The equal opportunities debate in the academic environment is a multifaceted problem that requires an open-minded, forward-looking approach by scientists and decision makers at universities and within faculties – both from females and males. In this interview, Christine Peinelt, Gender Equality Delegate of the NCCR TransCure, shares her experiences and vision, offering interesting insights into equal opportunity questions that will concern us in the short and long term. At the end of the interview, Paulina Stoklosa, an NCCR TransCure Fellow, adds her point of view to our reflection on this topic.
Interview: Valentina Rossetti
Christine, you now dedicate time and passion to the gender equality issue in academia. Would you have imagined this when you were a student?
In 1994, almost 30 years ago, I started studying biology at the Phil.-Nat. Faculty in Konstanz (DE). I was strongly convinced that even though my professors where mostly males, I would never have to deal with gender equality issues. At that time, I was focused on mastering my career and I thought that the academic research landscape would sort out any gender issues. Little did I know! Looking back, I shake my head in stunned surprise at my cluelessness and naivety.
What else makes you shake your head when you look at the current gender situation at the University of Bern?
Looking at the current numbers within the Faculty of Medicine, I have to accept that I was wrong. In 2020, the percentage of female professors with a faculty professorship were ~20% for “extraordinary” professors (AOP) and ~10% for “ordinary” professors (OP) (Fig. 1A). Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in academia and is the effect of the so called ‘leaky pipeline’, namely that women drop out of academic research and careers at senior levels.
How can faculties or other university units achieve better numbers?
At the University of Bern, I am part of the Faculty of Medicine’s Innerfaculty Commission for Gender Equality and I closely cooperate with the Office for Gender Equality. I can provide some insights into the current strategy in this framework. Personally, I used to be against fixing a certain quota to increase the number of women in academic leadership positions. However, I have started to change my mind. In the Faculty of Medicine, a female quota of 40% when hiring new faculty professors has recently been set. However, no quota has been fixed for the promotion of lecturers (Privatdozent) to associate professors (associate professors are not faculty members). Figure 1B shows the consequences: in 2020, while the number of newly employed female faculty professors significantly increased (>50%), the share of female lecturers promoted to associate professor remained largely unchanged. The introduction of quotas for women should hence be supported at all academic levels. This would represent a true change in the system. I am glad to see that young NCCR TransCure fellows also take this issue seriously. I take this occasion to give the word to one of my postdoctoral researchers, Paulina Stokłosa: read her opinion at the end of this interview!
Is gender equality only a matter for women?
Gender equality is generally considered to be a classic women’s problem, but we will never get out of this mindset without the help of our male colleagues. We need to involve them in all aspects of the issue. Within the NCCR TransCure, we are making good headway: male PIs are actively supporting gender equality measures on a regular basis, for example by hosting the career pathway lectures or co-organising outreach activities for children. However, the road is still long. In 2019, I was invited to participate in an exclusive leadership program for female associate or full professors named “H.I.T.” (High Potential University Leaders Identity & Skills Training Program – Gender Sensitive Leaders in Academia). To my surprise, male professors were not even invited to join. Shouldn’t they be supported in becoming gender-sensitive leaders in academia as much as females? This is just one example that shows how easily male colleagues are excluded from gender equality issues. My hope is that more and more scientists, both males and females, will put effort in this field.
You have been the Gender Equality Delegate of the NCCR TransCure since 2018. What is your strategy to promote and support women in the network?
Within the NCCR TransCure, we have developed far-sighted strategies including structural aspects, career development, work-life balance, gender aspects in research and teaching, and raising awareness. Our measures are in line with SNSF guidelines and are innovative and progressive in character. They complement existing measures and should have a lasting impact on the University of Bern through long-term implementation.
Numbers show that our efforts are going in the right direction: since phase 1, the number of women in the NCCR TransCure management committee and in the pool of PIs has increased from 14% to 22% and from 13% to 26%, respectively. I am pleased to highlight our latest hire of Wanda Kukulski as Professor Extraordinaria at the University of Bern. She is an internationally recognised expert in cryogenic electron microscopy of cellular structures and joined the network as a PI in May 2020.
Besides encouraging women to apply for positions in the NCCR TransCure, gender equality measures encompass career pathway lectures, tailored soft-skills courses, young scientist awards, mentoring, and activities for children and school classes. For fellows with children, who are the main caregiver and do not fulfil the SNSF Flexibility Grant criteria, we offer a grant of CHF 500 per child and month. Moreover, we put special effort into gender balance in the symposia and conferences we organise and also sponsor female speakers at partner events.
Indeed, congresses are often dominated by male speakers. What do you say to those claiming that they do not know suitable female colleagues to invite?
If you cannot find suitable women, search harder! I encourage colleagues to use helpful platforms such as www.academia-net.org to find female speakers (and female candidates for professorships). To facilitate the search and prevent “YAMMM” (Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting), the NCCR TransCure Director, Hugues Abriel, together with Sharona Gordon (University of Washington in Seattle, USA), recently launched the website “Women Plus in Biophysics” (https://womenplusinbiophysics.org/). This website serves as a database of female speakers based all over the world in the field of membrane transporters, ion channels or membrane biology. Whether you are a scientist, an educator, a journalist, or a policy maker, you can search the database and find female scientists with the expertise you are looking for.
The NCCR TransCure is approaching its end (October 2022). What do you personally want to achieve in the field of gender equality by the time the finish line is crossed?
I hope to raise awareness of gender equality with all members of the NCCR TransCure. Gender equality will not happen by itself and we should all put time and energy into helping to fix this issue. Our work will not end in October 2022 and I hope to motivate all my colleagues to support gender equality beyond the NCCR TransCure. The energy that younger fellows put into this also gives me hope. Do not forget to read Paulina’s contribution below!
NCCR TransCure PI, Co-Director ad interim, Gender Equality Delegate
Paulina Stockłosa, a fresh graduate in the Peinelt group at the University of Bern, is continuing her studies as a postdoctoral researcher. Here, she provides her opinion about the current challenges of female candidates aiming for a professorial career.
As a recent PhD graduate and current postdoctoral researcher, I would like to emphasise the importance of hiring more women at faculty level. The number of female professors has a strong impact on encouraging young female scientists, both at PhD and postdoctoral level, to pursue an academic career and prevent the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’. More female role models, particularly women with children, can make a huge difference in whether a female PhD student takes the next big step along the tenure track. To the eyes of a young female scientist, a low number of female professors with children suggests that tenure-track faculty careers are not family friendly. Female role models prove that succeeding as a professor with a family is possible. It is the responsibility of a university to create a positive environment for female scientists. What is the best way to encourage female candidates to purse an academic career? Hiring more women would be a strong signal of a positive environment. For these reasons, implementing measures such as fixing certain quotas to increase the number of women in academic leadership positions will have a beneficial effect in the future. It is also worth emphasising the role of mentors. Not only can the number of women at faculty level encourage young women to pursue an academic career, but also how they are advised and mentored. Career pathway lectures or soft-skills courses obviously help in this respect. However, to eliminate conscious and unconscious gender bias it is still of the utmost important that male professors become gender-sensitive leaders, familiar with issues that women might face during their academic career.