”If we build it, they will come”

It was three experienced role models who participated in the panel discussion about women's career advancement in clinical and basic neuroscience. With different nationalities, career paths, and research areas, their story was strikingly similar – so were their suggestions to change it.

The discussion panel. Photo: Marjun Danielsen, AU Photo.
The discussion panel. Photo: Marjun Danielsen, AU Photo.

The article was originally published at the DANDRITE website: https://dandrite.au.dk/display/artikel/if-we-build-it-they-will-come


The statistics tell one story: the number of women in top research positions continues to not rival that of men. The people tell another: why is this, and what can be done?

On Friday 22 March DANDRITE hosted a panel discussion, including Professor Erin Schuman from Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Professor Marina Romero-Ramos from Dept. of Biomedicine, AU, Clinical Professor Ida Vogel from Aarhus University Hospital and Professor Helle Prætorius from Dept. of Biomedicine, AU as a moderator. With an almost filled auditorium and 69 persons following the discussion online the interest in the agenda was evidently.

With a combined experience of more than 60 years, the three female professors, Erin Schuman, Marina Romero-Ramos, and Ida Vogel, could place the gender debate into a longer historical context that doesn't seem to have changed much in the last 30 years.

Maternity leave, gender differences, the lack of infrastructure and quotas were on the agenda when they articulated their experiences of advancing their careers in research.

"When I joined the Max Planck Society 15 years ago and started looking at the microclimate there, I found that there was no childcare on Campus which shocked me," Erin Schuman began.

“And when asked why, the reply from the university management then was; well we do not have any babies.”

Being a top researcher and mother of two children, she thus had to use creative methods to challenge a German system that traditionally didn't send their children to childcare facilities until they were over 1 year old. Instead, she chose to establish an area of the building reserved for staff with young children and infants so they could still maintain a part of their work life – they called it “the brainy baby room”.

"I was almost called a criminal for challenging the German maternity leave model," Schuman recounts.

All three women acknowledged that maternity leave for an extended period is a huge challenge for an ongoing research project. Still, more should be done to create flexible arrangements for women who want to continue participating in the project during maternity leave, for example by creating the infrastructure that makes it possible to combine a career and a family.

As Erin Schuman stated: “If you build it, they will come”, a reference to the baseball-movie “Field of Dreams”, insinuating that if you create something that adds value to people, they will come to you.

Also, Ida Vogel fought her own battle when first going on maternity leave as a PhD student in 1996.

“I was surprised that I didn't get a salary during maternity leave, and that was because I only got a three-year grant from the Danish Research Council, and they did not include money for maternity leave," Ida explains. As a result, she chose to go to trial with the help of the Danish Medical Association, which she won. This case set a precedent for future PhD students.

For her the discussion of either/or is not relevant:

“I just need to make it clear; You do not have to choose between a research career and a family, it is not a choice you need to make. Period!” Ida Vogel stressed.

It is up to the men to solve the problem
Halfway into the discussion, the panel came to the role of men, and that creating an environment for the career advancement of women will have an impact on men.

"I am nervous to say this, but it is up to the men to solve this problem. You will have to step down, you are going to be the one making the difference. If we are going to hire more women, then we are going to hire fewer men, and for the men to acknowledge that is the main obstacle," Ida Vogel states.

When asked a question about the use of quotas in research positions, the panel agreed that we should not be afraid to take this step, but instead of quotas, it should be defined as goals.

“To implement change quickly it is okay to have positions specifically for women. One must think about the reversed quota that was implemented in the early 1900s where only men were selected for positions. So, I think we could have a period where we could have exclusively female searches,” Erin Schuman replies.

As the system stands now, it is often the so-called “masculine” woman who makes it through the system, but we need all types of women, Marina Romero-Ramos points out, including the introverted, the vulnerable, the emotional, and the contemplative. This would benefit the working environment, she argues. We not only need gender diversity, but we also need diversity within genders.

She experienced loneliness as she climbed higher up the career ladder because female colleagues became fewer, and men didn't always understand her way of being.

"Men and women communicate differently," Marina asserts, recounting her experience of being very outspoken, often being associated with her Spanish background by her male colleagues. As a result, she would not necessarily share all her opinions in the company of only men, even though she had equal merit.

But what do the numbers say?
Today each of the three professors has devoted part of their time to increasing attention to this agenda, by engaging actively in organizations, debates, and committees. Not least driven by the hard statistics from both the European Union (She Figures), Denmark (Talentbarometeret) and the Neuroscience research field in particular (FENS).

Based on a dataset from FENS measuring the proportion of women per academic position, there are 60% women at the PhD level and 38% at the professor level.

A similar picture is found in the "She Figures" published by the European Union every three years, with around 48% of PhD students being women, while just over 33% are professors.

About the panel discussion:
The panel discussion was part of Erin Schuman’s visit to DANDRITE and Aarhus University. Erin Schuman is the lead author of a commentary article published in Nature describing the structural barriers to women’s career progression in Neuroscience.

Find the article here: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37872304/