From active recruitment to mobile childcare cabinets

Gender imbalance also occurs in science and research. At FAU, for example, a third of all positions in research are held by women. Only around one fifth of professors are female. Even if more women are pursuing careers in research, much more work needs to be done to increase the proportion of women in this field. (Illustration: Christian Harnoth)

A practical approach to promoting equality and family life at universities

The fact that more needs to be done to counter the gender gap in science and to increase diversity in traditionally male-dominated fields such as mathematics is undisputed. However, measures such as prizes exclusively for female researchers are often only regarded as symbolic. While they may benefit the individual receiving the prize, they do little to facilitate lasting change. The team of researchers working in the collaborative research centre CRC/TRR 154 for which FAU is the coordinating university decided to take a different approach – with promising results.

A guest article by Ute Eberle, Falk Hante, Frauke Liers and Michael Stingl

Our CRC develops mathematical solutions in the fields of modelling, simulation and optimisation, using gas networks as an example. As is typical for these types of fields, the majority of staff employed at the start of the project were male. This may just be coincidence, but it certainly reflects a fundamental problem. In Germany, mathematics and natural sciences currently attract equal numbers of male and female students, and many doctoral candidates are female. However, the proportion of women decreases with each career step. Only one in five professors in natural sciences is a woman. One cause is the uncertain career options available, especially in view of the fact that appointment to a professorship often occurs relatively late in the German system.

Interview with the women’s representative at FAU

Portrait Anette Keilhauer
Foto: FAU/Boris Mijat

There has been a women’s representative at FAU for 30 years now. In our interview, the current postholder, Prof. Dr. Annette Keilhauer, outlines some of the challenges faced by her predecessors, what they have achieved and what still remains to be done.

To the interview

Targeted strategies

From the outset, part of our budget was allocated to promoting gender equality. We saw this as both an opportunity and a challenge and we focused on developing targeted strategies. In CRC/TRR 154 we established a gender team comprising one female and one male sub-project manager from each location. The gender team coordinates and determines the measures for gender parity and is available to advise all team members should they have any questions.

Raising awareness for gender issues became a focus of the team’s work, as many people are not aware of the challenges faced by each gender. We incorporated obligatory workshops into our conferences. One of these workshops investigated the communication styles of men and women and the potential for conflict that may result. Even though the obligatory nature of this workshop did generate some complaints, we believe that it helped to increase awareness of the problem.

We have participated in school programmes to encourage young women to consider careers in science. We also organise summer schools for female students of computer science and mathematics subjects that promote interdisciplinary networking. With its scholarship budget, CRC/TRR 154 is helping women to pursue collaborations in science abroad and to improve their career-enhancing soft skills.

Balancing work with family life

Another set of measures aims to make work and family life more compatible. These include securing childcare spaces and providing mobile childcare cabinets at every project location. These mobile cabinets include nappy changing supplies, toys and other essentials for keeping young children happy at the workplace for a few hours. Members of CRC/TRR 154 receive financial support if they need a babysitter to enable them to attend a meeting held outside their location or at times when their own childcare facility is closed.

We have made a difference

The names of male researchers often first spring to mind when putting together a high-profile board or a programme for a workshop. It can be more time consuming and require a little more creativity to identify outstanding female candidates for these roles, but it is possible. This is reflected in our own project. The measures above and our active recruitment strategies are making a noticeable difference. During the initial project phase, we increased the proportion of female doctoral candidates to 24 percent and female postdoctoral candidates to one third. The number of female professors in CRC/TRR 154 has risen from 17 to 21 percent. These figures compare favourably with the national average in Germany for mathematics.

More flexibility

We have learned how important it is to give teams some autonomy and flexibility for increasing equality. For example, the budgets of most institutions do not make any allowances for reimbursing the travel costs of family members who could accompany young researchers to conferences and provide reliable childcare. However, this type of financial investment can make a sizeable difference in helping young researchers to balance their work with family life and build up their careers or force them to abandon their careers entirely.

CRC/TRR 154 is scheduled to run for a few years. By the end of the project we hope to have made further long-lasting progress towards achieving full gender equality.

The original version of this article was published in April 2019 in SIAM News, a publication of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) with the title ‘Making Progress towards Gender Parity and Increased Diversity’.

Research field Transregio (SFB/TRR 154)

Methods for modelling, simulation and optimisation are being investigated in CRC/TRR 154. The project uses the transport of gas and the gas supply on the European market from various suppliers, even in the case of continuously changing demand, as an example. This involves developing complex optimisation and simulation methods for problems with thousands of variables. Models must be dynamic and robust while taking market aspects into consideration and include safeguards against uncertainties. Teams from four universities are collaborating in the CRC/TRR – FAU (coordinating university, speaker Prof. Dr. Alexander Martin), TU Berlin, HU Berlin and TU Darmstadt. CRC/TRR154 has been running since 2014 and is currently in the second funding phase.

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