The NCCR TransCure Gender Equality Program
As in most countries in the world, women in Switzerland are also underrepresented in leadership positions, especially at the professorial level in STEM disciplines. The NCCR TransCure promotes women in science at all career stages and in particular at the highest academic levels. This article illustrates past achievements and the strategy for the years to come.
The NCCR TransCure is driving forward multifaceted research by exploring the structure and function of membrane proteins in health and disease. Besides excellent research, one integrative aspect is gender equality. In Switzerland, the number of women in leadership positions in several academic disciplines – and in particular in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines – lags far behind the Swiss average of ca. 30%. In general, the percentage of women drops with each step up the career ladder within all branches of professional life. Academia is no exception: as an example, women make up only 11% and 15% of professors in the science and medical faculties, respectively. Although these alarmingly low numbers may be due to those specific fields, one has to recognise that “the systematic loss of women in the course of the academic curriculum is a structural weakness of the Swiss research landscape” (SNF Guidelines for NCCR Equal Opportunities Strategy). Gender equality throughout all disciplines is sustainable only if supported by changes in Swiss society, politics and overarching legal governance. The NCCR TransCure Gender Equality Action Plan aims at improving the general situation by promoting female scientists and enabling them to climb the academic career ladder.
In the past four years during phase 2, we have established a number of gender equality measures. At the organisational level, we encourage women to apply for positions in the NCCR TransCure, especially at leadership level. Through proactive advertisement, clear statements in the job posts and social media actions, we strive to reach as many (female) scientists as possible. As a result, two new women joined the network as principal investigators (Murielle Bochud in 2015 and Christine Peinelt in 2016), and the number of female postdocs has also increased (Fig. 1). To enhance the visibility of women in science, the TransCure annual symposium, usually held in the fall semester, includes a dedicated session on equal opportunities. This has so far been an excellent occasion for thought-provoking panel discussions and topic-specific talks. Moreover, gender parity among the speakers is a must, not only for the symposium but for all the TransCure events involving more than one talk. Measures for gender equality can also be very simple, such as the parent room provided in the NCCR TransCure headquarters with a comfortable chair for breastfeeding mothers or for any parent in need of a quiet corner with his/her child. They can also involve an exciting day in the lab for children but especially girls, in which playing with microscopes and pipettes can help to raise their interest in science. The Kids Lab Day (Fig. 2) has already been held twice and definitely appealed to the younger generation.
Special focus on fellows
Several measures target the female TransCure fellows in particular. One example is the “Career Pathway Lecture” series, initiated in 2017. These events take the form of role model lectures, in which a female scientist presents her research and provides tips on how to overcome typical obstacles of academic pathways. The hope is not only to improve the visibility of women in science but also to inspire young female scientists to pursue an academic career. Further opportunities include the training of soft skills, such as leadership, communication and management. Typically, two courses are organised every year and are given by experts in the field. A measure entirely dedicated to postdoctoral fellows is the “NCCR TransCure Young Investigator Award”. With this competitive instrument, two female postdocs per year are awarded with CHF 10,000 to finance research proposals with strong potential for development. This is not only concrete support for the present but also for the future, since it strengthens the independent funding track record of the awardees. Finally, in winter 2017, the new “Mentor Mentee Lunch” was launched. This initiative sponsors a lunch between a mentee (male or female TransCure fellow) and a potential mentor (professor from the TransCure or other institution), with the intention of kicking off a long-lasting mentor-mentee relationship. In the informal setting of a joint lunch, a variety of career planning options and obstacles can be discussed and then considered further in follow-up meetings. As one participating mentee said, “The lunch meeting program offers a perfect environment to have a private conversation with the mentors, enabling us to explain our situation to them and giving us the opportunity to express ourselves in a non-threatening setting.” Mentees would “recommend to other TransCure members to do the same and set up a mentor-mentee meeting”.
All the above-mentioned measures aim at building a sustainable gender equality culture in the network and beyond its boundaries. The NCCR TransCure has just entered its last funding phase (2018-2022) and at this stage, the strategic planning of future measures is key to reaching our goal. A fundamental step is to consider that gender equality is not exclusively a women’s issue but rather it concerns all stakeholders within the research environment. It was very important to make the TransCure researchers aware of this. Promising actions in this direction have been taken by several male principal investigators at the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine (University of Bern) in the last years. The NCCR TransCure Director, Hugues Abriel, personally led the gender equality program throughout phase 2 with enthusiasm and excellent ideas. Roch-Philippe Charles co-organised the annual symposium in 2017. More recently, Jürg Gertsch was one of the first mentors for the Mentor Mentee Lunch initiative, and Martin Lochner co-organised the Kids Lab Day 2018. This development demonstrates a clear commitment of NCCR TransCure principal investigators (male and female) to gender equality measures.
Despite advances, the involvement of group leaders in phase 3 can still be increased. The Action Plan aims to raise awareness of gender-related topics and will focus on unconscious bias throughout the network. The main questions to be answered are “Is our network biased in terms of gender and science?” and if yes, “Are we aware of this and which strategies are we following to improve the situation?” One way to find answers is to use an online survey specifically designed for this purpose (e.g., “Project Implicit”). This educational tool has been used by a small number of TransCure members in the framework of an internal pilot project. In addition to the survey, the participants involved answered another set of questions prepared by the TransCure team. The answers showed that some bias is present in the network, and hence work in this field will be valuable. The educational survey may be further used in the network and the topic of unconscious bias may be addressed in the framework of network events such as the annual retreat or other conferences.
A cooperative effort
The implementation of the gender equality measures requires a dedicated team and a collaborative spirit in the network. While Hugues Abriel was the Delegate for Gender Equality during phase 2, Christine Peinelt will take over this role for phase 3. C. Peinelt will be supported by H. Abriel, her NCCR TransCure colleagues and the administrative team. Moreover, as she is part of the Management Committee of the network, this will favour a direct integration of gender equality actions at all organisational levels. Combined forces are needed in this area and we wish the whole network all the best for the successful implementation of a strong gender equality program!
NCCR TransCure PI and Gender Equality delegate
NCCR TransCure PI
NCCR Scientific Officer