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Excellent Female Researchers at The Click of A Mouse


Internet portal AcademiaNet aims to increase the number of women in top academic roles. An interview with biologist Julia Fischer about everyday working life on male-dominated boards.

Excellent female researchers at the click of a mouse© Ingo Bulla - Pressestelle Universität GöttingenJulia Fischer teaches as a behavioural scientist at the University of Göttingen
DIE ZEIT: Among other things, the Internet portal AcademiaNet is intended to simplify the search for suitable female candidates to appoint to academic boards. Of how many boards were you a member in the past year, Ms Fischer?

Julia Fischer: Too many! It's flattering to be so in demand, of course, but you have to be careful or you find yourself left with no time for research. There's a big sign on my computer that says: "No".

DIE ZEIT: Otherwise you get bogged down?

Fischer: In Lower Saxony there is a rule that 40% of the members of an appointment commission must be female. As a result, the few qualified female professors are extremely busy, while on other boards there are no women at all because the gentlemen making the decisions can't think of any. Then it's always: well, there's Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard...

DIE ZEIT: ...biologist and Nobel Prize laureate from Tübingen...

Fischer: ...but she already has so much to do, we'd better not ask her. That's the standard line. Breaking this pattern is what's important. And when they claim "We can't think of any women" again, in future we can point them to AcademiaNet and say: here's a quality-reviewed tool that tells you who is currently on the market and has the appropriate qualifications.

The Women's Portal

Launched by Germany's most famous female physicist: On 2nd November in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be activating the AcademiaNet Internet portal containing profiles of excellent female academics. Women are still heavily underrepresented in German academia, especially in leadership positions. Only approximately 12% of the most highly remunerated research positions in Germany are currently held by women - something www.academianet.de intends to change. The portal is being set up on the initiative of the Robert Bosch Foundation in co-operation with science periodical "Spektrum der Wissenschaft", partners are the German science organisations and industry associations. The aim of Ingrid Wünning-Tschol, who had the idea for the portal, is to bring outstanding female researchers to the attention of those who appoint board members, organise conferences or report on research. AcademiaNet will present editorial articles on the subject of "women in academia" and success stories relating to the female scientists in the database. Julia Fischer's career is such a success story. Research stays in the USA brought her to Botswana, where she conducted research into the communication of baboons. Since 2004 she has been Professor of Cognitive Ethology at the University of Göttingen and head of the eponymous research group at the German Primate Centre. She is a member of various boards, including the University Council of the LMU Munich.
DIE ZEIT: Why is it important that there are more women on academic boards?

Fischer: Because I often wonder whether the men in groups like this have a kind of filter built in: if a man says something, its importance is doubled. And if a woman says something, absolutely nothing happens.

DIE ZEIT: Can you give an example?

Fischer: Last week I was part of such a group, and a female colleague spoke of the tertiary education sector. An hour later a man also mentioned tertiary education, whereupon another said that it was good that someone was finally talking about it! Then you just have to interrupt and say: No, wrong, the subject was already introduced into the discussion an hour ago.

DIE ZEIT: Did you do that?

Fischer: Yes!

DIE ZEIT: And how did the men react?

Fischer: (laughs out loud) None of them said anything. In my experience, the more women are on a board, the more likely they are to be taken seriously. Another thing I have experienced is that I'll be alone on a board, and one of the participants will say something misogynistic, and suddenly they all react as if let off the leash: "Specifically promoting women is nonsense." - "Will we be having to get our chromosomes tested in order to go into research now?" When faced with comments like that my only option is to wait a bit and in a quiet moment ask whether we could perhaps rise above the level of a pub discussion again.

DIE ZEIT: Do you really think that the number of women alone will change the culture of debate?

Fischer: We are of course talking about subtle processes. But if half the participants are female, that half can't just be ignored.

DIE ZEIT: The new Internet portal is also intended to bring female scientists and journalists together. What are your expectations here?

Fischer: I get endless enquiries from the media, sometimes on topics in which I have no expertise whatsoever. That goes something like this: We could ask that one, you know, in Göttingen, what was her name again? Oh yes, Fischer ... and then I'm asked questions about sadness in dogs or aggressive behaviour in general - pretty much anything that is in some way related to "behaviour". I then try to hook those journalists up with colleagues who are experts on the respective topic. Soon I'll simply be able to point them to the Internet portal.

DIE ZEIT: Are there even enough women to make a portal like that interesting?

Fischer: Of that I have no doubt whatsoever. A lot has changed in recent years. I see that at my own university, the University of Göttingen, where the Initiative for Excellence has been used to specifically recruit young women. Where it gets really problematic is at the very top, at the management levels of the extra-mural research institutions. It's frankly embarrassing how few women are in leadership positions for example at the Max Planck Society, and it's even worse at Fraunhofer and Helmholtz. It's enough to make you weep.

DIE ZEIT: How could this be changed?

Fischer: The only thing that will help is political pressure. A quota also has to be discussed. Of course you can't just increase the share of women from 5 to 50% overnight. The market won't support that. But the discussion initiated by Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the former president of the German Research Foundation, alone already helps: any board that rejects a well-qualified female applicant should be ashamed of itself.

DIE ZEIT: Only 17% of all professorships in Germany are held by women. Why is this change taking so long?

Fischer: Many women struggle to muster a sense of entitlement and say: Here I am, I want to make it all the way to the top, and I believe I can do it. There are also two big breaks, points in their biography, where talented women stop or beyond which their career no longer progresses. One of these, as I see it, occurs after they have completed their doctorate, in the phase when they start a family. The other, even more shameful break can be seen in the ratio of W2 to W3 professorships - an unintended consequence of the German academic system.

DIE ZEIT: How so?

Fischer: W3 professorships generally go to people who have been appointed from one university to another. So, for example, there's a qualified woman at the University of Münster who is offered a chair in Berlin. But she has just managed to organise childcare for her youngest child in Münster, and the oldest has started school. Transfer costs become very high when you have to take all that with you. For a man, who perhaps has a housewife at home, problems like that often simply don't arise.

DIE ZEIT: Do children and academic careers not go together?

Fischer: They do. There are meanwhile many positive examples. Some women have two or three children and are advancing their careers very well. It requires an outstanding level of discipline, and of course you have to figure out how much money you will need for childcare. Many women who have made it were able to share childcare with their partner, or were supported for example by grandparents.

DIE ZEIT: Should universities be expanding their childcare offerings?

Fischer: The higher education institutions are already doing a lot. They have realised that they must have something to offer if they want to attract good women. Here in Göttingen for example they are building a new day-care facility. On the other hand it has to be possible to have the occasional child running around the university - not in the laboratories of course, but in the offices. That not only requires a change of thinking among working group leaders; schedules also have to become more family-friendly. Arranging board meetings for 7 p.m. is quite the opposite of family-friendly, and affects not only mothers, but also fathers who would like to spend more time with their families.

DIE ZEIT: Are men meanwhile wising up?

Fischer: Many young men I know want an equal relationship, and not the old "daddy's at work" model. The atmosphere at the universities has already changed significantly. But you do still come across the traditional ways of thinking. I once sat on an appointment commission where we informed applicants of our Dual Career programme, which helps partners also find jobs. Most men said something like: My wife's a technical assistant, she'll simply be coming with me. And when asked what suggestions they had regarding the advancement of women, one said that his contribution to equality consisted of having married his wife. So they're still around, those dinosaur attitudes.

From DIE ZEIT ::