Women in research: Building supportive structures, tearing down barriers

12 Jul 2023

Networks such as Women in Data Science, Female Academic Medical Excellence and Women in Business provide female students and researchers with a forum for dialogue, but also with role models and development opportunities.

It seems to Professor Marion Subklewe that, in medicine, the road to parity in gender distribution is an excruciatingly slow one: “65 to 70 percent of all university entrants in Germany are female, but only 13 percent of senior physicians – and often less than 10 percent of university hospital professors – are women.” She is convinced that things will look very different 50 years from now. “But sometimes I simply lack the patience.” To expedite change, the professor has launched the Female Academic Medical Excellence (FAME) network at LMU’s Faculty of Medicine.

Prof. Dr. Marion Subklewe

is a professor for Internal Medicine with focus on Cellular Immunotherapy and head of the CAR-T cell program at the Medical Clinic and Polyclinic III, University Hospital, LMU Munich | © BERLI BERLINSKI

“We female professors want to encourage younger women to follow in our footsteps. We want to tear down the barriers in their way,” says Subklewe, whose research at the internal medicine department of the Munich University Hospital focuses on cellular immunotherapy.

“Our overriding goal is to provide a network and role models for female medical and clinician scientists.” In existing male networks, she says, women often have a hard time working their way to the top. “Be it on boards, at stand-up social gatherings or any other kind of encounter where there are 20 men and two women, the likelihood that women of any predisposition will not feel at ease is fairly high.”

And it is still the case that men in positions of leadership tend to promote other men: “Maybe for them the obvious thing is to mentor a crown prince, because they are more likely to see themselves in junior male staff.”

Family-friendly models needed in the ‘rush hour of life’

Be that as it may, Subklewe also often sees women voluntarily stepping back from opportunities to take the lead: “Many shy away from competition and the exposure that goes with a leadership role.” One possible reason is the impact of wider social mores, including “role systems from which women are simply unable to free themselves”.

With the aid of the FAME network, the medical professor and mother of four also wants to fight for structural change within the faculty. “We want to get women into all the commissions, bodies and funding structures, but also to introduce more family-friendly models in the medical routine,” she says. “This ‘rush hour’ in academic life – the time when doctors become senior consultants and earn professorships, possibly while also wanting to have children – is really tough. We lose many women along the way, and I would simply like to see more relief for them.”

Different perspectives benefit research

Prof. Frauke Kreuter

Prof. Dr. Frauke Kreuter

Chair of Statistics and Data Science in Social Sciences and the Humanities. | © LMU

Frauke Kreuter, Chair of Statistics and Data Science in Social Sciences and the Humanities at LMU, encounters similar situations in her discipline: “Data science and statistics likewise remain heavily male-dominated. The higher up the career ladder you climb, the fewer women you find.” To see change at the very top as well, she adds, there is a need to systematically support women and encourage them to take the next steps in their career.

With this in mind, Kreuter recently organized Women in Data Science (WiDS) as a networking event for female academics in Munich, along the lines of a model initiated at Stanford University about a decade ago. It was indeed Professor Kreuter herself who brought this concept to Germany after living and conducting research for 20 years in the USA. On returning to her home country, it struck her that “there are so many events where you really only see men on the podium, sometimes with a ratio of one to ten”.

Keen to change this state of affairs, she initially set up WiDS in Mannheim and then, following her move to LMU, did the same in Munich. “Central to what we do is an annual lecture event organized by women – though not only for women – whose aim is to highlight the presence of female academics in data science and to present role models.” The lectures themselves are accompanied by breakout sessions in which mini-networks can flourish and grow.

Academic content too benefits from different perspectives: “Data science in particular is powerfully inspired by the problems that are encountered in practice. You need a thorough understanding not only of data analytics, but also of data-generating processes.” And in these processes, Kreuter notes, gender-specific “data gaps” crop up again and again.

Identifying prejudices and inequalities in scientific data

“To take just one example: A study researching smartphone data focused on the number of steps clocked up by phone users. A different pattern emerged for women – the reason, as we discovered, being that women put their handbag with their phone in it down somewhere, whereas men tend to walk around with a smartphone in their pants pocket,” Kreuter explains. “It is a trivial example. But it shows why diverse groups with a broader perspective are generally more productive.”

Aware of this, the professor works hard to build bridges between people of different ages, migration backgrounds and (dis)abilities, but also people at different stages of their academic and business careers. “That includes female professors at universities, but also young women who have just joined a start-up or have long been with a software group.” A diverse array of perspectives also helps us spot and take account of prejudices and inequalities, she stresses.

Inspiration for young female academics

Frauen-Netzwerke schaffen Rollenvorbilder und Möglichkeiten der gegenseitigen Unterstützung. | © IMAGO / MASKOT

One career network that – unlike WiDS and FAME – is student-led is Women in Business (WIB), formed in 2018 by then-business management student Ariana Huber and sociology student Laura Schraml. Supported by theNetzwerk LMU Management Alumni WIB targets female students across all disciplines at LMU. “Through WIB, I want to help women to believe in themselves and be aware of how qualified they are,” Huber, who has since earned her doctorate, explains on the WIB website. She wants the platform to encourage the more than 500 existing members “to be ambitious in pursuing their career goals, and to always support each other along the way”.

The purpose of WIB is to help female students develop both personally and professionally, and to forge networks from an early stage. Lectures, workshops and ‘fireside talks’ serve to strengthen existing connections to the corporate world and build new ones, and to prepare the ground for women’s entry to their profession of choice. By no means least, the hope is that dialogue with successful women will inspire female students – as well as giving them useful hints on mastering the challenges of career life. In parallel, regular WIB podcasts tackle issues relating to careers and equal opportunities: “What do I need to know when negotiating my salary? How am I affected by ‘unconscious bias’?”

Laura Schraml and Ariana Huber (right)

formed WIB: Women in Business. | © LS/AH

WIB is overseen by a committee of about 35 female students of different disciplines who meet once a week to draft the network’s program going forward. The committee is currently led by business education student Sophia Loschko.

“Every change begins with ourselves,” says sociology graduate and WIB co-founder Laura Schraml. “In keeping with this motto, for me it is not enough to tackle topics such as gender issues, diversity and gender equality only on a theoretical level.” Instead, the aim is for workshops and guest lectures “not just to draw attention to these issues, but to play an active part in driving change”.

Networks for female scientists:

FAME: Female Academic Medical Excellence

WiDS: Women in Data Science

WIB: Women in Business

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