‘I, Scientist’ conference: navigating academia, gender (in)equality and the challenges of 2020

By Shyama Vermeersch and Anja Allabar, Lise Meitner Society Tübingen

Gender, Career Paths and Networking

In a world where nothing seems certain anymore, it was reassuring that the annual ‘I, Scientist’ conference, an initiative from the Lise Meitner Society, took place virtually from September 16th – 19th. The conference was conceptualised in 2016 with the aim to promote equal opportunities in science, raise awareness of gender inequality in STEM fields, and provide new ideas and perspectives for a better, more inclusive, future. The importance of these topics, particularly within science, can be seen by the huge increase in popularity of the ‘I, Scientist’ conference: whereas the first conference in 2017 had about 350 participants, 2019 had over 500 participants attending! The popularity is easily explained by the conference’s format: talks and workshops on topics relevant to anyone regardless of gender, and an atmosphere of kindness, understanding, and enthusiasm.

This year’s virtual conference managed to uphold its reputation. By using the in-web app ‘Hopin’, participants were able to go to the main stage for talks, use a networking button to be paired up with another participant for a five minute conversation, and check out the sessions platform to continue discussions. Besides this, a career booth was offered, where participants could listen and engage with organisations and companies.

Navigating Academia and Gender (In)equality

We decided to catch up with one of the participants, Isabella Casini, who is a PhD student at the University of Tübingen researching environmental biotechnology, and one of the organisers of the conference, Irene Sánchez Arribas, who is a PhD student at the University of Konstanz, researching experimental physics, to talk about the conference, having a career in STEM and gender (in)equality.

The ‘I, Scientist’ conference was well organised, how were things behind the scenes?

Irene: While organising the conference there was a moment where things got really complicated due to the pandemic. We had been organising this for one and a half years, looking for rooms, accommodation for the speakers, and all of this had to be cancelled for safety concerns. At that point we had to decide to either cancel the conference or go on. We decided we had to make this conference happen because we really believe in it and had already put in a lot of effort. It was, however, complicated to switch everything online since the most vital part of the conference is the networking component. We had to think carefully about what virtual platform to use and how we could achieve making our participants feel like they are attending an in-person conference.

Do you think planning a virtual conference is more effort than an in-person conference?

Irene: I think both have good and bad points. I have never organised an in-person conference, but I think in terms of effort it would be harder. You would need to organise catering, accommodation for the speakers, their transportation and more. The challenge in organising a virtual conference is that you need to consider how to make it interactive for the participants. Another funny thing no one thinks about is that in a virtual conference, speakers can appear online about five minutes before their talk, which causes a lot of stress to the organisers. So, when this happens you are freaking out behind the scenes, because you know you have to deliver something to the participants. Another advantage of the virtual conference is the constant communication between organisers. We were always in touch with each other through Slack and private chats, which was easier than having to call each other like would in an in-person conference.

Isabella, this was the first ‘I, Scientist’ conference you attended. Why did you register?

Isabella: The conference came to my attention through an email from the Lise Meitner Society Tübingen. I saw the words ‘gender equality’ and ‘science’, talked about it with a few of my colleagues and we decided to register. Both engineering, which I studied, and my present field of research are male dominated. As nice as colleagues may be, it is hard to escape the lack of diversity and on a daily basis and as a woman you notice this more. For example, you may be the only woman in a meeting, or two meetings in a row. Recently, I have wanted to organise a day for women to share their experiences, and the ‘I, Scientist’ conference was a great opportunity to get resources for doing this.

What were your expectations going in the ‘I, Scientist’ conference?

Isabella: I attended an all-women’s college in the USA (Smith College), where I did my undergraduate, so gender equality was a well discussed topic. They cautioned us that since we are studying engineering, what situations we may encounter, and thus I was familiar with a lot of the content at the conference, nevertheless, I can always learn more, especially about intersectionality. It’s important to meet and listen to people coming from all over the world, even if they are saying and repeating things you might already have heard. In those moments when you hear similar stories coming up again, you realise, it does not just happen to my small bubble, my friends or my lab, this is a real issue happening to many people. It is a conversation many people are already having, but we should have more often.

Have you experienced or witnessed cases of gender inequality?

Irene: I was lucky I never really had a bad experience. Partly because I always try to get information on my potential work environment and ask the people working there about their experiences in the group since it is important to know how they are treated. I was always lucky enough to work with wonderful people, including men, who were always supportive of me. Since I work in the field of physics, the environment tends to be male dominated – during my masters there were only two girls in the working group for example. My PI (principal investigator) is a woman in my present group, and the team consists of an equal number of women and men. However, this is the first time this happened to me, so it is not the norm! I did experience some gender inequality once during an internship. I was the only woman, and we had to attend a course on electrostatic discharge. The pictures on the slides were only depicting men, but the one picture that did show a woman, was a woman in underwear (they were trying to highlight that some types of tissue are more prone to electrostatic discharge than others). You can imagine how uncomfortable that was, me being 22 and surrounded by middle aged men! It really made me feel like this was not my place to be, even though it was never intentionally directed to me. Another example like this would be the words of appreciation during a lab meeting. If one of us has done a good experiment, someone might compliment it saying, “That is a balls experiment!”, which again makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. It shows that language and culture have been male dominated and disregard the female component.

Isabella: I have been very lucky (and privileged given my race, class, and other identities) to not have experienced any drastic events, but rather smaller daily situations similar to Irene’s. For example, in an engineering building the women’s bathrooms are often hard to find and are somewhere in the furthest corner of the building’s basement. Or, if you go out by yourself at night, you get told to be careful or get complimented on how “brave” you are. But the same cautionary messages are not typically said to men. The same white t-shirt, marketed for men, is less expensive, than the one for women. Women more commonly get asked when they are planning on having children, if they are married, and about their weight and appearance. It boils down to how society values women and the expectation for women to perform the majority, if not all, of domestic duties (either solely or while also pursuing a career). This pressure and commentary can also come from friends or family and are not necessarily done with bad intentions. It is difficult to escape these small things, and over time, you learn to (wrongly) normalise them. It happens to women around you, and realise that not everyone knows how to navigate these situations, which emphasizes the necessity to discuss and resolve these issues.

What advice would you give to women starting their careers in a STEM field?

Isabella: The first piece of advice is to ask for help, especially if you come from a non-supportive environment, since it will be more challenging to navigate how to go about a career in STEM. Do not be afraid to ask people, the worst thing they can do is say, “no”. I think this advice also applies once you are in a position, it is always better to ask questions sooner than later to avoid making mistakes. If you do make a mistake or are in the wrong, admit it and apologise, but do not over apologise! Especially women have a habit of over apologising. In a classroom context there will probably be someone who has the same questions as you but are too afraid or shy to ask. Some people might judge you for asking, but at least now you have that answer and can continue. The second piece of advice is to find an environment that is supportive. When we talk about doing a PhD, the project should be interesting, but I do not think it is the most important aspect. If you have a supportive environment and have funding, you will have a lot more intellectual freedom to do what you want to do, and you will have a lot more mental energy to get your research done properly. Do not be afraid to interview your potential employers to understand what their work environment is like. As much as I may dislike having to say this, my last piece of advice would be to be conscious of how you dress and working in a lab has not been an exception, in my experience. From my experiences, I have seen women infantilised more so than men, particularly when they are dressed more casually or look younger. When starting a position, be aware of this, first impressions matter.

Irene: I agree with Isabella, although I never witnessed that last point in academia myself. One of my friends who works in the industry sector did mention this as well, though. She changed the way she dressed and saw it had a huge impact on how she was treated. My advice would be to choose a good working group, and I cannot emphasise enough how important this is! A PhD or a career in STEM is not just about the research, but also the work environment. Interview your employer, ask other PhD students about the dynamics of the group and whether they work alone or collaborate and help each other in the lab. I also would suggest checking the diversity of the working group, if this is important to you. However, this might not always reflect the PI since they cannot always make the final decisions. If the PI makes an effort to have a good working group, you will be able to see it. Another piece of advice: if you want to try something new or different, just do it! And if you do not know how to do something, or if you come from a different background and do not have the same opportunities as others, try and surround yourself with people who are experiencing the same issues or who can help you. If you cannot find such a support network in real life, or if you are too shy, you can always try online platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Another important aspect to consider is who you choose to be your close supervisor, for me, this is the person who influences and helps me the most.

Do you have any concluding remarks you would like to share with us?

Irene: Do not be afraid to ask advice and support from men as well, they can be good allies to you. In my experience, I could always ask them anything and they would give me recommendations. Also, listen to people. When doing a PhD you are going to be working for about four years in the same workspace, and it needs to be a place where you feel good and can grow professionally, but also as a person. This is really important. Looking back, I would have looked for a working group who also engages in activities not focused on research. So, if this is an important aspect for you, be sure to make this an important part of your query. And again, do not be afraid to ask for help!

Another piece of advice is choosing your battles and knowing which are the ones you can win, and which ones you will lose. In your working environment you will often encounter people who do not have the same mentality as you. Perhaps many will be white men who strongly believe in their way of doing things and you will find yourself adapting to them because the system is made in their favour. It is sad to say, and perhaps many will disagree with this, but sometimes you have to acknowledge the situation is not ideal and do something you disagree with, so that eventually you might find yourself in a better position where you can change things. Sometimes such situations might be delicate, and you will have to be careful with how and when you respond, for example, if you are the only woman in your working group. This is, as I said before, sad, but unfortunately true.

Isabella: First, and this is a hopeful statement, I want to stress there is more than one right way to be successful in academia. I am hoping we will see more ways of doing academia as the years progress, hopefully sooner than later. Second, be aware of imposter syndrome. A friend of mine attended a discussion panel of female professors who shared their experiences, and a major message was that they still suffer from imposter syndrome. Even though these women were mid to late career, had made it in the field and were renowned, they still felt this. Be aware that imposter syndrome is a real thing, and check yourself, friends and lab mates for it. Just because you feel imposter syndrome, does not mean you have to stop what you are doing!

Going forward

This year’s ‘I, Scientist’ offered a virtual platform where scientists could come together and talk freely about their struggles with academia and gender inequality. The realisation that one is not alone here, and can find a supportive network, is made even more important due to the hardships many have faced due to various events unfolding in 2020. In any case, we are already looking forward to next year’s ‘I, Scientist’ conference, which hopefully will be able to take place in real life!


Shyama Vermeersch
University of Tübingen
Institute for Archaeological Sciences, SFB 1070 ResourceCultures Project A05

Anja Allabar
University of Tübingen
Department of Geosciences, Experimental Mineralogy

Lise Meitner Society Tübingen