March 8, 2021

International Women’s Day: The future is equal – leading women in the HBP

For this year’s International Women’s Day, the UN Women have announced the theme “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. Therefore, we want to put the spotlight on the leading women in the HBP. One of these women is the HBP lead scientist Prof. Talma Hendler.

Prof. Hendler (MD, PhD) is a professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, and the founding director of the Sagol Brain Institute at Tel-Aviv Medical Center. Her research focuses on emotion and the brain, bridging the gaps in the medical treatment of mental wellbeing. The motivation behind her work is to improve mental health by bringing it closer to evidence-based neuroscience.

Her research examines among others the effects of traumatic stress on mental health. Recently she has focused on the interaction of motivational behaviour and stress, especially the complex relationship between the response to rewards and threats. Among others, stress influences our abilities to strive towards rewards while risking losses.

Prof. Hendler’s research is related to the HBP’s mission of studying the human brain as a system, by investigating it from different scales (fMRI, EEG, behaviour and intercranial recordings). Along these lines, one aspect of her research relies on new technologies of neuroimaging and neuromodulation through advanced analytics. For example, she combines functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Electroencephalography (EEG) with Machine Learning to produce “Electrical Finger Prints” (EFPs), enabling scalable monitoring of deeply located emotional brain areas with EEG only. She uses emotion related EFPs to guide NeuroFeedback; a closed-loop self-neuromodulation technique, to enhance people’s capability to improve their mental health through reinforced brain modifications. Prof. Hendler brings the full scale of measurement into her brain research while accounting for the individual phenotype, which is a perfect match with the HBP’s vision of understanding the human brain from the single cell up to the overall system level.

Role Models and Mentors

Especially two women have inspired Prof. Hendler to follow her career in science, both being outstanding role models and mentors to her: Deceased Leslie Ungerleider (post-doc mentor, National Institute of Mental Health) and Nancy Squires (PhD mentor, Stony Brook University). Staying abroad for a couple of years and working with these women-mentors in a different culture and outside of her social constrains, proved to be mind-opening for Prof. Hendler.

“In those times when they were making their career, it was either [science] or [family] – which is not the case now.”, Prof. Hendler remembers, “Leslie and Nancy gave everything for science.” Both women supported Prof. Hendler to build trust and confidence in her own abilities. They demonstrated that it is possible to achieve a career in science as a woman, if women dared to. Prof. Hendler satisfyingly says that although devotion and dedication to science is still of high relevance to succeed, it has become more acceptable to have a family and a career. However, for that, professional as well as personal support, i.e., measures at one’s institution and support of one’s family, are crucial.

Today, she herself supports young women scientists, as societies still have norms and stereotypes about the roles and choices women should take. She states: “Still women in most parts of the world don’t have the surrounding support to fly, to go ahead and not to be afraid to achieve what they dream of. It’s not yet in the DNA of most societies.”

Advice for women scientists

Prof. Hendler’s advice for women striving for a career in science is to adhere to the “4 Ds”, which are also inspired by her mentor Leslie Ungerleider: “Daring, Devotion, Diligence and Delegate”.

Daring means that the sky is the limit. Women should not be afraid “push the borders”. Pushing the borders also means to cross disciplines. And if this means to approach an unfamiliar discipline you have not been trained in: go ahead and ask your scientific colleagues who are experts in this field.

Devotion means that it is important to be persistent and give a lot of yourself to the matter. It means to make it a focus of your life for some time. For a high-road career, you need to be dedicated to make it.

Diligence means simply hard working. It means it is not enough to be smart, and you need not to give up after failing. It means to try, to fail, to try and fail again and finally to succeed. It means also doing things you do not really like and where the benefit might not be immediately clear.

Delegate means that you cannot do it all by yourself, you have to delegate some of the responsibility to others, e.g., students. Make sure it is clear to the students that you trust them and that they are able to achieve results. Most importantly: be generous, ensure that they will be given the credit they deserve. After all, “You must be [first of all] a person and then a scientist, otherwise it is impossible to achieve your mission […]. Collaborations are really an essential prerequisite for success in neuroscience.”

Recommendations for the HBP

In the last phase of the project (SGA3 Status February 2021), women account for 35% of all leadership positions in the HBP. This is an increase of 13%-points compared to March 2020 and of 19%-points compared to 2017.

Figure 2: Comparison of gender distribution in HBP Leadership

Based on the Vision for Diversity and Equal Opportunities, the HBP has taken several measures to achieve these results, among others a mentoring programme, a commitment of leaders which includes a checklist and a specific emphasis of gender and diversity as relevant criteria in open calls. The overall approach is inclusive, e.g. the mentoring programme is open to all genders, scientists, and managers of science alike in order to enhance mutual support.

Prof. Hendler welcomes this inclusive approach. Based on her experience, it is important that partners support each other. For her, this was the case: “My partners were really supportive. They constantly told me that I can do it. And they took an active role in family life. We cared together.”

Reflecting on women in leadership, Prof. Hendler would suggest a special HBP training in how to manage. A specific HBP leadership training could focus on initiating interdisciplinary collaborations and leading fund-raising efforts in consortia. “Most women still lack the same amount of socialisation and confidence that is needed for an influential career. Being assertive, speaking up, not being afraid of being wrong… All kinds of things that could be taken for granted by men”, Prof. Hendler says.

Men who later strive for an academic career often have had more opportunities to explore leading roles, e.g. in sport clubs, military or social services thereby experiencing training and gaining confidence. Women often lack these experiences.

Given the persistence of societal norms and values, Prof. Hendler also recommends supporting women economically with grants and fellowships, enabling them to balance career and family life, e.g. by providing budget for travelling with children and their partner.

Dedicated support will encourage women to pursue the necessary steps for a competitive career.

The future is equal

Working together for a better, equal future is an ongoing process to which we all contribute. Therefore, we invite you to contact us and share your thoughts on equal opportunities and bring in your ideas. We look forward to keeping the conversation going and creating an equal future together.

We thank Prof. Talma Hendler for this inspiring interview and her recommendations!

Summarised by Julia Trattnig and Karin Grasenick