Gender Activities: Best Practice Interviews

Read the interviews below

Flexible career models

Anna Lührs: The youngest project manager in the HBP

27-year-old Anna Lührs is the youngest project manager in the HBP. The technomathematician is responsible for Subproject 7 at FZ Jülich. She enjoys bringing her organisational skills to her tasks. It was these skills that were spotted by her supervisor when she was first offered a coordination and administrative position. She soon became the deputy division leader. Now, Anna has an unlimited contract, which is fairly exceptional for someone her age.

Anna’s husband also works at the research centre in Jülich. Which means that in terms of starting a family, she is very optimistic that it would work well for both of them in their current job positions. Overall, she thinks that Jülich is exemplary in family-friendly measures. There are family-friendly working hours (usually no meeting before 9a.m. and after 4p.m.), an open attitude in the team, where men are also in charge of childcare or campus ID’s for relatives so they can also pick up the children: “It is the whole setting that matters”, she says.

Limited contracts hinder equal opportunities in science

In her view, the short and limited contracts are a one of the big structural problems in science. They are especially adverse for women because they make life planning extremely difficult. Unfortunately, there are still leaders who are afraid of employing women between 25 and 30 because of pregnancy and parental leave.

In terms of women in leadership positions, she is skeptical towards tight quotas. Like numerous young women, she is afraid of being seen as a “quota woman”. Nevertheless, she would support it if all bodies and committees are advised to search for women.

More flexible career models between science and management

Anna says she purposefully decided against a professorship, but is still considering a leadership position. She is dealing with the question of how important a PhD is to get a leadership position in scientific management. She is convinced that a good leader does not have to automatically be a good scientist and vice versa. Nevertheless, she also feels that in scientific management a PhD is expected. “I would wish for more flexible career models.”

Recommendation for the HBP: provide childcare at the summit

In the HBP she would support more exchanges between the project managers. “It would be very helpful to learn about the experiences of the others and see how they deal with the question of work-life balance”. In addition, the HBP could easily realise small actions such as to sample the need of childcare and provide it, especially at the annual summit. This would be an important signal to the younger generation: “Because we have to make the project as attractive as possible.”

Thinking about leadership culture

Timo Dickscheid: Group leader, promoting flexible work arrangements

Timo Dickscheid, group leader of “Big Data Analytics” at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1) at FZ Jülich, greatly appreciates that everyone respects his personal working model of working from home two days a week. He lives around 130km away from Jülich, together with his working wife and their three children. Without a flexible work arrangement, he would not have accepted the job offer at Jülich.

Now, Timo, who holds a PhD in computer science, is able to look after his three boys two times a week during lunchtime, before returning to his desk to work. In his team, flexible working hours, home office and part-time is possible. “I don’t see any trouble there.” he says his co-workers are intrinsically motivated, as are most scientists. It is the results that matter and not the amount of time spent in the office.

His position in the HBP and at FZ Jülich

Timo enjoys his work a lot. In the HBP he is leading a Work Package in Subproject 5 and two Tasks in Subproject 2 and 7. Consequently, he has a cross-cutting function between neuroscience, big data analysis, and software infrastructure development.

40 % women in his IT team

His team consists of 12 people five of whom are women, although informatics is still male-dominated in Germany. For years, the share of women was under 20 percent, though recently this reached a historical high of 25 percent. How then did he mange to get a high number of female applicants? His explanation is that perhaps the combination of IT with neuroscience is attractive for women. He would naturally employ women and would not worry about a pregnancy and parental leave. “Maybe, I am naïve in this respect, but we would always find a solution. Also, I can expect male colleagues just as well to consider a parental leave nowadays.” It is helpful, that in the whole institute, which is led by Prof. Katrin Amunts, there is an open attitude and individual solutions are possible, such as in his case. Furthermore, there is an equality office that can support you.

“The glass ceiling is very much related to how they communicate up there.”

Why are women still less represented in the top-positions at FZ Jülich? Timo assumes that above all, mistakes in the past are responsible. Today, nobody would prevent women from pursuing their careers. Though he observes that within the top-positions in science, the style of leading and communicating is still characterised by males, and this may discourage young women from entering the domain. “To me, the glass ceiling seems very much related to how they communicate up there,” he says. However, Timo believes that the idea of leadership and communication, as well as the expectations towards leadership and communication, are now in a transition phase.

Recommendations for the HBP: more visibility for women

For the HBP, promoting equal opportunities is clearly beneficial. Nevertheless, he observes that it is difficult for matters such as equality, ethics or the education program to maintain their ground on the busy agenda. The reasons are the omnipresent pressure of time and work that continuously push people’s focus onto the technical and scientific project goals. Timo suggests that at conferences and congresses more women should be encouraged to speak, to further increase the visibility of female role models. “Thereby, the younger generation should learn how it works.”

A new view to scientific careers

Liesbeth Vanherpe: computer scientist in the Blue Brain Project

Liesbeth never thought a technical course of study wouldn’t suit her. “This idea didn’t even cross my head.” The interdisciplinary and internationally oriented scientist completed a Master in Applied Science and Engineering and then a PhD in Computer Science at the KU Leuven, Belgium. Only one in seven of the students were female. This set-up rarely changed and today, in her team of seven, she is the only woman.

Originally from Belgium, Liesbeth first worked at CERN in Geneva, and is now part of the Blue Brain Project at EPFL, led by Henry Markram. The Blue Brain Project is working closely with Subproject 6 of the HBP to advance software development for neuroscientific research.

Together with her husband she has two young children. They are at the day care center of the Campus Biotech in Geneva, where the EPFL has negotiated a number of places, so the regular childcare is well organised. For Liesbeth, forming a family abroad was already a challenge, but she also identifies two other challenges: the general insecurity of scientific careers and the demand to be professionally mobile and move frequently. For a couple with children and an international dual career, this demand for geographic flexibility becomes a challenge.

Recommendations for career programs

From her personal background, she assesses specific career development programs for women as very positive. She especially welcomes programs that inform about requirements of scientific careers, that discuss strategies for career planning, and that prepare you for the frequent problems and challenges. In addition, she says, these programs also allow for active networking.

Currently, she is taking part in a mentoring program, which is organised by a network of French-speaking universities in Switzerland. The mentoring program is directed towards female post-docs, and those at the end of their PhD, who would like to prepare for a professorship. The program was launched in April 2017 and lasts 1.5 years. The first talks with her mentor have been very helpful.

There are two programs Liesbeth recommends from her own experience: the workshop program “Regard”, organised by the network of universities of French-speaking Switzerland, which runs events for women and men. The other program is organised by the equal opportunity offices of the EPFL and the ETH Zürich and has the programmatic name “Fix the leaky pipeline!”. Besides the workshops and the coaching, Liesbeth says the exchange of experiences and the network of the participants are extremely valuable.

Adapt selection criteria to recognise childcare

As a “quick-win”, she recommends the HBP provide childcare at conferences, because “to be visible, you have to be there.” She believes that a networking event for HBP women would also be useful, because it is important to get to know role models. A great initiative to learn from is the Nanny Fund as organised at the Eindhoven University of Technology, which finances “the travel and accommodation of a family member, friend, or childcare professional to the conference location to take care of the child(ren) or additional help at home if the children do not travel to the conference location”.

In general, there is a tendency to give more time to female scientists in order to grow into a senior position. However, Liesbeth is not convinced that this has the intended effect: instead this measure causes female scientists to be significantly older than their male colleagues when they obtain a senior position, which is discouraging. Therefore, besides the functional recommendations, she suggests career opportunities for parents (and in many cases women taking parental leave) could be structurally improved. The idea is that gaps in the CV because of childcare or a shorter publication list should not be an automatic disadvantage. Science organisations should adapt their selection criteria: what matters is the quality of the performance, achieved in a certain time, and not the quantity. During parental leave, scientists gain professional skills, for example in project management – so these “gaps” should be seen as an asset!

 “Because role models are important”

Pilar Flores Romero: Towards a culture of gender equality

Pilar is the Manager of Subproject 1 (Mouse Brain Organisation), working at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) as Scientific Project Manager at Cajal Cortical Circuits Laboratory. After completing her PhD in Biology, she moved into science management. She feels UPM is very active regarding gender equality: the university set up its unity for equality in 2009, complying with law.

Spain has a national strategic plan in science, technology and innovation in place, regulating gender equality policies. UPM has a social action plan that benefits diverse groups and Pilar says she has personally benefited from professional development courses. 20 out of 32 staff in her lab are female, and many of the colleagues have children. Her adopted son is now 20 years old.

The leaders are male, the staff is female

In Subproject 1 most of the Task Leaders are men, Work Package leaders are men, while most of the regular staff are women. However, she feels the situation largely depends on the group leader: “In our lab, there are no barriers, the head of the lab doesn’t mind, and he respects your personal choice.” However, Pilar sees leadership as a consequence of previous decades when the gender gap was even larger, she hopes in the future young female talent will be promoted more.

HBP book of female brain researchers

Pilar sees the key is promoting equality in the respective partner institutions, not in the HBP itself. However, she thinks the Project can organise various supporting activities, such as the planned gender conference. She has a variety of ideas on how to promote equality through communication, e.g. publish an article on equality in the project newsletter. There could a panel at the HBP Summit with the stories of successful women. Because role models are very important, she also suggests compiling a book of female brain researchers, to share their stories with the younger generation and encourage students to get into the domain. In general, guest speakers on equality topics should participate in the project events. Another idea is to draw up posters that promote equality for the Project events.

Other ideas concern policies. She would support information workshops for women in HBP and encourages more involvement of women in decision making bodies. She suggests analysing Subproject composition and tasks for bias and to develop and share a gender resource list at Subproject level and share it with other Subprojects. Pilar believe it is important to recognise researchers who break gender barriers and research teams who foster gender equality within their groups, possibly with a “HBP Equality Award”. Finally, she suggests scheduling a meeting with the EC to discuss gender equality within the HBP.

A career shock during pregnancy

Ingar Seemann: From science to management after the birth of her child

Ingar took her PhD in cancer research at the Netherlands cancer institute. She did not think much about what impact a pregnancy would have on her career in this male-dominated context. "I did not even mind, I didn’t realise how disadvantaged I was as a woman. So, when I fell pregnant during my PhD, I was told clearly how lame I was.”

“They will tell it to your face that it is annoying and stupid that you now have a child. They expect you to function like someone without a child and still to work your 60 hours,” says Ingar.

Consequently, Ingar took the conscious decision to change into science management and now works as the Subproject 3’s Manager at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA). In her view, inequality between men and women in science is very much related to the unequal distribution of child care responsibilities. She wishes someone would have told her as a junior scientist what the repercussions of having a child might be on scientific career planning.

A lack of gender awareness in the institutions

Interestingly, Ingar notes that she never came across the issue of gender equality at her university or in the HBP. She feels the level of flexibility depends very much on the respective team leader. Her daughter is now 8 years old and she is happy with her flexible work arrangement, working 4 days in total and 2 half days of these at home to be able to pick up her child after school. "In our project management office, for example, we have a much more comfortable, flexible and regulated situation because the boss himself has children. We have flexible working hours and home office, but that's up to the boss and not to the institute."

Gender training for recruiters

Although she notes the share of women in leadership is low at UvA (among the full professors, 110 are men and 5 women), she draw attention to a training course that everyone involved in recruitment must undergo. This course teaches them how to consider gender aspects in recruitment and support female applicants. However, she feels these measures are still too soft and is in favour of quota systems, flexible work arrangements and childcare support.

The HBP as a disseminator for gender policies

In her point of view, the low share of female professors at the different partner institutions is reflected in HBP leadership. Women in the HBP typically take over roles in communication, dissemination and administration. The change must happen at the institutes. However, the HBP holds a prominent role in the EU and thus has the opportunity to disseminate gender policies. Her suggestions for measures include the promotion of flexible work arrangements, as well as career building workshops for young female scientists so they can take informed decisions and learn how to win recognition, also around the family phase. Also, the HBP should guide its team leaders to integrate such information in the onboarding process.

Recommendation: promoting dual career mobility

Finally, Ingar underlines that the mobility requirements must be underpinned by active support for female scientists with children. If the HBP is to promote secondments between the partner institutions, it should also give active support for childcare, partner attendance and general information on how to reconcile mobility and family.

A team leader promoting diversity in recruitment

Andrew Davison: Raised by feminist parents

Andrew Davison is a senior research scientist at CNRS, France. He is involved as a Work Package and/or Task Leader in Subproject 5, 6 and 9 and can thus contribute a variety of perspectives. From different Subprojects, but also from different countries: he completed his PhD in the UK, did his Postdoc in the US and has now been living in France for 14 years.

Raised by feminist parents, he always felt he had a general awareness on equality issues. However, he says he had no idea on the policies at CNRS in this regard. Especially in Subproject 9, the issue is obvious, since there are rarely any women attending the meetings. In general, he says gender imbalance is quite a problem in the field of neuromorphic computing, there are very few women. The imbalance starts at undergraduate level.

Successful in recruiting female software engineers

Therefore, he really pays attention when hiring people to his team. Initially, when he advertised for a postdoc position he received 9 applications from men only. Next time, when hiring research software engineers, he rephrased the call, and considered advertising it through specific organisations for women in computer science, although in the end this was unnecessary. This approach was fruitful: he received a higher number of applications by female candidates and was able to hire two women and two men. Andrew has started his own list of female scientists’ organisations for recruitment and speaking engagement purposes. His recommendation is to develop such a list of resources for the HBP Gender action plan, to be consulted by all HBP colleagues.

When people are recruiting or organising conferences, they should keep this list in mind, and the HBP should provide information and training on gender-sensitive recruitment and speaking invitation strategies.

HBP meetings as a family challenge

Having three children and a wife working full time in shifts, Andrew experiences the challenge of reconciling work and family first-hand. However, he says with France’s good childcare infrastructure and flexible working times at the lab, albeit without a formal policy, their day-to-day management works out. The challenge to reconcile the family schedules arises each time with one of the frequent HBP meetings, Andrew concludes.