Interview by Laura Hofschlag originally published at JOBVERDE
Forschungszentrum Jülich has been dealing with solving social issues and the challenges of our time since it was founded in 1956. The mission of over 7,000 members of staff is to shape change – especially in the research fields of information, bioeconomy and energy. The staff at Forschungszentrum Jülich also include many female scientists. This is still not a matter of course. A survey by the Federal Statistical Office from 2019 shows that the EU average for female scientists in companies only amounted to 21 percent. Why is the proportion of women so low, what do prejudices have to do with this and how will their role develop in the future?
These are questions that Sabrina Schwarz from the Equal Opportunities Bureau can answer. In the following interviews Yulia Arinicheva also reveals what everyday work at Forschungszentrum Jülich actually looks like. Yulia obtained her doctorate at the Institute for Safety Research and Reactor Technology and is currently occupied with solid state batteries.
JOBVERDE: Hello Sabrina. Who are you and what do you do at Forschungszentrum Jülich?
Sabrina Schwarz: I am a sociologist and I work at Forschungszentrum Jülich in the Equal Opportunities Bureau. The Equal Opportunities Bureau is the contact point for the topics of reconciling work life and care, gender equality and diversity. It provides advice on these topics to all employees, managerial staff and cooperation partners and provides a range of support services to implement a family-friendly, equal-opportunity and inclusive company culture at Forschungszentrum Jülich. At the Equal Opportunities Bureau, I am responsible as an equal opportunities consultant for the promotion of women in science and leadership positions.
Sabrina Schwarz. (Image: private)
Women are still underrepresented in some areas in science. What are the possible causes?
Women are not underrepresented in all scientific fields. We see a high participation of women in the social sciences. The share of female students at scientific universities has also generally increased in recent years.
In most STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), however, women are underrepresented. But here, too, the numbers vary considerably by subject area. There are natural sciences in which the share of women is balanced – such as in biology and in some instances in medicine.
What are the possible reasons? Due to norms, values and attribution processes that prevail in society, people often act in accordance with their gender-specific roles. This can result in more women working in vocational fields that do not provide a living wage, for example in social work. The different distribution of men and women at different levels of the corporate hierarchy also plays a major role. In the scientific sector, women continue to be underrepresented in the top levels of management and decision-making.
Most STEM fields still tend to have a “masculine” connotation. The “image” of STEM fields then sometimes doesn’t fit with the self-perception of women. The low participation of women has a lot to do with how fields of work in science are presented in public perception. For this reason, it is important to encourage girls and women to make a career decision independently of societal attribution processes and to change the prevailing images of science and leadership.
Why are stereotypes and prejudices so persistent?
To answer this question, I would like to differentiate between these terms.
The fact that stereotypes persist is quite natural. Stereotypes are not necessarily something bad. They simplify our world at an unconscious level and prevent us from having to reassess new situations in their full complexity every time we encounter them. If our subconscious didn’t do this, we would waste a lot of time and energy. In the case of gender stereotypes, these are cognitive structures that contain societally shared knowledge about the characteristics of men and women.
And this is where the danger lies, because societally shared knowledge can result in distortions if left unexamined. For instance, supposed knowledge about women and science can lead to people thinking unconsciously that these two aspects do not fit together.
What do you think will be the trend in the future for women in science?
In terms of Germany as a high-tech location, I consider the promotion of women to be absolutely necessary in all scientific fields and especially in STEM subjects for a number of reasons:
- In view of the shortage of specialist workers, we cannot afford to miss out on the enormous potential of highly educated women. Around the world, good scientists of any gender are already urgently wanted and the situation will only intensify in the coming years – especially in Germany where the baby boomers will soon enter retirement and leave behind a massive gap.
- Science and research have the task of answering questions of society – no matter in which area. However, research findings can only be holistic if they are useful for all members of society. The perspective of everyone must therefore be included due to the wide variety of life experiences.
- Numerous studies show that diverse teams (where not only gender plays a role, but also age, background, etc.) are more successful and innovative than homogeneous teams. The development of diverse teams and hence the promotion of women will be an important aspect in the coming years if Germany intends to remain a successful high-tech location.
The proportion of women at Forschungszentrum Jülich amounted to 37.2% in 2020 and was therefore above the average for other companies in Europe. What specific measures are taken in the research centre?
It is important to emphasise that there are no standard measures that perfectly result in the successful promotion of women. Measures can only be effective in the long term if employees and the leadership level are conscious of the issue and all pull together. In our research centre, this is fortunately the case and we are able to initiate measures and instruments that are not only specific and situationally appropriate, but also effective in the long term. Here we have a very broad range of measures for supporting the reconciliation of career and family life. We consciously provide these to all employees, not just women, although women still perform most care work in private households in Germany. To initiate a change in thinking in this respect, we also offer and support measures for fathers.
Moreover, we have implemented a number of measures that we classify into the following areas for action in our equality plan: reconciliation of career and care work, recruiting and career development, gender balance in leadership positions, gender dimension in research and sexualised violence and harassment. This is publicly viewable here: Link. Go ahead and take a look!
Interview with Yulia Arinicheva, Institute for Energy and Climate Research – Materials Synthesis and Processing (IEK-1)
What is your position at Forschungszentrum Jülich?
Yulia Arinicheva: I am a postdoc at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research – Materials Synthesis and Processing (IEK-1) in the team for solid state batteries and I am working on a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Here I develop ceramic-based lithium solid-state batteries with a high energy density and improved safety.
How do you experience work in your team in what is still a largely male-dominated environment?
I feel very comfortable in my working environment – that is because there is a good mix in our team – in relation to the balance of genders as well as different nationalities and cultural backgrounds.
In my view, the resulting interdisciplinarity and diversity promotes the satisfaction of employees and the performance of our team.
However, I notice particularly at international battery conferences that it is often male participants in the audience that assert themselves, get to speak more often and hold more talks. In my chemistry studies, there were also more male students than female students. It is therefore important to inspire and encourage girls and young women to pursue STEM subjects in order to also increase the proportion of women in science in the long term.
Why did you choose a scientific career at Forschungszentrum Jülich?
When I started my master’s studies, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to work afterwards – neither geographically nor whether in industry or academia. As part of my master’s studies at RWTH Aachen, I applied for a six-week research internship at Forschungszentrum Jülich at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research – Safety Research and Reactor Technology (IEK-6). I was very well received and supported by my colleagues. The research topic in the field of ceramics for nuclear disposal was so interesting that I decided to stay at IEK-6 after my master’s studies and then gained my doctorate here.
The campus has excellent technical facilities for research, allowing a wide range of scientific questions to be investigated. And if something is not available, you find support with cooperation partners. What’s more, there’s a range of further development opportunities and you can get an insight into other research topics at any time. This allowed me to expand my research to the development of ceramic-based solid-state batteries in my subsequent postdoc position at the Institute for Materials Synthesis and Processing (IEK-1).
What particular background knowledge, skills and interests do you need for your profession?
Besides the specific expertise needed for any position, above all you need curiosity and inquisitiveness for a career as a scientist, as well as a lively imagination to pave your way to these insights. You also need patience and diligence, since research takes time. Working in science also requires a systematic and persistent approach, a desire for lifelong learning and ultimately good networking skills, since scientific work nowadays is no longer conducted alone but in interdisciplinary and international teams and consortia.
What helped you the most while shaping your career?
Exchange and junior development programmes have been particularly important to my career. For instance, my master’s studies at RWTH Aachen were funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Meetups for grant recipients and summer schools also organised by DAAD enabled me to get off to the best start in my studies. During my doctorate, I was funded by the Helmholtz Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training in Energy and Climate Research (HITEC graduate school) and I took part in the HITEC programme for doctoral researchers. Not only was I able to expand on my knowledge in the programme, I could also develop both soft skills and project management skills. I also took part in a junior development academy organised by the DFG: “Ceramic Materials: From the Basics to Application”. The skills I learned here helped me to apply successfully for my own first DFG project that I am currently working on.
What advice would you give to a young woman for her scientific career?
Don’t underestimate yourself! Don’t shy away from setting ambitious goals and look for an environment that supports you with your plans. If you surround yourself with excellence and expertise, networking with colleagues and partners, you will be challenged intellectually and continuously learn from one another. I would also recommend always taking some time to look outside your field of research. “Side projects” can lead to unexpected results and serve as preliminary work for future projects.
Do you have a personal historical role model?
Since I obtained my doctorate in nuclear chemistry, it comes as no surprise that I would name Marie Curie as my personal role model. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize – which she did twice, for physics and chemistry. She was able to reconcile her outstanding scientific career with bringing up two daughters, one of whom – Irène Joliot-Curie – also received the Nobel Prize in chemistry. As a scientist and new mother of two children, this motivates me to pursue my career with great dedication after returning from parental leave.
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