There’s Still Room at the Top

Prominent female researchers are rare, amongst Humboldt Professors, too. What academia and the Foundation can do about it.

Text: Lilo Berg (published: Kosmos Dec/2013)

The IBM Research Centre in Zurich likes to showcase the successful physicist, Heike Riel. When TU München raised the possibility of a Humboldt Professorship a year ago, alarm bells rang in Zurich. They made her an IBM Research Fellow, the highest accolade the company grants. For five years, the fellow has all the freedom in the world and a handsome research budget – just like a Humboldt Professor. Heike Riel said no to Munich and stayed in Zurich. “IBM didn’t want to lose this female researcher under any circumstances, which I can well understand,” says Helmut Schwarz, the President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He knows what a battle it is to recruit that rare breed, the top-rank female researcher.

Under pressure from society and government, science organisations are vying with each other, and private enterprise has joined the contest. As a result, between 2009 and 2013, only 11 women were nominated for a Humboldt Professorship in comparison with 127 men, a proportion of only eight percent. In this period, 33 men accepted the appointment, but just a single woman – apart from Heike Riel, one further candidate decided to accept an attractive offer to stay at her own institute.

“The proportion of women is far too low even if you take into account that there are not very many women in the top segment from which Humboldt Professors are recruited,” says Helmut Schwarz. In Germany, only 11 percent of top positions at non-university research institutes are held by women, and at universities only 15 percent of full professors are female.

The picture is similar in the rest of Europe, and even in the USA it is only marginally better: approximately 25 percent of full professors there are female (cf. graph).

Solitary women
“All over the world, young women researchers lose heart and give up,” says Emmanuelle Charpentier. The French molecular biologist will assume her Humboldt Professorship in January 2014, only the second woman to do so since the programme was launched. Up until now, she has conducted research in the USA, France, Austria and Sweden. She knows the loneliness of the female postdoc who – unlike her male colleagues – usually goes abroad without a partner to enhance her credentials at a renowned institute. The postdoctoral phase, which often starts in the early thirties, is the most exhausting and insecure in a researcher’s entire life. What it really means to be deprived of support at home during this period has hardly featured in the academic gender debate so far. And, if it has, then largely in relation to other so-called soft factors: equality deficits in Germany or the problems of combining work and family.

All this can be too much for a young, female researcher. The danger that she quits her academic career between PhD and first appointment is considerable. As the European Commission’s She Figures 2012 show, the proportion of female students in Europe is currently 55 percent; the graduates even achieve 59 percent. Women are still in there with 46 percent of doctoral candidates but only account for 20 percent of professors, at all levels.

The frequently-cited leak in the pipeline is only gradually being stopped – despite the increase in equality activities like the cascade model, which the German science organisations agreed to pursue in 2011: this envisages women moving up in proportion to the share of women at the previous level. Unfortunately, the results so far have not fulfilled expectations. Research institutions would have to be much more creative than they have been so far, complained the Federal Government and Länder research ministers this summer. The incipient threat of introducing a fixed quota is unmistakable.

Emmanuelle Charpentier rejects quotas for women. That would be positive discrimination in favour of female researchers which, in her opinion, does more harm than good. Even now, the French scientist senses unvoiced reservations. “When a woman gets a job, male colleagues think it’s only because she’s a woman.” But Charpentier is not going to be put off by this. She is convinced that women in science can be just as good as men. “And what counts in the end is the quality of their work.”

The current situation is difficult because it is in transition, with high target figures on the one side and a small group of top women researchers on the other. Admittedly, their chances are better than ever before, but they go hand in hand with huge expectations: in the lab, as role-models for young women, in committee work. And the research organisations are also facing enormous challenges: they have to educate more female leaders for tomorrow whilst recruiting the best women researchers on the scarce market of today.

Creative thinking is required: the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, for example, has suggested increasing the award amount for the Humboldt Professorship if an appointment is dependent on the award winner’s partner getting a professorship as well. Excellent female researchers often have partners who are themselves highlyqualified academics.

New recruitment strategies are being considered at Technische Universität Berlin (TUB). The President, Jörg Steinbach, would like to commission suitably experienced headhunters with connections to university culture to search for qualified women. “We have to look outside the German-speaking areas, too, in Scandinavia, for example, where there are a lot of excellent female engineering scientists.” Steinbach is unperturbed by private sector competition for top women researchers. “It’s often easier to reconcile family and children if you’re a professor than if you have a seat on the board.”

Hoping for a change in trend
In the next generation of scientists, the situation may be more balanced. Amongst under- 40s, there are many exceptionally-qualified female researchers, some of whom may perhaps make it to the top of the international tree. But to do so, they will have to expose themselves to competition on a permanent basis. Emmanuelle Charpentier is dubious. Junior researchers of both sexes frequently shy away from leading a group, she reports, because it is too much for them. “Perhaps this generation is a bit too comfortable.”

The Humboldt Foundation’s experience with the Sofja Kovalevskaja Programme is different. The award promotes young group leaders at the beginning of their research careers. Application figures have grown continuously, and the proportion of female award winners is high, currently 50 percent. Instead of every second year, the Humboldt Foundation would like to grant the award annually. The women who win it could become the female Humboldt Professors of tomorrow.

Is the trend already changing? On the list for the 2014 Humboldt Professorships are the names of seven men and three women. That’s something. Emmanuelle Charpentier has already confirmed – the other two women researchers still have to come to a decision.