OPINION: Female researcher’s piece on gender equality at AU was deleted: I didn’t want to paint a rosy picture. On the contrary

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Carolina von Essen, an assistant professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, wrote a piece on what it’s like to be a female researcher at the department. The essay was published. But then it was deleted by the department management team. In this opinion piece, she speaks openly about the inequality she’s experienced as a female researcher at AU. And presents her analysis of what the university needs to do to address the problem.

2020.11.02 | Carolina von Essen

Carolina von Essen is Assisting Professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University. Photo: Roar Lava Paaske

This opinion piece reflects the author’s own opinions. The editorial team reserves the right to edit all contributions. Send your contributions to us at omnibus.au.dk.

Some days ago I was requested by staff at the Physics and Astronomy department to write a few columns on the theme of "women in physics and astronomy". I wasn’t surprised this was requested of me simply because there are not so many women at the department, and because I am pretty well-educated on the matter. I have been contributing to improving gender-connected issues since 2015, so I felt entitled to share a piece of my mind with the world. To my surprise (as I was being brutally honest) the article was placed on the front page of the department.

Three days later, it was removed by the management. It goes without saying that I felt completely disappointed, and even though it turned out to have been the result of of poor communication between staff, I felt my voice was censored.

Today I was informed by the management that the purpose of the requested text was to inspire young women to join the academic world around physics and astronomy. It was immediately clear to me that I was not fit for the job. I don’t want to lie to young scientists. I don’t want to convince them to come join us, only to experience what I did. On the contrary. I want to protect them.

Aarhus University, in order to convince me you have to preach by example

A way to do this is by loudly communicating the following message: Aarhus University is led entirely by men. My mum told me I have to lead by example, so things will not improve until the university heads understand that they also have to follow my mothers advice. Aarhus University, if this gender-balance initiative is more than hot air, in order to convince me you have to preach by example.

Before I raise awareness about what it is to be a "woman in physics and astronomy", and how it feels to deal with sexism on a daily basis, I would first like to leave two things very crystal clear. Firstly, I strongly believe that the Physics and Astronomy department hosts people of excellent human quality. People don’t usually wake up and decide to elaborate different ways of making you feel miserable. We are just not educated enough on certain matters that are important to achieve a good work environment, such as gender-connected issues. This is specially relevant in a male dominated field. I am pretty sure this pattern repeats itself in other departments. Secondly, but not less importantly, is extremely difficult to speak up once mind standing in a minority and from a position that lacks of power. This is exactly where I am, and I’ve witnessed its power. 

Strong women or gender police?

When the gender committee was created, back in 2015, two female colleagues of mine took the brave initial steps of trying to improve things around us. The response from our male colleagues, who might have felt threatened by the realization that their male privileges were coming to an end, was to unfairly call them "the gender police". These strong women will for ever be my – much needed – role models, because despite unfair accusations and other attributes that came with their job, they always stood up for us. They stood up for ME. The University needs more women like them.

Connected to what it is to be a woman in physics and astronomy, my career choices allowed me to have the privilege to love what I do. Astronomy is, and always will be, my contribution to this world. I have been deeply connected to astronomy since I was 3 years old, when my father used to read me books written by Carl Sagan, one of the best communicators of science and astronomy of our times. Once I decided to follow my dreams, I did my undergraduate studies in Argentina, the country where I was born. I took thirty six specialized courses in astronomy, mathematics, physics and computer sciences before I became an astronomer. Back then I wasn’t aware of any gender issues. Professors, teaching assistants and even the dean of the faculty: there was an equal gender split. 

In 2010 I packed my bag and I moved to Hamburg, where I carried out my PhD. The topic of my thesis is the study of the physical properties of transiting exoplanets, these are planets outside our Solar System that happen to pass in front of their stars, as seen from the Earth.

Something was wrong with the academic system

My PhD thesis holds seven publications, five where I am leading the work, and two as collaborator. I only had three years to finish a thesis I could be sort of proud of, and "not a single day more", to quote my supervisor. It goes without saying that it was a lot of hard work. While finishing my PhD it was the first time I realized something was wrong with the academic system. I was giving too much of myself, in exchange for too little. I also started to open my eyes to gender imbalances. Hamburg Observatory was run by five professors leading five completely different areas of astronomy and astrophysics. All of them were men. After finishing my PhD I went to Göttingen for a short postdoc, and afterwards I moved to Aarhus, where in 2014 I was given a three-year contract as postdoc at the Physics and Astronomy department. Now I am an assistant professor with a 20% position that ends in 2022, I have a beautiful Danish family, and I am in love with Denmark. I have thus chosen this land as my home.

I vocally complain that we aren’t changing much in the equality committee

Back in 2014 I was lucky to land in a newly opened center of excellence, the Stellar Astrophysics Centre (SAC). It was full of life, resources and researchers coming from all over the world. As part of my gender-related activities I joined the gender committee at SAC, I help to revive Kvinder i Fysik, and I became a member of the equality committee at the department, where we meet and discuss what and where to improve, even though I vocally complain that we aren’t changing much.

On top of all the challenges that arise in the workplace when you belong to a minority, such as your voice not being heard as much as that of your male colleagues (even though you might be saying exactly the same thing), to have to constantly deal with gender bias, and to have fewer opportunities overall simply because you are a woman, in my personal case it is especially hard to be where I am.

When we decided to have our first baby, I knew it was going to have an unspoken impact on my career opportunities. To compensate for this, I worked very hard and I wrote my three first author publications.

When we decided to have our second baby, my fears only grew stronger. Career-wise I was getting no where, and now I was having two babies only 14 months apart. At the same time as I was a first-time mom, I was carrying a heavy belly with our second child, and I was extremely sleep-deprived; I wrote four first author publications in five months. I remember working when our first son was having his day nap, or between 8 pm and midnight, when everyone at home except me was sleeping. Right up to to the morning of the day I gave birth to our second child, I was at the hospital working online with a colleague.  

No progress 

Despite all this, I still am where I was before. The department has no resources, and external foundations criticize my productivity without taking into account the fact that I have taken maternity leave and have a 20% position – even though I have above 60 publications and more than 5,500 citations. I can’t be told I haven’t tried enough.

The power of organization

Besides all the challenges imposed by being a woman in a male-dominated field, we women also need to deal with sexism. Lucky for us, we are good at multitasking! Instead of adding more to this topic that has been so visible and discussed in the news for the past few days, I would like to stress the power of organization. 

It took the courage of a handful of women to initiate what it ended up being almost 700 voices shouting about the existence of sexism at universities. The problem is real. I can only hope for the universities to equal these women in courage and do something about it

At this point I would like to thank the head of my department. After realizing I was one of the women who signed the petition, he told me I was very courageous, and stressed his support. It was exactly what I needed to hear. 

In light of all my contributions to science and gender-related issues, I believe I have earned the space to share my views. I am in a department that has only one female professor. Just. One.While hiring a female associate professor some years ago, the department proudly said: We have increased the number of females by 100%! What to reply to that?

The only solution I see is to hire women

At the department, the higher you rise in rank (starting from bachelor all the way up to professor) the fewer females there are. As hiring committees are composed mostly by men, this will not change. From my perspective, the only solution I see is to hire enough women to reach a critical –and minimum– mass that will allow change to flow in a less drastic way. When the imbalance is as large as it is in our department, the only way to fix it is by consciously hiring females until a given quota is reached. I know this topic is highly controversial, both among males and females. But after five years of witnessing empty bla-bla leading nowhere else than a workshop here and a poster there to raise some sort of awareness, I truly believe this to be the only solution.  

I’ve heard women manifesting disapproval. They don’t want to be the ones hired because they are females. They want to be hired because they deserve the position. To these women, I have two things to tell you. On the one hand, it might be very likely that you actually DO deserve the position, but it is not given to you because you are a woman. Funny how things "work", right? This is the basis of unconscious bias. 

Part of a real change

On the other hand, yes, you are right. You will be accused of being hired because of your gender rather than due to your competences. I am sorry for that. The first steps towards change are not easy. We have centuries of history supporting this statement. But if you don’t take this step, then who will? Instead of focusing on your ego being hurt, don’t you want to be proud of yourself, because you were part of a real change?

The management have the power to change this 

To Aarhus University, I would like to say that I have presented two problems to you on a silver platter. So please, acknowledge them, and change the rules accordingly. Funnily enough, it is legal to hire men because they are men, but it is not legal to hire females to correct years of discrimination. You have the power to change this. 

I see my students, and I see myself. We  need role models. People who look like us to look up to. I never had them. I am trying to make a change so that female students can have the chance to experience otherwise. Rector Brian Bech Nielsen and the rest of the management: I need your help.

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