How to improve gender equality in science — Q&A with 2 STEM leaders

Why are women needed to drive science? Should a job quota be introduced? What mistakes do women make? What are the hidden dangers of implicit bias?

Women are still underrepresented in the management levels of research institutes and universities. Yet diversity and gender balance are vital factors for successful science because it relies on talent, collaboration and interdisciplinary research.

Women make up about 50 percent of the early-career ranks; losing them on the career path means losing a vital component of the trained workforce later on.

Ingrid Wünning Tschol, PhDDr. Ingrid Wünning Tschol is Senior VP of Health and Science for the Robert Bosch Foundation in Germany. She was a researcher of molecular biology at MIT and the State University of New York at Stony Brook for five years, from 1985 to 1990, and went on to become a program director at Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. She moved on to the European Science Foundation, and 14 years ago she took over as Senior VP at the Bosch Foundation.

Holly Falk-Krzesinski, PhDDr. Holly Falk-Krzesinski is a microbiologist by training and considers issues from a science perspective. She started her research career in the pharmaceutical industry, where she conducted anti-viral research. She worked in academia for the next 22 years in a variety of positions supporting and building new research programs related to interdisciplinary topics, collaborations and large-scale initiatives ranging from biomedicine to art history, promoting women with many of them. In 2012, she joined Elsevier as VP of Global Academic Relations, building on these past efforts in on a global scale.

Dr. Ingrid Wünning Tschol, Senior VP of Health and Science for the Robert Bosch Foundation in Germany, and Dr. Holly Falk-Krzesinski, VP of Global Academic Relations at Elsevier, are both microbiologists, successful women scientists in leading positions and strong advocates of gender equality in science. Recently they met to discuss the main barriers for women scientists in the US and Germany. They talk about why women are needed to drive science, whether a mandatory ratio of science jobs reserved for women should be introduced, the importance of strong academic networks, and the hidden danger of implicit bias.

Germany and the US are leaders in international research. Why is there a need to strengthen the position of women scientists if the overall performance is excellent already?

Ingrid: In Europe, but specifically in Germany, we are facing a demographic challenge. The same is true for the UK and the US. There will be fewer people in the age range to undertake research, and we should not leave half of them out as great potential is wasted this way. In short, we need women in science in terms of numbers and additional competencies.

Holly: Even though Germany and the US are doing well, it is not the best they can do. Nothing is static in science. Also. collaboration and interdisciplinary research are becoming increasingly important. Diversity and gender balance are necessary factors for success in these areas. There is evidence that women are highly effective collaborators. Also, it is simply the right thing to do to not discriminate against anyone. Finally, it's also really good for science.

What are the barriers for women scientists in the US and Germany?  What is the status quo in both countries? Is there a glass ceiling?

Ingrid: There is definitely a glass ceiling and a gender bias. Unless the leading figures in research institutes are convinced that the competencies and skills of women scientists are needed, that glass ceiling will continue to exist. Also, women are not daring enough. They do not apply for grants such as the European Research Council (ERC) Grant, a novel, highly regarded research grant. In the first call for proposals, the percentage of female applicants was lower than the number of women in leading science positions in Europe. There is no reason why they shouldn't all have applied. In the end, more grants were awarded to men. Women simply do not take the risk to apply for something if there is a chance that they might fail. Men are more prepared to fail than women.

Another barrier for women scientists is the difficulty to combine an academic career with a family because of insufficient child-care facilities and reputation issues against working mothers. This is especially true in Germany but also happens in other countries as well.

[pullquote align="alignright"]"Women simply do not take the risk to apply for something if there is a chance that they might fail. Men are more prepared to fail than women." — Ingrid Wünning Tschol, PhD[/pullquote]

On top of this, men have stronger networks than women. If women go to conferences, they are more likely to go to bed early and prepare their talks while men go for a drink and negotiate jobs among themselves. This is a cliché, but there is truth to that. Overall, women network with those they like, while men connect with people who could be useful to them. Women have to be aware that social and professional networks are not the same.

Holly: I agree that career and family issues are still big. Moreover, there is a false sense of security as we do not see outrageously explicit bias any longer. For example, you would not hear stories of a dean saying someone could not be a department chair because that person is a woman. However, implicit bias is ubiquitous — especially troublesome because it is hidden. And women are as much at fault for this implicit bias as men.

[pullquote align="alignright"]"In general, women are mostly rated on their performance whereas men are rated on their potential." — Holly Falk-Krzesinski, PhD[/pullquote]

A recent US study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) showed that when both men and women were handed resumes for the position of research technologist in their labs, they ranked the female candidate lower even though the resumes were the identical apart from the candidate's name. In general, women are mostly rated on their performance whereas men are rated on their potential. They always have to be better to be regarded on an even platform with their male colleagues. It is difficult for women to agree that they are part of the problem, but they have to think about how they can change their mindset, too.

How do we tackle implicit bias and improve gender equality in science? And who are the right actors?

Ingrid: We should all allow ourselves to be tested. I will take the Harvard Implicit Social Attitude Test in a few days, and I can already predict that I am gender-biased, but then at least I know that I am. The Norwegians have a standard gender training in universities, specifically designed and obligatory for people in top-level positions. The training targets staff at director and department-head level to reach those who make fundamental decisions for the universities. These gender trainings help a lot in that they make people aware of what exactly they are discriminating against. However the willingness to accept these truths is a prerequisite of effective change of behavior.

Holly: Simply being aware of one's biases can make you less biased. That is why every higher education institution should have mandatory training, especially for decision-makers and people responsible for hiring staff and faculty.

Additionally, I believe that every committee making decisions should have a non-voting member monitoring discussions on issues of bias in addition to mandatory gender training. At one of the universities where I worked, we had a prestigious award given to new faculty hires. The committee that decided on who got awarded had no female members at first. We added two women and also had a non-voting member (myself) overseeing the decision-making process and paying attention to issues of bias — racial, gender and other forms. There was one situation where two candidates who were being considered for the award were married to each other. The men on the committee kept referring to the male candidate by his first name and the female candidate as his wife. So I stepped in and said "Excuse me, we don't award this prize to wives but to scientists so we should refer to her by her first name or to both candidates by their doctoral titles.".

Is a mandatory ratio of jobs for women in science executive positions – that is, a quota system – a solution?

Ingrid: Yes, I think it is necessary to have a quota because the discussion about having one for women in leading positions in science has been on the agenda since 2006 — just as the quota for women in corporate executive positions is now. Back then, when Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker said in his final speech as the president of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft that we need a quota again, everyone was surprised as this had not been discussed since the 1980s. But then the press picked up the topic, and suddenly it became politically incorrect to amuse oneself about the lack of women in leading positions, and the issue was taken seriously.

Yet the number of women in leading positions has grown by only 1 percent per year since then. There is a long way to go to reach at least a 40 to 60 percent mix of men and women in executive positions. However it is unrealistic to demand a quota for women in leading positions in all disciplines of science; for example, lawyers would find more attractive positions outside of academia. It is very important, though, to have it in the leading research institutes and universities.

For instance, this morning I received a call from a CEO of a company who is the chair of a university advisory board asking me to be part of the board. I am also on the boards of the Max-Planck Society and a university. I know they chose me because of my competencies, but I also know perfectly well that they selected me because I am a woman. I do bring gender topics on the agendas, and in my opinion, if there is more than one woman in these committees, then raising these topics becomes more comfortable

Both of you are part of prestigious networks (Ingrid has launched AcademiaNet and Holly the Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM). Do these networks help women with their individual careers?

Ingrid: AcademiaNet is not specifically a career instrument but makes excellent women in Europe visible. It is a great tool to find strong academic women leaders for the committees of a research institutions and avoid approaching the already overworked "usual suspects." I got the idea when I was co-chair of a conference in Barcelona that had no female keynote speakers. I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to find excellent women scientists to speak at conferences with one mouse click?"

The website was launched in 2010 in cooperation with Nature Publishing Group at a ceremony with Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. and we now have 1,300 profiles listed on it. Each member can decide what they want to feature on their profile. Now, if you are looking for women scientists to join your university board or committee, or you are a journalist and prefer to interview a woman on a certain field of research, you can now go on AcademiaNet and find them. It is also guaranteed that members on the network are experts in their field because only highly reputed European research organizations, academies and societies are allowed to nominate them, adhering to certain criteria that ensure excellent qualifications and work.

Holly: I did an exercise where I asked colleagues to name the five top experts in their fields, and they defaulted to naming men — sometimes all five of them. When I asked them if they also know women experts, they could name another five, but they had to be reminded. The Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM is about discovering and accessing the expertise of women and also showing the connections that these women experts have and the collaborations that already exist. The portal offers opportunities for future collaborations among women working in the same or similar fields and serves as a tool of self-awareness as existing networks are made visible.

Which nation is most advanced in strengthening women?

Ingrid: Norway has made considerable advances in this area unlike many other Scandinavian countries, and has increased the number of women in leading positions. Other European countries are also strong in this area but for the wrong reasons. For instance, Turkey has many women in leading university positions but mainly because these jobs do not pay very well and are not attractive to their male counterparts. Germany can definitely learn from US women about being much more daring and outspoken. These traits in a woman still have a negative image in Europe. To stand up for oneself, like many leading women in the America scientific community, is something that is considered aggressive in Europe but a necessary feature in the professional world.

Holly: It is true that in the US, women are doing well at figuring out the professional traits they need to have to be successful. Being outspoken in academia and other professions should not be seen as a negative, which is still a risk factor for women even in the US. Society has to understand that being aggressive is a necessary factor for success, for women as well as for men. As to a role model country, in the US some things were improved by the presidential executive order in 2009 when the US created a White House Council on Women and Girls to consider how programs and policies impact women and girls across all federal agencies. However four years later, I am not seeing the practical application of this.

In general, there is no country that can act as definite role model for others as there is still so much work to do. I think we should work on initiatives more globally and develop best practices not on a country-by-country basis because this risks reinventing the wheel every time.

How long will it take until science is gender-neutral and gender-equal?

Ingrid: I am an optimist, so I think it will take another 10 to 15 years if we continue to work as intensively on the issue as we do now. However we should also include men. There should no longer be gender summits where 80 percent of the participants are women.

Holly: I am also an optimist, but I think it will take more like 20 years. And our model needs to be faster than that because this time frame would mean another whole generation of disadvantaged women in science. We have to understand that promoting women in science equals promoting science as such, which is the responsibility of all scientists and decision-makers. Gender equality has to be naturally central to any processes, such as hiring and professional development, and not be treated as a separate or side issue.[divider]

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2 Archived Comments

Anuj Sinha January 16, 2014 at 11:22 am

A very thought provoking feature. Issues in developing countires are similar and more accentuated. The need for more women to come into teaching and research is accepted and only the state (public) sector seems to make a positive discrimination in India. Attitude issues are similar and I do not know of exceptions here.

Chris Buxton January 19, 2014 at 10:00 pm

I have absolutely no objection to having more women in science - or indeed more men! I am gender blind in this context. I wouldn't be bothered if 85% of those working in science were women and only 15% were men. Why? Because I am a scientist and I have yet to hear a scientifically sound argument, with evidence, that can illustrate what it is that a woman's brain can bring to science that a mans brain cannot bring (and visa-versa). We require good brains of any gender in science. The social and political issues should be irrelevant. We only have a problem if women who want to go into science are being prevented from doing so by social and cultural pressures. Why do we not hear of constant arguments that we should have more men running childrens pre-school nurseries or beauty therapists and hairdressers etc...? The list is endless. Science has an obligation to represent the facts of life - these are not gender independent. Science has no obligation to reflect the social gender ratios - leave that to the political arena where they represent people - not the scientific facts of life. I would love to see more women in science but if we don't I do not believe that scientific research will suffer any more than it would if we had fewer men.

Holly Falk-Krzesinski January 20, 2014 at 5:55 pm

There is a great deal in the scientific literature itself that describes the positive impact of diversity on science. One study especially worth noting here, Bear, J.B., and Woolley, A.W. (2011). The role of gender in team collaboration and performance. Interdiscip. Sci. Rev. 36, 146–153, finds, "Recent evidence strongly suggests that team collaboration is greatly improved by the presence of women in the group, and this effect is primarily explained by benefits to group processes. The evidence concerning the effect of gender diversity on team performance is more equivocal and contingent upon a variety of contextual factors. In light of the importance of collaboration in science, promoting the role of women in the field can have positive practical consequences for science and technology." That science is becoming increasing collaborative over time is also well supported in the literature [e.g., Wuchty, S., Jones, B.F., and Uzzi, B. (2007). The increasing dominance of teams in production of knowledge. Science (80-. ). 316, 1036–1039].

With regards to gender balance in other professions and domains, I am in full support--including all of those professions you listed in which men are underrepresented. However, that discussion outside the purview of this article. That said, like the other professional activities you list, science is an activity pursued in the context of society and can no more afford discrimination than can any other societal endeavor if we wish to reap maximum benefits.

The international Gender Summit was just held in Washington, DC and this year's will be in Brussels, Belgium. This is an amazing venue in that it focuses on evidence-based practices and policy around the globe. I encourage you to review the materials from past years, a wonderful way to become more familiar with the literature and see how best practices for gender balance are being developed.

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