What about Hanna?!

Hanna is considering leaving academia or has already done so. However, this is not due to a lack of skill or passion for science…

Picture: a screenshot from the original video published by BMBF; It has been withdrawn due to social criticism.

#IchBinHanna – We are Hanna. The video posted by the BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research in Germany) explaining the #WissZeitVG has caused an outcry across the academic community first in June 2021. We reached out to our members and followers on social media, to ask them for their stories. We offered an anonymous platform for them to share their experiences with the board of Lise-Meitner Society.

The biggest theme among all these messages was the strain the limited contracts and the insecurity that comes with them puts on Hanna’s life.

The issues already started when Hanna did her Ph.D.:

“I had yearly contracts during my Ph.D. – Knowing full well there wouldn’t be more than four. I had to finish my Ph.D. without funding. I started my current job while finishing my Ph.D. in the evenings and on weekends. It wasn’t easy, but better than having to receive unemployment money” – Hanna 243

“During my Ph.D., I signed 7 different contracts. All of them only covered partial payment (always below 50%, most often 25%). Luckily, I managed to get scholarships to cover the rest, which helped tremendously. Not everyone is that lucky!” – Hanna 738

Flexibility and mobility are inherent parts of the scientific career, but one needs to be also very resourceful and resilient to survive that:

“I have signed 5 limited contracts during my Ph.D. Every single one has a long story of chaos, mismanagement, and insecurity behind it – this is usually called ‘normal flexibly in research! I came from a developing country to Germany because I wanted to follow my dreams in science which were not considered a proper way of living for a woman in my country of birth. The journey was too long and the way unpaved. Nothing worked for me as I planned before. Currently, I am not employed and I consider leaving science with regret just because I need security and mental health in my life.” – Hanna 547

In many cases, Hanna did not continue her academic career after her Ph.D. However, whenever she did, conditions did NOT improve:

“I have had 8 limited contracts during my first 7 years of postdoc, now the 9th one is running. No one knows how exactly a university counts the number of years one was employed there.
Some universities count third-party funding time (just to be safe), others don’t. If they really need to fill a position, they will have you sign a self-declaration that you won’t ask for a permanent position after this one has expired. I experienced both scenarios at two different universities in the same Bundesland.” – Hanna 494

“Until recently I was a PostDoc and wanted to become a professor. I had a 4-year contract, which got extended by another 4 years, with the “plan” of me becoming a junior group leader at the department. At the end of that first contract, I left academia. One of those reasons is that #IchBinHannaMitFamilie and a #singleparent, I needed better job security than ‘the grant for your position has a pretty good success probability, we think’.” – Hanna 848

“I got a position as a lecturer in spite of the #WissZeitVG because I was filling a temporary need (due to a dean reducing his workload).
Now my contract has run out. I applied for a permanent professorship, however, I “just” made 2nd place (and unfortunately this time No 1 seems to be intending to take the job). I am not sure how to go on. Even if I managed to secure funding from somewhere, the University would probably not be able to employ me because of #WissZeitVG.” – Hanna 653

The #WissZeitVG doesn’t just dominate Hanna’s career, it infiltrates her family life, and makes it too difficult to find a work/life balance:

“My two kids were born during my Ph.D. While I was in labour, I sent emails with corrections for my first paper to my supervisor. This seemed completely normal to me, and I felt like this was necessary to ensure I could continue in academia.
I never felt like I could fully go on parental leave. During my UNPAID official leave, I published several papers and handed in my thesis. Still, after returning, my supervisor told me he hadn’t been content with my work for a long time.” – Hanna 738

“My Ph.D. was ok. After my Ph.D. I joined a company, worked there for a few years, got married, and had my first child – almost exactly on the day the company closed operations.
My husband had always dreamed of being a professor, so I took care of the little ones while he pursued his career – until he didn’t get another position and gave up academia.
So, I restarted my career in academia doing PostDocs. Things didn’t look too bad, I even applied for a professorship. During the application process, my eldest got cancer.
Our child recovered and I got another PostDoc. But by the time that contract ran out, my time on fixed-term contracts had been used up.
I love teaching and I love to research. But my CV is irregular because I put my family first. Since I still do so, I am not very mobile.” – Hanna 653

Picture: a screenshot from the original video published by BMBF; It has been withdrawn due to social criticism.

Hanna is passionate about research, teaching, and pushing the boundaries of science. Additionally, Hanna is a daughter, a mother, a friend, a human being, and life does not progress in those nice little paths suggested by the BMBF. So often Hanna is forced to leave academia behind and while these issues do not exclusively affect women, women are affected more severely. The world is wondering why women drop out of academia and how to #FixTheLeakyPipeline, how about with a bit of flexibility and security?

‘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

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

Collaborating with Men and Gender-inclusive Workplaces

By Wing Ying Chow, Postdoc at a research institute in Berlin

When asked about the issues facing women in science or more broadly in the working environment, most people probably would think of the fact that women may have children and it would be a challenge to balance work and family life from then onwards. Leaving aside the implicit assumption that women would be “in charge” of family life and therefore find more conflict with the time they can spend at work, is this actually the biggest factor?

From a survey of 954 women who graduated from the University of Cambridge, it was found that the most commonly mentioned career challenge was not actually balancing family and work (22%), but challenges within the workplace itself (38%). This suggested that women’s career issues arise not only because women have children, but perhaps more because workplaces and the associated culture were developed at a time when only men were working, and changes still need to be made to make workplaces more inclusive.

What changes would these be? It is against this background that Murray Edwards College carried out a study titled “Collaborating with Men”, presented on 23 September to an audience of alumni, staff and students. Dame Barbara Stocking, the President of Murray Edwards College, pointed out that previous emphasis has been on “fixing the women”, but the changes required in workplace culture can only be solved by men and women working together. In addition, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it matters and can have benefit for men as well as women.

To find out what changes can benefit gender equality and to come up with actionable recommendations, 40 men working in a range of sectors including business, civil service and academia (and different career stages) participated in a workshop, several focus groups and some were interviewed to understand what men think about the impact of workplace culture on women and what possible remedies there are.

The study emphasised that men are generally motivated to improve workplace culture. Early career men tend to be more individually motivated and are more open to changing their behaviour, but many tend to think that “the job is done” already regarding women’s issue in the workplace. Mid-career men are busier in their work and personal lives and can see gender issues as yet another thing they have to deal with, but also have more personal experience of the impact of having families on women’s lives. From this, it is clear that men of various career stages can be motivated to champion gender diversity, though continuing to raise awareness will be key for engaging with men in the early stage of their careers when they are more likely to become active allies for gender equality.

Benevolent sexism was raised as an issue that can affect many women in the workplace, where women get channelled into jobs that they are believed to be good at, whether it is more teaching in an academic setting or more caring/managing roles in a business setting. This leads to women staying in mid-level roles rather than being promoted to leadership roles.

One issue that was often surprising to men was that many women feel that their voices are not being heard, for example in meetings, even when the women are in a comparatively senior position. Many women in the audience agreed, saying the greater problem is not just the fact that the expression of their ideas gets interrupted, but also that the same idea gets picked up later on by men who receive credit. On this issue, the men in the study first assumed that women were not speaking up. After some further discussion, it was suggested that differences in tone, phrasing and even pitch of the voice of women that may lead to men’s voices and opinions being heard more than women’s. Based on this feedback, one of the recommendations of this study was to organise reverse mentoring where junior women would mentor senior men or managers, to help those in charge understand how things are like from the women’s perspective.

The strategy of amplification was also raised during the discussion. This is famously practised by the female staffers in Obama’s administration, where ideas offered by women would be repeated and given credit for it by another person, thus making it possible for women’s voices and ideas to be properly heard and credited. Obviously, this would require women to have other allies in the meeting, which brings in another aspect of cultural issues in the workplace — one where men find it easier to form unspoken alliances with other men.

One aspect that the study focussed on was where women are not as integrated into the peer group in the workplace as men, particularly in informal networking. It was highlighted that men and women have different styles and views of networking, where men often maintain larger networks consciously, in case someone they met turns out to be helpful later; women are more likely to join formal women’s networks and also tend to be more transactional, only getting in contact when they have a specific request or offer. Moreover, due to worries of sexual harassment, it can often seem “safer” to interact with people of the same gender. As a result, the informal networks tend to be gender separated. This is, unfortunately, not in women’s favour as men can feel that they cannot sponsor women as strongly as they would sponsor a “good guy” that they have more informal interactions with. In the recommendations of the study, some schemes for building closer relationships were proposed, which not only give more opportunities for networking across genders but can also improve the communication within an organisation in general.

Murray Edwards College is extending an invitation to institutes and companies that are motivated to improve their workplace culture to try out some of the recommendations in their report. To read the full report and recommendations, please see the links below. Jill Armstrong (ja605@cam.ac.uk), the researcher involved in this study, will be delighted to hear from anyone who is interested.


2017 Report: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/news/collaborating-with-men-report-talks-about-changing-workplace-culture
2017 Action plan: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/Report%202%20-%20Collaborating%20with%20Men%20July%202017.pdf
2014 Survey results: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/Women%20Today%20Women%20Tomorrow%20Survey%20Report.pdf