COMMITMENT

Gerlind the tenacious

“You are proof that it is possible to employ women engineers.” These are words that Gerlind Wallon will never forget. With her brand-new chemical engineering degree, the young German woman was discovering the world of work in her new company. “What became immediately apparent to me was that, as a woman, I didn’t belong to the club, however highly qualified I might have been.”

Gerlind Wallon – “The under-representation of women is mainly the result of societal pressure to ascribe women traditional roles in the home.”
Gerlind Wallon – “The under-representation of women is mainly the result of societal pressure to ascribe women traditional roles in the home.”

Her superior’s comment marked the start of an entirely atypical path in life. Born in the Baltic Sea port of Kiel, Gerlind Wallon first discovered chemistry at the age of 12. Fascinated by this science that “explains the how and why of things,” she knew straight away that this was the field where she wanted to work. After completing her engineering degree, she spent one year analysing the chemical characteristics of bitumen before flying to Boston where, in 1996, she defended her biochemistry thesis at Brandeis University. It was a particularly rewarding experience for her and opened up her eyes to German conservatism: “In the United States, there was nothing unusual about a woman occupying an important post.”

Role-models

During the six years of her thesis, she worked alongside Susan Lovett, a scientist who was to exert a strong influence on Gerlind Wallon’s future career. Not only was Lovett head of the laboratory, she was also the mother of two children. This was proof that it was possible to continue as a scientist and still have a home life. When she returned to Germany in May 1996, Gerlind Wallon joined the highly-reputed European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. There she came into contact with the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) (1), an institution which was to employ her a few years later but meanwhile offered her a financially attractive two-year postdoctoral fellowship.

It was during this period that the PhD student who had lost track of the number of hours she was working at the laboratory became the mother of two children. Inevitably she fell behind in her research. That was when she asked EMBO for permission to extend her fellowship on maternity grounds. “That’s your problem,” she was told. Luckily her husband, also a chemist, was a freelance. “As he was working from home, he took over the lion’s share of the family responsibilities,” explains the scientist, who is often accused of being a neglectful mother because of her busy schedule.

In 2000, Gerlind Wallon was undecided where to take her career next: “I didn’t see myself becoming head of a research team and splitting my time between my research and administrative duties. I had also just had my second child and was no longer able to spend so many hours at the laboratory, which was starting to be frustrating.” It was then that she came across a job advertisement for EMBO, which was looking for a molecular biologist (male or female) to supervise the European organisation’s programmes and to award fellowships. She was appointed to the post in June 2000 and still thoroughly enjoys her job.

EMBO tackles the gender issue

From a life spent at the laboratory bench, working with test tubes and a motley assortment of chemical reactions, the scientist turned all her attention to organising research at EMBO. She has no regrets at leaving the laboratory though. “This work gives me a broader outlook on science and I believe that I can make more of a difference here than juggling with pipettes…” Her first major project was to remedy women’s low representation rates. In 2001, she created the Women in Science programme designed not only to evaluate and quantify gender inequalities in science, but also to propose concrete solutions for increasing the proportion of women in posts of responsibility (2). One of the first measures she introduced was something that she herself had been refused several years earlier: a three-month extension to the postdoctoral fellowship on the grounds of maternity! “The biggest surprise was that I didn’t have to struggle at all to get the extension approved. In fact, everyone was in agreement but nobody had given it a thought before.” As a further measure to provide women with better career support, EMBO now offers the opportunity to extend the duration of postdoctoral fellowships for up to 36 months to work half-time, a supplementary grant for women caring for children under the age of six and a special allowance for women and men taking a one-year career break on family grounds.

Another objective of the Women in Science programme is to collect as much numerical data as possible on the role of women in science. The aim was to answer the fundamental question: why are there fewer and fewer women researchers the higher one goes up the chain of command? Indeed, despite the fact that more than half of all European biology students are women, they represent only 15 % of university professors. How can this so-called ‘glass ceiling’ be explained? Gerlind Wallon was determined to find out why, so she conducted an original survey among a number of her colleagues at EMBO (3). The aim was to test the widespread hypothesis that there is a bias in favour of men in the selection process.

Gender roles

In 2006, EMBO applied itself to eliminating all references to gender from the applications, letters of recommendation and interview reports that were sent to the selection committee for scoring fellowship applicants. The only information the committee was given to assess the applicants was their bibliometric data and scientific publications. Surprisingly, despite this gender-blinding, the selection committee still chose a majority of men. Women’s success rates remained unchanged, with about 20 % less chance of securing a fellowship than their male colleagues. So, which factors determine this preference for male applicants? There were no differences of age or experience. The finding was, though, that the women had published significantly less. Between 1999 and 2006, women had published an average of six articles, compared with eight for men. By contrast, the quality of their research was approximately the same, as attested by the average impact factor (4) of their publications.

The question was then approached from a different angle: Why are young women researchers less productive than their male colleagues? Questionnaires were sent to all applicants to try to ascertain the reason for this gender gap. The finding was that women are much more likely than men to move for their partner’s career. This makes it harder for them to find a laboratory that exactly matches their expertise. Moreover, as most of their husbands tend to work more than 46 hours a week, women must take over most of the family responsibilities. “The under-representation of women is the result not of a bias in the selection procedure itself but of a cultural bias: it stems from societal pressure to ascribe women traditional roles in the home,” concludes Gerlind Wallon. It would seem that women are more likely than their partners to shoulder the childcare burden and to fit their careers around their families. So it is the pervasive culture of negative bias that must be altered if we are to break through the glass ceiling. How can this be done? “First by asking all scientific institutes to take stock of women’s representativeness; second by raising awareness of this gender gap and, third, by encouraging women to continue with their careers. Not only should men be persuaded to take over more of the childcare burden, paternity leave and half-time working arrangements should also be made available to men.”

Gerlind Wallon tries to address these issues during the laboratory management lectures that she gives to large student audiences. Many of those attending her lectures are surprised to learn that gender discrimination still exists. Others say that it is all down to genetic differences. It is a claim that never fails to anger her…


Lise Barnéoud

  1. The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), based in Heidelberg (DE), was created in 1964 to promote molecular biology in Europe. Financed by 27 European countries and staffed by more than 1 300 scientists (of whom 48 have been awarded a Nobel Prize), EMBO offers fellowships and programmes to hand-picked researchers.
  2. Such as the SET-Routes International Women in Science conference held in Heidelberg from 9 to 11 May 2007: www.set-routes.org/conference/index.html
  3. The study may be downloaded from the website:www.embo.org/documents/persistent_problem.pdf
  4. The impact factor is a measure of the importance of a scientific journal to its field. It assesses the average frequency with which all the articles published in a journal have been cited in other indexed journals over a three-year period.

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