientific criterion and whether that should be part of a funding decision or not.

We saw the repercussions ten years later when we started to discuss whether sustainability considerations should become part of funding decisions. People said, ‘we are on a slippery slope, we are moving away from purely considering the scientific quality of a project.’ That debate continues when we look at ethnic and international diversity within the German research system today.

Do you think there is still room for funders and research institutions to improve, or do we need a larger cultural shift?

HH: Well, I would say we didn’t come this far to only come this far. We definitely have to continue our efforts. But yes, we need a cultural shift at the decision-making level. The most challenging part is how you look at the evaluation of research and how you get the decision-makers to take a broader perspective. The gender pay gap is also really worrying. That is another reason why we need more women on the decision-making level.

GS: National cultures definitely play a role, too. For example, we can learn from France that women can be included in the labour market more easily by providing opportunities for childcare. And if we look at the north-eastern members of the European Union, you see a much higher percentage of women professors, but why? Because it’s badly paid.

I mention this because there are clearly national circumstances and drivers on this issue, and we can learn from each other by looking at different cultures. If we look at the German case, we see disparities between different fields of research, with a much higher share of women professors in the humanities and social sciences compared to engineering sciences. So we receive disciplinary traditions that either advance or hinder women’s careers in their respective fields, and we have to understand why it is different to find new incentives.

HH: We also have to appreciate that a lot of these women also want to spend time with their family. It’s not only about ways to make sure you have enough time for your job, it’s about making sure you have the means to do both. Work-life balance doesn’t mean that your family life is always priority number one, but we need to consider that there is a time in your life where you might be less productive.

You will be funding the Clubs at AcademiaNet. Why do you think networking is important?

HH: I think networking is the best way to support each other and learn from each other. To have something like mentorship, to be able to exchange experiences and avoid mistakes, especially in relation to the gender pay gap. We are very happy to be able to fund them.

If you had to look five or ten years into the future, what do you hope will have changed?
HH: I would hope that we are not talking about 25% anymore. I don’t know if we can talk about 50%, but let’s be modest and say 40% on average. And that there is a general agreement that diversity is actually adding value and increasing the quality of what we do.

GS: I hope that we have a better understanding of the incentives and hurdles within the different academic disciplines, and better ways to deal with them. So we can design proper action and take what we have learned into other kinds of diversity issues as well.

The next indicator would be how many women are in leadership positions at their respective universities. At least in Germany, women university presidents still form a considerable minority.

Dr Hartmann, Dr Schütte, thank you for an incredibly stimulating conversation and for your generous support of our Clubs.   (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)

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