UN and WIRE celebrating women’s scientific excellence – everyday obstacles for women in science still widespread
Certain workplace advancements with regard to gender equality which have occurred over the past decades are not adequately reflected in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), where worldwide average, only a third of researchers in these areas are women according to the 2021 UNESCO Science Report 2021 . This gap is even larger for women of color and those from low-income backgrounds.
Much evidence shows that this gap begins to form in primary education, where “teachers and parents often underestimate girls’ math abilities starting as early as preschool” . This implicit bias often leads to a lack of confidence for girls and women in fields of science and technology, and could be a contributing factor with regard to gender discrepancies reflected in higher education statistics published on degree-completion, where less than a third of women in higher education programmes choose to study STEM-related subjects . Women looking for a STEM job after their studies will often be confronted with a male-focused workplace culture and a lack of representation in leadership in these fields, additional factors which perpetuate the gender STEM gap.
When it comes to publishing papers, research has shown that women in STEM do publish just as often if not more than male researchers, but tend to stay in the field for a shorter amount of time or may be required to take a research break with the time constraints of starting and raising a family, leading to overall fewer publications over the course of one’s career .
We at WiRe recognise that there are many ways to continue to lessen the disparity between men and women in science. The theme is a complex one with many variable factors, which is why we would like to simply first acknowledge one of the first steps: recognition. February 11 is the day the UN officially recognises and honours the work that women and girls do for science and technology, since “Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals” . By raising awareness of the issue and uniting in action and initiatives on an international level, women in science and research can continue to be powerful agents of change in fields vital for the future of our planet.
It is of course also necessary to not only recognise and honour women and girls in scientific research, but also to improve their situation structurally on a national level as well. In Germany, that role is taken on in part by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, or BMBF in German), a cabinet-level division of the German parliament. After federal elections are held and a governing coalition is assembled, the new research minister of Germany is named – currently, it is Bettina Stark-Watzinger from the Free Democratic Party. And by the way: She is the only woman from her party currently working in a cabinet-level position.
The ministry is responsible for the advancement and funding of education and research at both a national and a state level, and establishing guidelines for general educational policy.
While the educational focus lies mainly on schools and universities, the ministry is also committed to promoting non-school vocational training and supporting continuing education, with a noted emphasis on “the establishment of social equality in education to ensure that a person’s background no longer determines his or her chances to get an education and that no talent is wasted” . Additionally, prioritising international exchange in education and science is among the Ministry’s responsibilities.
Research excellence is a »must« in a country like Germany
On the research front, the Ministry secures funding and implements new programming to support German scientists in their work in a national and international context: “Research excellence is a must in a country whose prosperity is built on the innovative strength of its industry. The aim of this High-Tech Strategy is to make Germany a leader in providing scientific and technical solutions to the challenges in the fields of climate/energy, health/nutrition, mobility, security, and communication” .
The Ministry of Education and Research in the sense that it is known today was founded in 1994,  and since its establishment, the Minister position of the department has been filled 5 out of 6 times by women. A division of the BMBF, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft e.V. (German Research Foundation), places special emphasis on awarding grants and supporting the unique needs of women in research , most recently publishing a call for for AI junior research groups, a high paying and future-oriented field which has seen particularly large gender gaps .
Structural hurdles challenge scientists at German universities, but can be especially difficult for those with familial responsibilities
However, despite female leadership and equalising initiatives carried out in the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, in Germany there are still bureaucratic challenges for all people in research, especially up and coming scientists in the beginning of their career due to a law called Wissenschafts-Zeitvertragsgesetz (Academic Work Reform Act). Introduced in 2007 in an effort to encourage innovation in science, the law restricts most work contracts to only a few years, creating the opportunity to secure only temporary, fixed-term positions in which few exemptions or extensions are granted, greatly hindering job flexibility . It is often also the case that scientists have to move every few years when the contract expires to a new city or university, made even more difficult for researchers to establish themselves in a certain place or region.
While this time-constraint law affects all researchers in Germany, the conditions can be especially difficult for women who may choose to start a family; when tasked with the additional responsibilities that come with becoming and being a mother, a career in science or research may be further hindered.
With these gender-specific challenges in mind, we at WiRe always pose the question to our fellows in our 33 questions series: If you were the research minister of Germany, what would you do to improve the situation of women in research?
Here are some of their answers! The responses of our past and current WiRe fellows, all of who can draw comparisons with their other research experiences completed outside of Germany, not only reflect the general findings of official reports on women in academia, but also give some first-hand ideas on what could improve the situation of women in research:
»Ah, difficult question. One thing I have been thinking about recently are “women quotas” (the practice of artificially reserving a certain percentage of places for women in the profession). They seem to run contrary to meritocracy at first sight, and therefore get criticisms of unfairness. However, I do not think they are unfair; one needs to understand what they really aim at doing, and in what context. It is historically a fact that academic environments are male-dominated; it is also a fact (supported by data) that researchers tend to associate (for collaborations, networking , etc.) with people of the same gender. So increasing the amount of women in academia would serve, for example, to restore equal opportunities of professional networking for women, which would be otherwise currently disadvantaged in this respect. So in general, perhaps, I would advise politicians to better explain why temporary strategies like women quotas are needed, and why they are not, in fact, unfair.« Dr Chiara Ferreira, Philosopher of Biology
»I would focus on creating policies that promote gender diversity and equality in science. For example, I would provide funding and resources for research on gender diversity in science to better understand and identify the challenges faced by women and minorities. I would also encourage academic institutions to adopt policies that promote diversity and gender equality in research and academia, such as providing equal opportunities for hiring, promotion, and funding. To educate the public, I would develop awareness-raising campaigns and educational programs to encourage girls and young women to pursue science and STEM-related careers.« Dr Ivy Cheng, Speech Therapist
»I understand that Germany allows women to take a – partly paid – pregnancy and maternity leave for about a year, and that it offers subsidised childcare for children over 12 months until they go to school. In the Netherlands, women get 3 months leave, and childcare is madly expensive. Germany is doing much better than the Netherlands, but for mothers, not necessarily for women in science. Science is becoming increasingly competitive. This, to me, seems an intractable problem for both men and women. However, at my university I was selected for a Female Career Development programme that offers a small group of female assistant professors and young medical staff a course-trajectory to help them develop what they call ‘leadership skills’ and further their careers. This initiative is largely state-funded, and aims to increase the number of women at the top in academia. The Netherlands is performing badly, with fewer than 20% of professors being female. However, these initiatives do help.« Dr Eline M Bunnik, Medical Ethicist (Side note, such a programme is also running at the University of Münster, called Erstklassig! More information on that here)
»I would raise salaries, provide tax relief to young workers struggling financially, and build more affordable and higher-quality housing for visiting researchers and their families.« Dr Alison Posey, Philologist
»I would change the criteria for funding and recruitment, especially in what refers to time limits and mobility. Raising children does not “throw you back” a year or two, it is a life long engagement and binds you over decades to a place and responsibilities.« Dr Madalina Stefan, Literature and Culture Studies Scholar
»I think it is great that there are different programs specifically addressed to women in Germany, like WiRe and in academic job advertisements preference to women is explicitly encouraged. Yet, there are usually more men in higher-up permanent positions, this is most likely because they have more freedom than women in our society. This gender imbalance should be addressed from the bottom of the chain as it is embedded in our society. The research minister and all of us really need to educate people from when they are children in order to break through this pattern from the root of the problem.« Dr Francesca Mazzilli, Archaeologist
»The priority is to actively deal with the problem of sexual and gender-based harassment of female scientists. Zero tolerance for misogynist, sexist, bullying, and discriminatory behavior. The practice of “putting up with it, with good humor if you can” should not be an option. Also, ... - Improvement through increasing the proportion of women in scientific leadership positions and decision-making bodies - Reliable childcare available in conveniently located nurseries close to universities and institutes - More postdoc fellowships like the WiRe fellowship« Dr Aleksandra Maršavelski, Biochemist
»Maybe force a quota of women at the leadership level. In my institute, we are a majority of women but only men are group leaders. That’s because decisions are made on the publication track record. If you took a break for maternity reasons, your publication record will be definitely lower than that of a man who never took a break. When we apply for positions, the decision should be made on the project, its feasibility, the enthusiasm of the researcher, and ultimately the publication record with the period of „no research time“ taken into consideration. Once this quota is put into place, at the general population level, I think the government should give a mandatory paternity leave with an equivalent time as for the mothers. This means starting a family would have the same influence on the scientific careers of women and men.« Dr Angélique Lamaze, Neurobiologist
»Science is still a male dominated area. More and more women are studying science at university, but only a small percentage eventually access high positions or are awarded with Nobel prizes for example. As the research minister, I think the main goal would be to change the mentality and to show that a woman is equally qualified to do the job. That can be done by promoting outreach actions or programs such as the WiRe program!« Dr Louise Ruyet, Chemist
»I would try to increase the funding opportunity for women back from parental leave. It is very difficult to acquire funding when you have a career break, and a targeted fund could be a boost to get back on track for a lot of female scientists. Germany is among the best countries in terms of parental leave support, however there are some types of contract for postdoctoral researcher that can be a problem in case of pregnancy. For instance, there is a contract type that cannot be interrupted (i.e., §2 (2) Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz), not even in case of pregnancy and parental leave. It is a commonly employed contract, for instance for postdocs, normally funded by a third party. This means that the contract will expire while the postdoc is on parental leave, which is not the best scenario for someone that just had a baby.« Dr Carla Tiraboschi, Experimental Petrologist
»The change must start not only in science, of course: it is only the peak. I would ensure that more women are in top leadership positions in universities, research institutions, in doctoral commissions, etc. Specifically in science? Have gender-blind cross-checks for proposals, applications, all intellectual work that is evaluated. Quotas are very debated: I personally support their temporary use. However, as a minimum, only-male or only-female commissions or boards with power should be unacceptable, and that should be clear to everyone. Have positive actions for parents: Have nurseries at universities, and many small nurseries close to everywhere. Each conference must organize childcare for the children of the invited researchers. Have less meetings in afternoons (Germany is quite good at this!). Skip age limits for research grants. Develop an understanding that having a child takes not only the standard one year from one’s life: it takes time before pregnancy, during pregnancy, every single day after the child is born. Consider giving extra time allowances for people with children. (Including fathers – and expect fathers share the parenting). Educate men in science: To accept female viewpoints and ways of presenting, etc. To not accept groups without at least 1/3 of female members. To share responsibility, emotions, work.« Dr Judit Bayer, Lawyer and Media Law Expert
»I think the key to it is the improvement of the daycare and kindergarten system. If it is available, reliable and affordable, that is the biggest help for researchers with family.« Dr Kornélia Baghy, Molecular Biologist
»I would think objectively about quotas in the allotment of grants to female researchers and female representativeness in scientific boards. We should consider quotas for tenure of female professors and assistant professors. Particularly in the academic market, it is not unusual for males to get tenured positions. Perhaps it is a subjective bias, but it makes it very difficult for women to pursue a life in academia and have a family at the same time, because fixed appointments require the meeting of publication targets.« Dr Tatiana Falçao, Tax Lawyer
»I think it is great that there is an ongoing discussion here in Germany regarding which specific practical measures to adopt that would make it possible for women to both start a family and continue their careers. For example, early child care available close to the work place or grants to support active participation of women at conferences already implemented here at the University of Münster are a great idea. With regards to scientists coming from abroad, one of the practices that Germany could improve is to ensure that all the fellowships are not classed as scholarships but come with proper taxes and social benefits.« Dr Anna Stejskalová, Bioengineer
»I think that a lot of progress is being made, e.g. the number of female researchers holding positions as professors has been increasing in the last few years. On the other hand, for example, being a mother sets up specific challenges to maintaining an academic career. So, I believe that making inclusive workplaces to promote inclusion of academic mums is one of the important items to improve the quality of female life in scientific fields. Regarding that, If I were the research minister of Germany, I would like to raise the support for mums’ attendances at conferences, and to create a baby-change facility and kindergarten in all research institutions with flexible hours.« Dr Maria Laura Ferreira, Microbiologist
You might also be interested in learning more about how the situation of women at the University of Münster has changed for the better in the past century: History of Women in Academia in Germany & Münster