Women into Academia!

More than half – 55.7 % to be precise – of the students at Friedrich Schiller University Jena are women. In 2019, more women than men completed their studies at the University of Jena (58.4 %) and among doctorates, the proportion of women was 53.5 % in the same year. While the ratio between women and men is still relatively balanced in the so-called scientific mid-level staff, only 23.1 % of professorships at the University of Jena are held by women (source: Facts and Figures 2019).

With the project "Women in Science", the Office of the Vice President for Young Researchers and Diversity Management intends to contribute to changing this. On a website , female professors at the University of Jena are portrayed and their diverse career paths are shown. The women are meant to be role models for young female scientists who strive for an academic career with determination and self-confidence. In this interview, Prof. Dr Iris Winkler, Professor of German Language and Literature Education and Vice President for Studies and Teaching until 2020, and Prof. Dr Silvana Botti, Professor of Theoretical Solid State Physics, talk about the challenges women scientists face and what needs to be done for more equality.

Did you consciously choose science or was it more by chance that you became a scientist?

Botti: I always liked science; it could also have been something other than physics. In any case I was really attracted by the idea of doing research and finding new things. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do after my studies. But at the time I was doing the equivalent of my master I found that I liked trying to find solutions for problems. Then I did my PhD and after that it was more by chance that I became a scientist.

Winkler: The further you get in your academic career, the more targeted your decisions become. At least that was the case for me. I was already a secondary school teacher when I got the offer to go into science for a doctoral position. That was simply attractive to me because I had the prospect of dealing more intensively and deeply with questions that interested me. The fact that this opportunity presented itself was more of a coincidence. When you accept a postdoctoral position after your doctorate, you already know what you're getting into. And applying for a professorship is of course something deliberate. I didn't plan my career, but rather proceeded on the one hand guided by my interests and on the other pragmatically. I always thought: If it doesn't work out, I'll just do something else.

What do you find exciting about your job as a scientist?

Winkler: Well, first of all, that I get paid for curiosity-driven reflection. It's just great to be able to pursue the things you really want to explore. I find that a great privilege and a great pleasure. The other point is that you work with such interesting people who inspire you. This applies to colleagues from very different disciplines. But I also enjoy working with young people – in my team and also in teaching. They bring in completely different perspectives and make sure that you stay mentally flexible. I think that's just great.

Botti: Mainly the freedom. Sure, I have a lot of constraints – I have to teach, I have to write reports, I have to go to this meeting or that – but other than that I can do whatever I want with the time that is left. If there is a problem, I find interesting I can just work on that. If there was a list of things, I had to do it would be boring. Instead I have the freedom to choose what I find interesting to study.

Are there also disadvantages?

Winkler: There are certainly things that you value less or perhaps even tend to suffer from. But that is guaranteed to happen in every profession and in this respect it is not a disadvantage of science, but rather you just have to come to terms with the fact that less attractive things are always part of the package.

Botti: Being a professor is a lot of responsibility and I am not necessarily trained for that. I studied physics but now I also have to deal with many people and organise the work in my group. And sometimes there are conflicts, sometimes you have students with problems. That is a lot of responsibility. This is something I find hard sometimes, but it comes with the job and it gets better when you have some experience.

In 2020, Friedrich Schiller University was awarded the title "Equality: Excellent!" by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research for its particularly convincing equality concept. Do you think our university is a good choice for women who want to make a career in science?

Botti: I can see that the University of Jena – like many other universities in Germany – is making quite an effort to increase the number of women in academia. But I think that there is still a general problem in Germany. If I compare the work at universities in France and Germany, I clearly see that there are differences and that to be a woman is still a disadvantage in some ways here. For example, the organisation of the working time is not always compatible with the private life. In France I would work only during school times and in the evening, everybody would be at home – you wouldn’t have meetings starting at 5 pm. But I think we are moving in the right direction. I now have fewer meetings in the evenings, so it’s getting better.

Winkler: I think that the University of Jena has initiated many good measures. The fact that there is a vice-presidency for diversity at the highest management level is also a signal for me. In addition, there is a very family-friendly environment in the city. These are definitely plus points. However, I wonder if this is the level that is crucial for decisions. I myself took up a doctoral position at the University of Jena in 1997, at a time when family-friendliness or family support did not play any role at all here. That was a good quarter of a year before our first child was born, and I'm pretty sure that my doctoral supervisor was met with a lot of incomprehension in the university environment, which was absolutely male dominated at the time. But he personally backed me and supported me, and that was crucial for me.

Although the proportion of women in science is growing, women are still strongly underrepresented, especially at the level of professorships. What are the reasons why many women seem to drop out at the postdoc level?

Botti: I think there are many different reasons, for example the lack of compatibility. It’s also the fact that you don’t have a permanent job until quite late in most cases but at a certain point you would like to have a more stable position. The competition is very strong, so either you are very highly motivated, or you choose another path that is a little bit easier. In France, for example, it’s much less competitive in the sense that you have a lot more permanent jobs. A few years after your PhD you can get a permanent job as a researcher or as a young assistant professor while in Germany very often you remain non-permanent until you get a professorship. I also think that in general women are less self-confident or value their qualities less than men. I don’t see an easy solution for that.

Winkler: That is a difficult question that I can only answer speculatively. For some women it may be due to a lack of self-confidence, for some it may be due to a lack of support from their environment – privately, but also professionally. It could also be due to still widespread views that only certain professions are considered suitable for women. Presumably, some women also feel they have to choose between career and family. All these possible reasons are not independent of each other. It is also legitimate and understandable to say, "That's too stressful for me now" or "I'd rather find a secure path for myself that doesn't lead me from fixed-term contract to fixed-term contract". It certainly depends on the constellation – in my case, the family income was secure, I could afford the uncertain path, if you will.

What were the biggest challenges for you personally in your academic career and how did you overcome them?

Winkler: Generally, I would say that every phase of academic qualification offers its own developmental tasks and challenges. As a PhD student you have to show staying power. In the humanities, it's often the case that you have to endure long periods of loneliness at your desk and just grit your way through it. To have the staying power and the stamina, even through dry spells, that's the huge challenge, and that's something I've also struggled with. In the postdoc phase, the question is: How do I distinguish myself in my community? How can I be recognised as a scientist with what I stand for? The phase of the first professorship is then challenging in a different way, because suddenly you are faced with completely new tasks for which you were never trained. If you ask the question against the background of reconciling science with family responsibilities: The most challenging phases are those in which very high academic demands and very high family demands coincide.

Botti: I was in France at the time of my PhD and I got my first position two years after my PhD. So, I did two years of postdoc on a European scholarship and then I immediately got a permanent position. Honestly, I have to say that I was rather lucky. When you have a permanent position, you don’t have to worry anymore, you can really think about your scientific projects. Moreover, I got a position with a national lab – I was affiliated to a lab in Paris as a national researcher but when my husband got a job in Lyon, I could just move. And I think being open to that, to moving to another city or even another country, helped me a lot in my career. You have to be mobile and flexible but sometimes that is not possible when you have a partner or family.

Did you have a plan B?

Botti: No. Surely, I would have found a plan B but it didn’t come to that.

Prof. Winkler, did you ever seriously consider turning your back on science and working as a teacher instead?

Winkler: The teaching job was a safety net for me at first. Then, when I had to decide whether to accept the postdoc position, I weighed it up: What other options are there? And school was simply not attractive for me in comparison. Nevertheless, it always reassured me to know that I could activate Plan B if Plan A didn't work out. But my career also developed well, it always went on seamlessly somehow. I think I was also very privileged. No one ever tried to talk me out of science. There are many factors that interact, so plan B was never seriously under discussion.

The Office of the Vice President for Young Researchers and Diversity Management has launched the project "Women in Academia". Both of you are also involved. How important are role models of successful female scientists for women who are faced with the decision of whether to go into science themselves?

Winkler: I think role models are very important. They exist now, which is why they should also be shown, so that young female academics can see: Okay, if I decide to do a doctorate or habilitation now, that doesn't mean that I can't make all kinds of other decisions as well. When I started, there were not so many female scientists as role models. But it confirmed me when, for example, female politicians in leading positions who had families spoke out about compatibility issues.

Botti: I think it’s very important, also for younger people. I think about this a lot when it comes to my own daughters. I think it is important to show that women can be professors as much as men and that this is normal. When you only see men in positions of power, you will grow into the idea that it has to be like this. This is especially true for the STEM subjects. In my faculty we not only have few female professors, but also far fewer female students. That is why we offer short internships just for girls and we visit schools to try and get especially girls excited about science.

According to a 2019 study, the CEWS (Center of Excellence Women and Science) also sees the University of Jena in the top group when it comes to equality at universities. However, in terms of the proportion of women among postdocs and professorships, the Friedrich Schiller University is only in the middle group. How can the university better support young female researchers in order to change this?

Botti: I think when positions are advertised, the university tries to get women to apply and they always make sure there are enough women on the committees. But still, the number of women who apply is much lower and I think that this is because the work is not attractive enough. I know a lot of women that are postdocs who don’t necessarily want to become professors because that means too much work and responsibility. Surely it would help a lot if the time schedule was more compatible with family life. That would be a great incentive and it would make the job much more attractive. And I think the next step is to convince women that they are good enough to apply for the positions.

Winkler: There is always room for improvement. But it also has to be said that, as far as the percentage of women at the University of Jena is concerned, we came out of the lowest level. If you consider the positive development we have now achieved, it shows that a lot of the right things are being done. And otherwise it's just like in many areas: some things take time, even if it's annoying. You don't flip the switch from one year to the next.

Of course, an academic career does not necessarily have to lead to a professorship - but women are still underrepresented among researchers as well. According to UNESCO, only 28 percent of researchers in Germany were women in 2015 – the fourth lowest figure in all of Europe. Now studies show that female scientists, especially mothers, publish less than their male colleagues during the Corona crisis. It is to be feared that this will also affect women's careers in science in the long term. Do structural framework conditions need to be adjusted here to counteract this?

Winkler: I think they must be exhausted above all, for example, the crediting of family periods to the scientific age or of pandemic-related burdens to contract periods. If someone had to take care of children because the family constellation did not allow it otherwise, that must also be taken into account. Such possibilities do exist. I have read that the disadvantage of women in the pandemic is also due to the fact that they take on fewer offices and instead more other tasks, for example in teaching. Structurally, this means that – not only in the pandemic – when assigning offices or additional tasks, one has to make sure that equality is practised there, too, and not always, to put it bluntly, that the "caretaker positions" are given to women. I could also imagine that for certain positions, systematic relief should be provided even more consistently, so that, for example, a reduction in the teaching load is not granted upon application, but that one is automatically entitled to it.

Botti: The problem with a non-permanent job is that you might have two or three years to work on a project. But if you have kids, you could lose months of work due to the Corona crisis, which could have a strong impact on your career. Perhaps one solution would be to create more permanent entry-level jobs in academia, as is the case in France, for example. If women had secure jobs, they would not have to be so worried about losing six months or more to something like the Corona crisis.

What would you say to girls and young women who are unsure whether science is the right path for them?

Winkler: What I would say not only to girls and women, but to every young person: Do it! Just do it, don't let anyone talk you out of it.

Botti: It is a lot of work, but I think it is worth it and can be a lot of fun. If you really want to do it, push yourself a bit. Have confidence in your own abilities and don't be afraid to take a few risks.

What advice would you have wished for at the beginning of your academic career (or what advice did you get back then) that you would like to give to today's young female academics?

Botti: When I was in France, I was part of a group that helped me a lot with learning to present my work. I think this is something we should do more – make sure that women know how to sell themselves and their work confidently.

Winkler: I think you need a certain stubbornness. Once you have decided, you have to march forward and not lose sight of your goal. And in terms of reconciling work and family life, I think it's important to realise that you don't have to do everything yourself. One is allowed to let oneself be helped without a guilty conscience. It's very important to stay somewhat relaxed and happy in what you're doing, in other words, in balance. You are of no use to anyone, including yourself, if you are completely worn out and disgruntled because you feel like you will not make it.