Why women need a vision

Prof. Dr. Andrea Büttner, W3-Professor NatFak, Chair of Aroma and Odour Research + Institute Director Fraunhofer IVV
Prof. Dr. Andrea Büttner, W3-Professorin NatFak, Lehrstuhl für Aroma- und Geruchsforschung + Institutsleiterin Fraunhofer IVV (Bild: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

In our series of 22 reports, we present a panorama of female researchers from various qualification levels and academic positions, ranging from students to W3 professors. With their individual career paths, the female researchers in STEM subjects act as role models to encourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career, giving interesting insights into their careers to date. The MINT experts also share aspects of their private lives.

Professor Andrea Büttner: Why women need a vision

Professor Andrea Büttner has made it: now 50, she’s at the top of the game in science. She is Executive Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV) in Freising and at the same time professor for aroma and smell research at FAU. She sits on numerous committees and has excellent connections with industry and research – as spokesperson, initiator or member of the board of directors of a large number of initiatives, collaborative projects and structures such as the Fraunhofer Lead Market Agriculture and Food Industry, the Fraunhofer Strategic Research Field Bioeconomy, ‘SHIELD – Safe Domestic (Organic) Food through Sensory Detection Processes’, ‘Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming’, ‘Campus of the Senses’, ‘C-PlaNeT (Circular Plastics Network for Training)’ or ‘RASPOTA – Safeguarding future production of fish in aquaculture systems with water recirculation’.

Keeping active is her motto

Always busy, Andrea Büttner is married with three children, including two older daughters (20 and 17) who are already STEM enthusiasts. She likes to spend her limited free time in the mountains with her family: hiking, climbing, skiing or cycling. ‘I’m addicted to sport,’ she confesses. And if she does happen to sit in a deckchair, then she reads a dissertation or a scientific article. ‘That’s not work for me, I do it out of interest, I need it!’ However, anyone who thinks that Andrea Büttner is going to gush about being successful ‘as a woman’ in the sciences, is soon taught otherwise. Although she’s ardent about research, success nonetheless comes at a price, she says. ‘At hardcore management level, it’s sometimes like being in a nest of vipers,’ she adds, and looking back even thinks: ‘The higher up the career ladder you are, the worse it gets.’

Prof. Dr. Andrea Büttner, W3-Professor NatFak,
Chair of Aroma and Odour Research + Institute Director Fraunhofer IVV
(Image: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

That only the men are greeted at meetings happens on a regular basis

In our interview, it’s conspicuous that she consistently pays attention to gender. She takes care to use gender-neutral terms and says that in the past she didn’t think that this was so important. ‘That I speak very pointedly, and in so doing partly provoke, happened spontaneously, as a kind of reflex through my work in a male-dominated setting.’ And she explains: ‘When it happens at meetings on a regular basis that only the men are greeted, and people consistently talk about “der Kollege”, that is, the male colleague foreseen for a certain position, it gradually gets annoying and becomes clear that language really is an instrument of exclusion and is used deliberately for this purpose – especially at the highest levels. I simply no longer believe that it’s just carelessness.’ Everyday discussions and meetings are quite often characterised, she says, by power struggles and verbal wrangling instead of content – and this at a time when content on shared topics is so urgently required as a team effort. ‘Even my 13-year-old son notices it!’ says Professor Büttner. That’s why she’s trying to raise above all her son’s awareness about interaction between men and women.

Break down encrusted structures by including a women’s quota!

She is meanwhile convinced: ‘To a certain extent, a kind of force is needed, that is, a women’s quota, as long as the old, encrusted structures still prevail! Or rather, you have to take decision making power away from some people or restrict it when it’s clear that they’re not acting in a way that’s appropriate today.’ What particularly annoys her are ‘the silent masses who often speak out and say that this or that behaviour is totally unacceptable, but who then wait to see if and when other managers come along who might do things differently, whereby cultural change is a joint effort.’ Female colleagues, she has observed, frequently have a far clearer way of voicing grievances and stirring things up. On the other hand, she says, they are often less proactive when it comes to presenting and foregrounding their own achievements. Andrea Büttner believes that more women in science could generally improve culture and interaction. But there is still a long way to go, in her view, until there is a balanced line-up in the STEM subjects too, especially in management positions.

‘Intrinsic motives helped me progress’

She wants to teach not only her children but also early career researchers ‘that it’s all about self-determination, a vision, a mission.’ Like it always has been for her: already at school, her role model was a female STEM teacher, who taught science, history and economics and aroused her enthusiasm. Andrea Büttner studied food chemistry at LMU Munich and earned her doctoral degree in 1999 at the Technical University of Munich, where she also completed her postdoctoral thesis. It was never pressure or high expectations that drove her to deliver an outstanding performance. ‘Putting it glibly, you could say that what motivated me most was that people constantly told me or showed me, particularly at university and in research, that in fact no woman was suitable for this or that or was even remotely worth considering for it.’ But of course it wasn’t just that. ‘My intrinsic motives helped me to progress. There are so many topics that fascinate me and that I want to promote.’ From her field of research, she gives the example of sustainable food management, which is currently under discussion because people fail to recognise – or do not want to recognise – the explosive nature of food security. Strategies for recyclable packaging are also close to her heart. ‘Ultimately, it always has to do with the major issues of our times: climate, environment and health.’

‘Male supporters do exist!’

It was above all her husband, she says, who always reminded her of her inquiring mind and kept her from throwing in the towel when she was frustrated yet again. Overall, her family plays the most important role in her life. She lives in Munich, her parents and parents-in-law are nearby, who helped her out when her children were still small. With this support in the background, Andrea Büttner succeeded early on in challenging her then boss at Fraunhofer with the question: ‘I want to be a professor and have three children. Can you handle that?’ His answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. ‘Male supporters do exist. You can create structures and proactively demand certain things, and you can also consistently rally against structures and, if necessary, draw the consequences and take a different path if the structures don’t allow for change,’ says Büttner. ‘However, too few take this path, otherwise we’d already be much further today …’

This article is part of the brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Headerimage The Sky is the Limit
Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Diverse, inspiring and innovative, the brochure “The Sky is the Limit” introduces female researchers in STEM subjects from the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Sciences in a series of varied interviews.

Other interviews are available on the Research website.

Download the brochure “The Sky is the Limit — Female STEM scientists at FAU”

The publication is the result of collaboration between RTG 2423 FRASCAL and the Office of Equality and Diversity. Dr. Susanne Stemmler conducted the interviews.