Four women speak out: My greatest challenge as a researcher

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Very few women become university researchers. So Omnibus asked four women who’ve made it to the top of the research career ladder to tell us about the greatest challenge they’ve faced as female academics.

2018.12.03 | Lene Ravn og Roar Paaske (fotos)

Women are in the minority

On the lowest rung of the academic career level, women are in the majority: female PhD students outnumber their male counterparts by a tiny margin. But the situation is reversed by the time junior researchers are applying for postdoctoral positions, the majority of which go to men.

In 2017, only 20 percent of AU’s professors were women.  

This imbalance is most pronounced at the Faculty of Science and Technology, where only 9 percent of the professors were women in 2017. The gender balance is most equal at the Faculty of Arts, the faculty with the highest proportion of female professors – here 32 percent of professors are women.

In 2016, the university board adopted an action plan to increase the number of female researchers at AU. The plan includes a variety of targets, but in the light of the most recent new hires, the university will fail to meet them, according to the Main Liaison Committee’s memo.

On 16 November, the AU Junior Researcher Association (JRA) held a conference entitled More Women in Research: A Call for Action. The four women interviewed in this article participated in the conference at a panel discussion of the issue. 

And one of the factors identified during the debate that can make a research career particularly challenging for women is the expectation – or in some cases requirement – of a period of research abroad. Just as it was pointed out repeatedly that managers have a tendency to favorize applicants of their own sex, which is detrimental for women. Maternity leave can also be a barrier to a research career.

An opinion poll carried out by Magisterbladet (the member magazine for the union Dansk Magisterforening, or Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, ed.) in November among 625 female respondents revealed that 12 percent of female researchers and teachers at Danish universities have experienced incidents in which their performance was devalued on the grounds of their gender within the last year. The same poll showed that 10 percent of these women had dealt with having their bodies were commented on in an offensive way in the workplace within the last year.

Sources: AU and JRA

“You’re too much of a man. I don’t think you realize how arrogant people think you are.”

Dorthe Berntsen

Professor, director of CON AMORE, the Center om Autobiographical Research, at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences.

“It was in 2012. I had been director of the center for two years, and tons of op eds heaping criticism on the structural reform (major reorganization of AU’s academic and administrative structure in 2011, ed.) were being written. But I wrote one defending it, and a lot of people were affronted. It was a wasps’ nest. But for me – who’d just received a large centre establishment grant – parts of the reform were advantageous, actually.

A male colleague tried to set up a meeting with me several times because of the debate my op ed had generated. I really couldn’t be bothered. But he ended up sitting across from me one morning anyway.

He said:

“You’re too much of a man. I don’t think you realize how arrogant people think you are.”

What I heard him say was that I wasn’t a real woman – I was a monstrosity. That I’d given up my sex in exchange for the role of center director. A role that was ultimately unnatural for me, and the fact that I had it nonetheless was because there was something defective about me. 

When I got home, I talked to my partner about it. Fortunately he didn’t think that I was too much of a man, but he found it amusing.

And as an American, he could see it from a different angle. And this would never happen in the States, of course, because my colleague would have gotten complaints immediately. But at Aarhus University, there wasn’t anywhere you could complain about that kind of harassment. 

I don’t work with him any more, and we’ve never really actually said goodbye.

Once in a while I’ve considered whether I should ask him to go and get a cup of coffee and talk over what happened that day. But I never have. Some things that shouldn’t have happened have happened. But that doesn’t mean that I hate him, or that I’m flawless myself. But maybe there are some other people I should drink that cup of coffee with.”

“All the men had to do to become co-authors was dance through the lab. While I was acknowledged along with the lab technicians and nurses”

Lise Wogensen Bach 

Vice-dean for talent development at the Faculty of Health. As a professor with special responsibilities in matrix biology, her primary research interest has been hypertension and renal complications in diabetes.

“I was a research assistant at Niels Steensen Hospital (now the Steno Diabetes Center Copenhagen, ed.) where I had worked in the lab on some methods of analysis for a research project. It was a big job, and I had participated in planning the experiment, generating the results, writing and discussions. And of course, there were some people who were the primary owners of these projects who were going to write three or four articles for journals. And when they finished the first draft, it turned out that I was listed under ‘acknowledgements’. At the same time, some people I knew had basically just flitted through the lab were cited as co-authors. It was clear that all the men had to do to become co-authors was dance through the lab. While I was acknowledged along with the lab technicians and nurses.

I should be on the list of co-authors too. After all, I’d participated in all the steps there are in a research process. They just thought it was nice to have a men’s club. 

I didn’t think this was acceptable at all, so I called my colleagues and the boss in to a meeting where I said that it wasn’t ok. They thought that was a strange thing for me to do, and their rationalization was that I hadn’t participated in the preliminary planning. We discussed it, and they bought it: I became a co-author. I don’t believe they were conscious of the bias they had before the meeting. They had probably just put me in the wrong place out of habit. After all, most of the women were laboratory technicians and nurses, and I believe my colleagues had just thought that I should be thanked along with the other women. 

That was in 1990, but I still believe that women have to fight harder for their co-authorship than men. I’ve had these battles a handful of times myself, and in any case, it’s well-known that women have to perform better to get the same recognition as men.

I’ve gotten my inspiration from the female mentor I had at the Scripps Research Institute in California for almost three years – you have to get out there in the spotlight. Even though her male colleague reacted to this by exclaiming “By the way, you and your postdocs are not feminine at all”. I’ve tried to be proactive my whole life. My career is the result of the fact that I’ve made some choices, taken some chances, been mobile – and I’ve also had a good time along the way.

One time I was supposed to say the welcoming remarks at a PhD defence as a representative for the faculty. I was basically the first person in the room, sat down in the front row and had the protocol ready. And then the PhD supervisor came in through the door. He stood there looking. He looked at the clock. He looked out the door, and then he got impatient. So then I just said: “If you’re looking for the head of the defence, well then I’m right here.” And he said: “Uhm, I though it would be a m...” And that’s just how things are. 

When you’re in the management, you see it again from a new angle. I’ve been at a lot of meetings where there were maybe two women and twenty men where I’ve just thought: ‘Where are all of the other women?’.  

And just as I myself have been treated differently as a woman, as a manager I have to make a conscious effort to treat everyone the same. I’ve had a lot of interviews with PhD students, you know, and you have to really be conscious about making sure you ask men and women the same questions, because all of us have unconscious biases. And actually, you can end up going overboard and helping the women too much.”

READ MORE: Gender researcher: "Gender equality is not just a question of staff policy"

"They’ve instructed me on ‘how things are done in Uganda’"

Lotte Meinert

Professor with special responsibilities at the Department of Anthropology, School of Culture and Society. One of her main research interests is conflict and post-conflict societies, and virtually all of her research is currently taking place in Uganda.

“Some of the most glaring examples I’ve experienced are happening right now. Right now I’m heading a major research project in Uganda, where there’s an incredible amount of gender inequality, and I’m really committed to doing something about it. 

For so many years, I’ve respected the hierarchy in Uganda in that all three of the project managers I’ve worked with previously have been men. But now I think it’s time for a change. So when I presented my latest project to the Ugandan university, I was very explicit about which female project manager I wanted. 

I’ve been helping her prepare for several years, and she’s a jewel. Not only is she a woman – she’s simply the best qualified. One of the major reasons I’m doing this project at all is because I want to help her advance. But there are some people who believe that I as a woman shouldn’t be allowed to decide, and they’ve instructed me on ‘how things are done in Uganda’. 

I hired her anyway. And she and I are encountering all kinds of resistance. 

I’m constantly nervous about what kind of harassment and pressure she could be exposed to. They’re sabotaging her, so I have to be the one with steel in my spine and tell her we’re not going to back down. We just have to be extra stubborn and persistent.  

We have to upset the apple cart – otherwise we won’t get anywhere. As we know from our own university. When choosing partners to work with, we more often choose a talented person of our own sex. Male colleagues oversee female colleagues, and vice versa. And maybe that’s how I am too – better at spotting good women. In this sense, we’re all gendered, and we have to make an extra effort to detect how that gives us a bias.” 

READ MORE: 110 honorary doctors at AU – five are women

"My husband took a leave of absence so I could play on the men’s court"

Trine Bilde

Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Department of Bioscience

“Doing research abroad is a very concrete challenge for researchers. It’s a big family project, and it’s hardest for women. I myself was able to break with the norms because my husband did something unusual.  

I had finished my PhD, we had two small children, and I was passionate about continuing my research. But that would mean research abroad. So my husband assumed the role that women have typically taken on: he took a leave of absence. Which meant that I was able to play on the men’s court. 

He gave up his job as an engineer, and we knew that he would have to find something else when he came back home. Just as we had to accept a reduction in his salary. We decided that we could live with that, and decided to move to Israel in 2000. 

When we told people what we’d decided, people said to him: ‘Wow, it’s really fantastic that you’re doing that,‘ ‘What a major sacrifice you’re making,’ ‘How generous of you’. They all focused on the fact that he was the one taking time off. 

Just like when he’s travelled for work, people react with ‘How hard it must be for you to be away from your family.’ But when I travelled people said: ‘How hard it must be for your husband to handle everything while you’re gone.’ 

I was the only one working in Israel. In the meantime, he took the kids to kindergarten and school, shopped at the market in Beersheba, dealt with the practical stuff and went sightseeing with the people who visited us. Even though it was motivated by my career, he approached it like an experience for him and our family.

I’ve known a lot of couples where the husband has had a career that completely dominated everything, and the wife has had to take care of the entire household by herself. There are still plenty of examples of this. And this can be fine, but there has to be a mutual understanding. As a couple, you have to be a team. 

And if you have a partner who isn’t on board with the fact that it cuts both ways, you have to decide whether that’s the right person for you. 

You have to be aware of the fact that a research career takes more courage and more risks than most.”

READ MORE: Five new research projects aim to create more gender equality at AU

 

Women are in the minority at AU

On the lowest rung of the academic career level, women are in the majority: female PhD students outnumber their male counterparts by a tiny margin. But the situation is reversed by the time junior researchers are applying for postdoctoral positions, the majority of which go to men.

In 2017, only 20 percent of AU’s professors were women.  

This imbalance is most pronounced at the Faculty of Science and Technology, where only 9 percent of the professors were women in 2017. The gender balance is most equal at the Faculty of Arts, the faculty with the highest proportion of female professors – here 32 percent of professors are women.

In 2016, the university board adopted an action plan to increase the number of female researchers at AU. The plan includes a variety of targets, but in the light of the most recent new hires, the university will fail to meet them, according to the Main Liaison Committee’s memo.

On 16 November, the AU Junior Researcher Association (JRA) held a conference entitled More Women in Research: A Call for Action. The four women interviewed in this article participated in the conference at a panel discussion of the issue. 

And one of the factors identified during the debate that can make a research career particularly challenging for women is the expectation – or in some cases requirement – of a period of research abroad. Just as it was pointed out repeatedly that managers have a tendency to favorize applicants of their own sex, which is detrimental for women. Maternity leave can also be a barrier to a research career.

An opinion poll carried out by Magisterbladet (the member magazine for the union Dansk Magisterforening, or Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, ed.) in November among 625 female respondents revealed that 12 percent of female researchers and teachers at Danish universities have experienced incidents in which their performance was devalued on the grounds of their gender within the last year. The same poll showed that 10 percent of these women had dealt with having their bodies were commented on in an offensive way in the workplace within the last year.

Sources: AU and JRA

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Revised 12.12.2018