woman in meeting

After several decades of fighting for equal rights for women in academia there are new rules and guidelines on the European and national level to support the career of women in
science. One strategy is to aim for an equal distribution of genders in all academic settings. Surprisingly, these important strategies for gender equality have some unwanted side-effects which impair specifically the careers of young female scientists.

“You are selected because you are the best candidate – and we also need a woman in the commission”

Universities and other scientific institutions have to adapt to the European and national guidelines on gender equality. In principle, this means that in all boards, commissions and selection committees there should be a balance of male and female members to break through the male dominance in science. Interestingly, this may lead to a devaluation of female staff members because their competence and expertise for a specific function gets overshadowed by the strong argument that there has to be a certain number of female members in the commission anyway. They want to be chosen because they are qualified and the best candidate and not because they are a woman. Finally, this may even lead to doubts about the scientific qualities of the female researcher.

“Congratulations, you are member of another 7 committees”

When starting as a young staff member female scientists may be flattered by being invited to numerous boards, commissions and selection committees. However, they quickly realize that all these academic activities cost a huge amount of time. These young female staff members spend a considerable amount of time in meetings which are mostly dominated by male senior scientists. In contrast, their young male colleagues are free to work hard on their careers e. g. by investing in excellent research. In the long run, academic functions add some bonus to their CV but there is considerable debate whether this time shouldn’t be better invested in science than in endless meetings.


“The dean really wants you to be in this commission”

Since the University has to follow the European and national regulations,  there is a strong peer pressure to accept these ‘nominations’. As a result, the female researchers lose their  freedom to say “no” and to choose carefully the functions they want for their careers and in which they feel competent.

“Where have you been during the last 7 selection procedures?”

As a result, the young female staff members may tend to participate only formally in many boards, commissions and selection committees. Thus, they are “officially” members to let the university follow gender equality rules but they are not physically present. This has two negative side-effects: Firstly, gender equality is not taken seriously anymore and may start to exist only on paper (and the meetings are still dominated by senior male decision makers). Secondly, their absence in these meetings will be commented on and documented regularly and may be interpreted as a lack of motivation and interest in these functions.

“The chairman is a man, do you want to be the vice-chairwoman and write the meeting report?”

Another time consuming side-effect of the new regulations is that every important function filled with a man must be balanced by a female “number 2”. The upside is that women grow easily into higher policy functions because in many political settings there is a tradition to select vice chairs as the successor of the current chair. The downside is that these (vice) chair functions are normally associated with a lot of additional administrative and organizational work such as preparing and leading meetings, writing meeting reports and communicating with the administration.

“As a woman would you please give a talk on work/life balance in science ?”

Finally, there is a well-intended tendency to address the burning questions of work/life balance in science by selecting young female researchers as “representatives of a new generation” who know better how to handle work and family life. This supports the stereotype that primarily women are responsible for family and children. From our experience it is rather difficult to motivate male researchers to give a presentation about work/life balance if this is not their research subject.

The current generation of young female researchers will probably break through the patterns of the “glass ceiling” and of the male dominance in boards, commissions and selection committees. It may be advantageous for the current generation of young female scientists to go for a gradual implementation of this policy – especially in domains where the policy is still incompletely implemented and where the number of female scientists is low. Simple rules such as “at least one woman in every commission” may be a better start than implementing a 30% or 50% rule.

In conclusion, there are surprisingly negative side-effects of the well-intended gender equality policies which should be debated and handled.

Sven Hendrix and Virginie Bito

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