‘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

In data we trust – but should we?

By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin

For us scientists, data are our daily bread. We collect them, we compare them, we try extract general knowledge from them. Instead of speculating, we ask data to give us all the answers we are looking for. We collect data to improve the daily life for everybody. Or rather, for the average human being. Too bad the average person is between 25 and 30 years, weighs 70kg, and is a white man.

In her new bestselling book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”, Caroline Criado-Perez addresses what she calls the gender data gap. Since the beginning of historiography, women have shone with absence. Instead, the life stories of men were assumed to be representative for all people. It is based on – or even the origin of – the unconscious thought that the man is the default human. If people say human, they usually mean men.
Criado-Perez addresses this issue on 425 pages (not counting the 75 pages of references) in seven chapters using examples from our daily life, the workplace, design, medicine, the public life and crisis management. She begins her book by quoting Simone de Beauvoir

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it fromtheir own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.
– Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

showing that, despite being 70 years old, this statement is as true as ever.

Criado-Perez claims that gender neutrality is in most cases mere illusion. Most of the data – or in general information – we gather, concerns men. Based on this, people make decisions that affect everybody – including the half of the population that is not captured by the data. Now most of the decision making is in the hands of healthy, white men which come in nine of ten cases from the USA. Without (necessarily) malicious intent, the decision makers assume themselves to be the “standard human” and they lack perspective. This is why diversity is crucial to design a world that works for everybody.

Let me give an example for the problem with gender neutral design. While real languages are historically shaped and might be influenced by sexist thinking from earlier ages, Emoji is a new language consciously designed by people. It is the Unicode consortium who discusses and selects the emojis which are part of the worldwide Unicode standard [1]. Originally, in Emoji 1.0, most emojis were present in a gender-neutral form, such as the “spy” 🕵️ . While the consortium defines the main specifics of the emoji (“An undercover investigator, wearing a hat, and sometimes using a magnifying glass to closely inspect evidence.” [1]), the specific design is up to every platform. And indeed, most platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, interpreted the spy as a man. Even if they had been able to create a gender-neutral picture of a spy, most people (including women) interpret gender-neutral figures as men. We tend to assume things as male – until the opposite is proven. So, the seemingly gender-neutral language is not that neutral after all. The only way to make women visible is to name them explicitly. As a result, the Unicode consortium decided to add the “male spy” 🕵️‍♂️ and the “female spy” 🕵️‍♀️ to Emoji 4.0. An important step, even though Unicode still describes the “male spy” as “The male version of the Spy emoji. Currently identical in appearance to the non-gendered base emoji.” [1].

While the design of emojis could be dismissed as a trifle, Criado-Perez comes up with a shocking number of examples where the gender data gap poses a real threat for women. Take medicine. Studies on the efficacy of drugs are often conducted on men. One of the reasons put forward is that female bodies are more complicated since they undergo a hormonal cycle affecting the results. But if the hormonal cycle is affecting the effectiveness of the drugs, this must not be neglected in drug tests. But it is. As a result, many drugs don’t work for women in the same way as for men – or sometimes not at all. Even in medical school, women are often only treated as a variation of the standard. Students are taught anatomy and female anatomy, physiology and female physiology. How can half of the population be a variation?

In academia, we experience first-hand how the blindness to gender issues results in discrimination against women. In Germany, post-doctoral researchers can spend a maximum of six years in temporal positions. If they do not receive a permanent position afterwards, it is often the end of their scientific career. This system disadvantages women in particular, since the critical time for PhDs to achieve a tenure track position coincides with the time women might want to start a family. For many women, combining an academic career with raising a child seems like a Herculean task and they decide to drop out before even applying for their first tenure track position. Men become fathers too, one might think, so they should be affected in the same way, but the numbers tell a different story. A look at the figures is downright depressing – it is a story of lone she-wolves [2, study conducted in the USA]:
The rate of divorces is higher, marriages less frequent and the number of children less for female than for male professors. Among the tenured faculty members, 70% of men are married with kids – but only 44% of women. Women who are married with kids have a 35% lower chance of getting a tenured faculty position than married men with kids. Even without children, chances for women are lower than for men. At the end of the road, women receive a 29% lower pension than men – two of the reasons being a later promotion and parental leave. Men’s pension, on the other hand, is not affected by having children. This is a prime example of a system that was designed for only one half of the population. Currently, two years of half-time employment is simply not equal to one year of full-time work. One hard measure for success in science is the number of publications. If someone published half as much per year, their chances of a tenured position decrease significantly – full stop. Does the system have to be like this? Definitely not.

I presented only three of Criado-Perez’s examples of how women are affected by the gender data gap. In the afterword of her book, she breaks down the plethora of problems to three points that describe the position of women in a male dominated world. Firstly, the invisibility of the female body. It is often ignored, that the female body is simply different from the male one. In addition to medical aspects mentioned above, there are also technical or architectonical aspects. Gender neutral security clothes don’t fit, the keyboard of a piano is too wide, or voice recognition just doesn’t work. Secondly, and ironically with respect to the first point, the visibility of the female gender. It is not the female sex, but the gender – the socially constructed aspect of being a woman – that leads to women being ignored, interrupted in discussions, harassed or even abused. Equal behaviour of men and women does not cause the same reaction. And most dramatically, sexual violence of men against women is a threat to women’s freedom and well-being, and is not sufficiently studied and included in the design of our world. Thirdly, women do most of the care work, without which our society would not function. This work is not sufficiently acknowledged or considered in shaping the world which restricts the possibilities of women and complicated their lives.

In her book, Criado-Perez presents a staggering amount of statistics revealing the underrepresentation of women to make a simple point: This is a men’s world. Women are disadvantaged and discriminated against, treated as a variation of the norm. But women’s issues are no minority’s issues – they are issues of 50% of the population. We have to start questioning the implicit assumption of masculinity, just as Denna did in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel “The Name of the Wind”:

“How could we possibly hurt it?” (the protagonist said, talking about a dragon)
“We lure her over the side of a cliff,” Denna said matter-of-factly.
“She?” I asked. “Why do you think it’s a she?” ​
“Why do you think it’s a he?” she replied.


[1] https://emojipedia.org/
[2] https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/06/female-academics-pay-a-heavy-baby-penalty.html

Did anybody ask for some unique and ground-breaking research?

By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin

Gendered language is on everyone’s lips. Gender-biased terminology (“all men human beings are created equal”), gender-neutral pronouns (“The author of the article said… and he they also stated that…”) or gendered nouns (“the chairman chairperson”) are highly discussed and ridiculed by many.

But there is more to say about language than that. Instead of talking about how to talk about people, let’s ask the question: How do people talk? And more importantly: Is there a difference in the usage of language between men and women*?

Many comedians or sit-coms built up on this and have established, or at least strengthened, gender stereotypes with respect to how men and women talk.  There is even a whole paper [1] elaborating on gender differences in using language which almost sounds like the record of a 90s TV series. Some examples:

  • Women tend to answer questions with a rising intonation instead of a falling one. “In this way, they can show their gentleness, and sometimes this intonation shows a lack of confidence.”
  • There is a specific set of feminine vocabulary that men do not use: they say blue instead of aquamarine or azure, or they call it a good meal instead of gorgeous or heavenly.
  • Women use more diminutives (e.g. hanky instead of handkerchief) or words that show affection (dearie, sweety). “If a man often uses these words, people will think that he may have psychological problem or he is not manly“.

I repeat: “psychological problem”. For using the word sweety. It should be mentioned that the few references in this paper range, with one exception from 2004, from 1968 to 1980. Besides this text ranging from entertaining to incredulous, one might ask the question what to take from that. Does it matter if I say blue or aquamarine? Does my intonation matter?

At least for the last point: Yes, it does. Imagine the situation where you sit at a table with your professor and the rest of the group. You present your research with the words “Well, I guess we made a bit of progress. The results look promising, but we need to double check. There are a few things I don’t understand yet but maybe it leads to something.”. On the other hand, your more “manly” co-worker explains his work like this: “I made great progress, I have new results which look amazing. There’s only a bit of polishing missing but I’m essentially done.”. You could be talking about the very same results and still, your professor will most likely be more excited about your co-worker’s progress. Confidence is the keyword. Selling your research well let it seem to be of higher quality – independently of how good the research actually is.

In an ideal situation, your professor knows you and might understand what you mean by what you say. In a less ideal situation, you and your research might be underrated by your professor and he or she might think that you do not know what you are doing. And what is more: In the most important situations, when asking for grants or publishing your results, you will write about your research and the readers do not know you at all.

Does the difference in language between male and female scientists pose a real, measurable problem? A very recent study asked exactly this question [2]. To answer it, the authors have estimated how positively researchers present their work by counting the number of “positive terms”- such as novel, excellent or unprecedented – in the title or abstract of a publication. They found that these words are used 12% less often in articles with female first and last author than in publication with a male first or last author. In high impact journals women were even 21% less likely to present their research positively. While this observation is not an issue per se, the authors of the study found an increase of up to 13% in subsequent citations – the unit for the quality of your work – with the usage of positive terms.

The caveat of this study is that it may include some conscious or unconscious bias against women. In a working paper from last April [3], researchers of the National Bureau of Economic Research tried to avoid this issue. They studied and compared the success of grant proposals from which all personal information on the author was erased. They found that female scientists were 16% less likely to achieve a high score on their proposal than men – even though the review process was blinded. How is that?

The researchers suggest that the word choice is the major cause of this finding. They discovered that men have a greater tendency towards “broad words”, i.e. words which are used in a broad subject area. Women, on the other hand, prefer “narrower words” which are very special to a narrow field. Beyond that, broad words often detected in high scoring proposals while lower scores were achieved when using narrow words. In other words: the quality of proposals written by female scientists is statistically perceived of lower quality – even if the quality is equally high.

The essence of this study is that there is one form of expression that is more likely to be successful than another. The successful way seems to be praising your research and promising the moon. Statistically, more men cultivate a successful mode of expression than women. But on a case-to-case basis, there are many down-to-earth men and as many head-in-the-clouds women. The current “best practice” of writing proposals and publications is disadvantaging many people – mostly, but not exclusively, women.

What is the take on that? Are women (or “female writers”) hampered by the way they are talking? Should we talk “more manly” in order to be more successful? Is all this simply the result of the self-selection of the man-dominated world science is right now? Or is this just the way science works?

There is, unfortunately, no simple answer to that. A small step is to be aware of the problem. And again, the question we must ask ourselves is:

Do we want to play the game or change the rules?


*Since none of the considered references took non-binary gender options into account I only talk about male and female language in this article.

[1] Xia. “Gender Differences in Using Language”. Theory and Practice in Language Studies 3(8), 2013, doi:10.4304/tpls.3.8.1485-1489 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/478d/8227a766d8d836664f52fec37b8b34c03491.pdf

[2] Lerchenmueller, Sorenson, Jena. „Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study”. BMJ 2019;367:l6573, doi: 10.1136/bmj.l6573 https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/367/bmj.l6573.full.pdf

[3] Kolev, Fuentes-Medel, Murray. “Is Blinded Review Enough? How Gendered Outcomes Arise Even Under Anonymous Evaluation”. NBER Working Paper No. 25759, 2019 https://mitsloan.mit.edu/sites/default/files/2019-06/w25759.pdf

All we need to do is wait… for 250 years

By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin

Times are changing. It is becoming more normal to see female scientists. I had two female fellow students, one of the physics professors of my university is female and a woman just won the Nobel prize for physics. System changes are slow but once the new generation reaches the age of senior researchers gender parity will be there.

Congratulations! We’re done. Time to lean back, give ourselves a pat on the back and enjoy a merry future.

Wouldn’t it be nice? But – I’m sorry – things are not as easy as that. Studies show [1] that, if we just keep going on as before, gender parity in physics will be reached in no less than 258 years. As a comparison: the feminist movement started in the late 19th century which would mean that we made only about a third of the way.

There are many reasons for this. Of course, also demography plays a role. When today’s senior scientists were young, they had much less female fellow students than the students have nowadays. But this demographic inertia is not sufficient to explain the slow adjustment in gender parity we see today. Another reason is visualised by the metaphor of the leaky pipeline: there are many women at the beginning of the academic journey but only a few make it until the end. Of course, also not every man reaches top positions in research. But the percentage of women is decreasing from step to step or, to follow the metaphor, from junction to junction. May it be due to hindrances or because they “chose” to leave academia.

Let’s face it: academia does not glisten with promises of a luxurious or secure life. The way to the top goes through numerous countries and uncountable temporary positions without the guarantee to reach the goal at all. Impossible to plan your life – or even the next three years. That perspective is not very attractive and many choose to pursue another career with more security.

But this does not sound like a women’s problem per se, does it? Aren’t men affected by this as well? Of course they are – but still it is only on conferences dedicated to female scientists that this issues are being addressed openly. Changing the system can help to make academia a more attractive place for a lot of bright people who just do not want to live a hermit life for the sake of an academic career.

In addition to women falling of the career ladder, there are also significantly less girls setting their foot on the bottom rung of the STEM ladder in the first place. The reasons for this are again innumerable. Girls do not have enough female scientific role models, they cannot picture themselves as scientists, and girls are “worse at maths than boys” anyway. As for the last argument, it is important to bear in mind that career decisions are usually not made on the basis of absolute but relative abilities. In other words: People usually decide to study what they are best at and not what they are sufficiently good at. So someone who is good at math but even better at something else will most likely decide to study… something else. And indeed: a recent study [2] showed that the higher reading ability of girls, as compared to their math skills and also the reading abilities of boys, can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields while the sheer difference in maths performance is not able to do so.

Shouldn’t we encourage everybody to study what they are best at? The subject in which they are most likely to develop their full potential? In principle yes, but the occurrence of this difference in abilities seems quite peculiar by itself. One obvious explanation seems to be the very different education of girls and boys. Girls are, for instance, usually more encouraged to read and dream while boys are expected to be more practical and to make things. Even the most trying parents have a hard time to raise their kids without gender expectations. Our society is full of them. Never have there been more gendered toys, more pink and blue in our world than today. Parents who tried to show their kids that they can become everything they want will be disappointed one day when their little girl comes home from the nursery school telling them that she can’t be a knight anymore and that she wants to be a princess now –  the other girls said so.

It’s hard to be a knight amongst princesses. It’s hard to be the only girl in the advanced math course. It’s hard to be the only women on a conference.

And who can blame them for wanting to be just like the other girls? They should not need to justify themselves. They should not need the strength to “be different”. And they should not need to wait 258 years for it.


[1] L. Holman, D. Stuart-Fox, C. E. Hauser (2018) The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? PLoS Biol 16(4): e2004956. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956

[2] T. Breda, C. Napp (2019) Girls’ comparative advantage in reading can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields. PNAS 116 (31) 15435-15440. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1905779116

When the Physik Journal honored Nobel Laureates Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou for their discovery

The German Physical Society’s Physik Journal reached a new low in its current issue featuring a special section on this year’s Physics Nobel prizes. Half of the prize was awarded for the method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses, and was awareded in equal share to Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou. However, to honor the laureates and their discovery the Physik Journal managed to publish an article portraying Mourou as the brilliant genius (e.g., “äußerst innovativen und großartig visionären Wissenschaftler”) and mentioning Strickland only on the side, in one sentence in the whole article, as the PhD student who did some measurements (article; paywall).

Among illustrations showing the physical principles, the article starts with a big photo showing not the both Nobel laureates, but instead Mourou and the article’s author, sitting in the first row at a meeting of mostly old men. At the end of the article there’s even another photo of the author, who is Science and Technology Manager at an ELI facility in the Czech Republic. ELI is a research infrastrucure that Mourou had initiated, and remember: to promote ELI, Mourou had had made a “funny” creepy sexist video showing himself in the lab decorated by undressing half-naked young women (No Mourou, this is fun — yours is just creepy).

It’s worth noting that this article appeared in the Physik Journal’s December issue, so way after the uproar on the fact that a few months before Donna Strickland was awarded the Nobel prize, a Wikipedia article was written about her but not approved by a Wikipedia moderator saying Strickland doesn’t qualify for Wikipedia.

So it’s not only that women are often neglected by the Nobel committee (e.g., Lise Meitner, Chien-Shiung Wu, Deborah Jin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Vera Rubin) but when they are awarded they are almost entirely neglected in an article honoring them, making it sound like Donna Strickland received the prize just by mistake.

Colleagues have contacted the Physik Journal’s editorial board, but unfortunately they see no wrongdoing on their side, claiming only the author is responsible for the article.

For context: The German Physical society (DPG) claims to be the largest Physical Society in the whole world, however they are even today lacking basic programs or a division for e.g. diversity and inclusion which e.g. the US-American APS and AIP and the British IOP have installed for long time now (And here’s a symptomatic photo showing the previous, the current, and the future DPG presidents).

The society’s journal is the monthly “Physik Journal”. I had written an opinion piece on women* and queer inclusion in Physics, which after many alterations appeared in a very soft version on page 3 of the Physik Journal’s June 2018 issue. It had provoked people to leave the society, people claiming my article had no relevance at all and comparing me to the Nazis (and the Physik Journal even printed the Nazi comparison in a Letter to the Editor section of a later issue), but there is no interest by the society’s board in this topic at all.

I’m advocating for equal opportunities and women* visibility in the DPG for years now as board member of their working group on equal opportunities (AKC) but it’s so frustrating. Does anyone have any idea what to do with this? Please do write me because by now when I see such articles I start to feel like I just want to go to bed and sleep, I’m so extremely tired of all this. But this is dangerous. We as a society should not tolerate this anymore.

Survey on the perception of scientists on gender equality in earth and space sciences

Dr. Stefanie Lutz, scientist at UFZ Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, and her colleagues are calling for participation in the following survey:

The results will be presented on April 11, 2018, during the EGU General Assembly.

With this survey, we would like to find out more about the perception of scientists on gender equality in earth and space sciences. We would be glad if you might be willing to answer a few questions (of course anonymously) and also forward the survey to your colleagues.

To complete the survey, please follow the link: https://goo.gl/forms/KSZNESoLrEBgHlc62

The survey is addressed to anyone feeling broadly associated with earth and space sciences (including geosciences and environmental sciences) and should take you only five minutes to complete. The broader the spectrum of career levels, disciplines and genders of people participating, the more representative our results will be.

By taking the survey, you agree on the publication of the results in the session ‘Promoting and supporting equality of opportunities in geosciences’ at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2018 as well as potential further scientific publication.

Let’s all stop paying attention to Nobel Prizes!

Every year in Fall when the Nobel prizes are announced I get a little bit more angry. When I was a child and young student I was amazed and fascinated by the Nobel prize, and thought that Nobel laureates are the single most awesome scientists. When I studied Physics at the university my then-lover and I were sure that we will of course one day be awarded the prize, as we loved Physics, were curious about everything and spent most nights and days discussing and deriving and finding problems we wanted to solve. Of course we didn’t do that for some far goal of getting an award, but that award seemed like a natural logic consequence in the life of an awesome scientist.

At the university in Germany where I studied ten years ago all professors were men, literally all, of the some 40-50 professors at the Physics department. Still, when I was a student I didn’t think at all that merit or science awards have something to do with gender – or rather, that natural sciences have something to do with societal issues – because it’s about science, it only has to do with who is talented, intelligent, dedicated, and not with gender, right?
That was then.

I learned about many exciting discoveries, and with that, I learned about the scientists who made them, and some of them were women. Continuing in my studies I started getting more and more doubts about the Nobel prize, seeing my heroines being overlooked year after year.
I used to think it’s sad and unfortunate, but well, maybe next year. Now I see this in a different way, even more so since day before yesterday: it is political.

I started reading a bit about women in Physics, and many of their life stories are sad, heartbreaking and infuriating for the injustice and neglect they experienced, and the merit men got for discoveries women made.

Seven of this year’s Nobel laureates held a press conference in Stockholm day before yesterday. Apparently, to explain the lack of women among Nobel laureates they said things like “Change is coming, but there is a long delay between entering freshman and the Nobel prize.” (Kip Thorne) and “Science has been made by males, for males. It is changing, it takes time, but you will see it, they (women in science) are coming.” (Jacques Dubochet)

Reading these inconsiderate statements now made me furious. I can think of many women who did awesome and undoubtedly Nobel-prize-worthy research but were neglected, ignored, betrayed by men who got the merit and the Nobel prize for their discovery. A few who immediately come to my mind are Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Lise Meitner, Chien-Shiung Wu, Vera Rubin and Deborah Jin.

So now it’s ultimate. The Nobel prize is a platform for ignorant unthoughtful (unreflektierte) white old men who fail to recognize their privileges to celebrate themselves, reassuring white men in general that they are superior and stabilizing the hegemonial patriarchic order of the society. This is toxic and harmful and we have to get over this.

Apart from all of this there were questionable campaigns like more than 100 Nobel laureates condemning Greenpeace publicly at the Lindau meeting in 2016. Only because someone was awarded this prize doesn’t mean that he understands every aspect of every scientific discipline, but exactly this is the widespread notion that is continuously reinforced, also by the media.

Dear nobel laureates, there is extensive research done on gender-related discrimination in science. I suggest you refer to the literature and revoke the statements you made publicly. Actually, knowing the literature on gender and diversity in science is your duty as privileged white men. But please don’t annoy women, people of color or members of underrepresented minorities by asking them about these issues. Before you do this, it is your duty to go ahead and research the literature, and not the duty of underprivileged people to explain your privileges to you.

Last year there was a public outcry, with the hashtag #NobelforVeraRubin. While last year I thought that was a good idea and also participated in it on twitter and used the hashtag, by now I think this and similar efforts go in the wrong direction. I lost all hopes for the Nobel committee and the academy. First, I thought shaming the committee would be the way. But no, now I vote for ignoring this award altogether. We can all contribute to stop the public idolatry that distorts reality.

The whole issue is of course not limited to the Nobel prize, please also check Katrin’s article on awards of the German Physical Society – Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft e.V.
And discrimination is of course not limited to gender. The white women whom I mentioned and also I myself are and were of course still privileged compared to for example people of color who could have discovered awesome things but didn’t even have the chance to work in science in the first place. The reasons of this article were the statements of the Nobel laureates on women in science, that’s why the article explicitly focusses on this.

Women in Physics, unite!

Last month I participated in the International Conference on Women in Physics as a delegate of the German Physical Society. Among all fields in the natural sciences, Physics is one with the lowest participation of women. Many organizations today recognize this and support programs to enhance women participation in Physics, some at a national level, and most often these were initiated by women themselves.
With the Working Group on Women in Physics in the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) this issue is brought to the international level, and since 2002 women in Physics meet internationally every three years on alternating continents. This conference is made possible by the personal commitment of women who in addition to organizing a professional academic conference also raised funds for more than 50 travel grants to enable women in Physics from developing countries attend the conference, which deeply impressed me.

The conference itself is special in a way that it combines talks and poster sessions on research in Physics, research on social sciences aspects of Physics and research organizations and reports from the participating countries with workshops in which we worked on ways to make the environment in academic organizations in Physics more inclusive. These workshops were really unique. Each workshop brought together approx. 20-30 women in Physics from different countries, different social backgrounds and different career levels.

I participated in the workshop on gender and intersectionality. Over three days we first reflected on our own identities and how different aspects combine to foster discrimination or privilege. In many aspects we realized that the problem is really not simple and it is hardly possible to bring down discrimination to single, isolated issues (e.g., being a woman) as we all have many parts of our identities which intersect. Many of us also realized that we are not aware of some parts of our identities, especially those which give us privileges. In input presentations we learned about ways of discrimination in other countries which don’t exist in our own cultural background but could be present in our institutions when we work with people from different cultural backgrounds.

We then developed guidelines for ourselves and our country teams and team leaders which all of us bring home to our national organizations. But we also drafted demands to our national organizations as well as to the IUPAP. These demands were later discussed in a plenary discussion with all participants, as were the demands of the other workshops, and were boiled down to a set of a few realistic demands to the IUPAP. I was a bit disappointed by that, because some of our initial demands were rejected by the plenum as being to progressive and unrealistic. I realize that I’m probably to naive and impatient and have no idea about global science policy. But on the other side I won’t give up my impatience because otherwise we will not change much in our lifetimes.

To be honest I must say that that participation in the workshops was quite embarrassing for the national Physical Society of Germany. While in many other countries the diversity issue is well recognized in all levels of the organizations and the work for inclusion is institutionalized, in Germany in the Physical Society the work to mitigate gender discrimination still solely relies on a few women doing volunteer work in their free time, who then often even get discouraged from campaigning for diversity as it might harm their personal careers. While I myself was hesitant to get involved when I first started a few years ago, I now find it ridiculous.

During all this it was awesome and so enriching that the Canadian team had brought a sociologist who participated in and partly led our workshop. This was very hard to manage for them as the IUPAP actually only provides participation in the conference to physicists. We included it in our demands that this policy needs to be changed.
Also in Germany I experienced it so often that we as physicists want to change something in our own organizations, and we meet with physicists from other institutions at conferences, sometimes even with particularly women in Physics, but far too often we are lacking knowledge of the actual reasons for the less diversity in organizations and the best ways to improve it, and here I also vote for much more exchange with the social sciences. In our bill we included the demand that all IUPAP conferences must provide a session on inclusion, resp. diversity aspects in Physics. I’m curious to see its implementation and the further developments.

Sexism in academia

A few days ago an article was published in Science on sexism in academia, written by a postdoc about her abusive supervisor.

Whenever I read such stories they deeply move me. I, too, have experienced similar situations, at different universities, in different countries, on different continents; as the affected person and as a friend or colleague, and with both male and female professors.

Apart from the article content itself the fact that it had to be published anonymously to protect the author concerns me. In our society and in academia in particular the victims (or survivors) of misbehaving supervisors are punished when going public while professors usually don’t have to worry about any consequences.

While writing this post I started describing my own experiences but stopped as it  created a feeling of extreme paralyzation and helplessness in me, while at the same time this is mixed with anger and rage.

Articles on personal experiences of sexism are important as they reveal that sexism in academia is not a personal private problem but a structural one.

When people grow up in a patriachal society and then get the privileges and power of professorship with students who are completely dependent on them, and often even have to leave the country if they have to leave the university (unless they find a legal alien or citizen to marry them) is toxic.

I believe we are now at a point that we have to ask ourselves: do we really want to live in such a society? And is this an environment in which creative and innovative research can thrive?

All sexist and discriminatory behaviour must become socially ostracized!

Here you can find the article in Science which I referred to.

Another interesting recent article is this from CNNtech.