“We want to be as inclusive as possible”

 A conversation with our Gender Equality Officers

September 13, 2021

At the beginning of 2021, Laurène André, Stephanie Panier and Uschi (Orsolya) Symmons have been elected as the Institute's Gender Equality Officers. We spoke to them to hear how they define their role and what their plans are for the future.

Why did you become a Gender Equality Officer?

Stephanie: I have experienced aspects of gender inequality throughout my research career, and so I always felt strongly about the issues that female scientists face in a male-dominated working environment. After my postdoc and moving into my new role as a group leader and as a mother, I started to really think about why it is that women, and particularly mothers, are so underrepresented the higher you get up the scientific career ladder and what it would take to change this. I felt that being a Gender Equality Officer is the perfect opportunity for me to directly support female scientists at our Institute and to help shape a working environment that encourages women to pursue scientific leadership positions.

Laurène:  I think it is important to work in an inclusive environment, where people of all genders have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities and feel free to speak up about topics and issues that might affect them. I thought it would be a good opportunity for myself to take an active role regarding this topic and also to learn more about it.

Have you experienced situations where you felt that you or someone else was not treated equally?

Stephanie: I have encountered many situations throughout my years in science – not direct sexual harassment, thankfully, but many, many little things like off-hand comments about my gender or my qualification or the lack thereof because I am a woman. For example, after my undergraduate research project, I was told by a senior researcher in the lab I was in at the time that I shouldn’t pursue a PhD degree because I am a woman and that I just didn’t have “it” in me, unlike my male peers. According to him, I had gotten into the lab only because of my physical attributes.  For a while, I believed him and I almost didn’t apply for graduate school because of this experience. To this day and despite all my achievements, I still think about it on occasion.

Uschi: I myself never had the feeling that my gender played into how I was evaluated. For me it is more the systemic unfairness that I have repeatedly seen. For example, age limits in grants don’t acknowledge the many statistics that have shown that women’s careers often take just a year or more longer.

Laurène: I have also encountered some issues regarding gender, but if I would have to name one example in particular, it would be a comment made by a PI to a female PhD student: “Why would you apply for that grant - you are at the age to have kids anyways?”. Even if it was an off-handed comment, this made me feel very aware that - some - people  did still see women differently from men, and not as a researcher primarily.

Do you think that men should also be able to become Gender Equality Officers or at least be able to vote?

Uschi: This is debated widely. I think we all agree that equal opportunity can only happen if everyone is on board. You can’t just single-handedly decide that you want to have equal opportunity. Of course, this causes a lot of animosity if you tell any group that they should not be part of this journey. At the same time, I think a lot of women have had negative experiences and are worried that if men are gender equality officers, they are going to dominate the conversation. We as a team have decided that we are trying to be as inclusive as possible. We try to communicate that we don’t care which gender someone has, if they feel the topic is relevant for us, we are happy to represent them as best as we can. Any measure that improves being inclusive will hopefully capture all underrepresented groups. And this doesn’t just include gender, but also nationalities or first-generation academics.

What do you think about the current situation at the institute? Could you identify major problems so far?

Stephanie: The situation at the institute is actually quite good in terms of representation. We are, for example, right now at 50/50 on director positions. Female representation could still be better at the level of research group leaders, but I am confident that this gap can be closed when open positions are filled in the next years. In general, there is a very inclusive spirit at the institute. People are very interested and open-minded about topics pertaining to gender equality and equal opportunity. For example, since we have started as Gender Equality Officers at the beginning of the year, we have had male colleagues contacting us about certain gender equality topics, such as gender-equal language in the Institute’s internal communication. One focus of our work at the moment is to open up the conversation on gender equality and equal opportunity also to LGBTQ+ topics, because these are currently not really being addressed at the institute.

Uschi: Another area that we are actively working on, is to increase the visibility of the gender equality office, what we do and how we can help people. For example, after talking to colleagues, we realized that many people don’t really know who to contact if they encounter or observe sexual discrimination or even abuse. Thankfully such cases are rare, but it is our job to be a point of contact, to provide advice - and to support people if they wish to make a formal complaint. And of course, any such conversation is completely confidential!

You have all lived outside Germany – do you think that there is a different situation in other countries?

Stephanie: For me personally, the issue of gender equality never felt as acute as when I moved to Germany. I am a working mother, and I routinely have to justify myself one way or the other here in Germany for sending my kids to daycare until the afternoon. And let’s not even talk about the difficulty of finding a full-time daycare spot for my toddler in the first place! I have lived in England before moving to Germany, and there it is much more accepted and normal for a mother of a toddler to be working full time.

Uschi: I was also very involved in the Gender Equality program at my previous university in the US. There was a very active program with a lot of peer support, but when we tried to implement measures we were very heavily reliant on the support of PIs and the university management, because it wasn’t a formal program. To some extent I really like having the formal role of a gender equality office with an actual budget that allows us to do things.

What are your next steps?

Stephanie: We first plan to conduct a survey that assesses which concerns regarding gender equality and diversity people at the institute have and to gauge which kind of changes they are hoping for at the institute. We are hoping that the results from this survey will help us to develop a gender equality and diversity program that is specifically tailored to the needs of the staff here at the MPI-Age.

Laurène: As Uschi already mentioned, we plan to make our position more visible. Our colleagues should know who to contact if they notice any issues related to gender equality. We want to organize some events geared towards all genders with issues that might come out of the survey.

A contribution by Maren Berghoff.

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