Nanowomen with two voices

Two voices representing a group of a dozen women – all of them, apart from one sociologist, women researchers in the field of the nanosciences: a group whose actions have extended beyond the sphere of their speciality to achieve progress on the gender issue throughout Europe.

Annett Gebert (on the left) and Ulrike Wolff – “Many women give up after their post-doctorate because they lack self-confidence and do not know how to present themselves to best effect.”
Annett Gebert (on the left) and Ulrike Wolff – “Many women give up after their post-doctorate because they lack self-confidence and do not know how to present themselves to best effect.”

Annett Gebert and Ulrike Wolff have much in common. Chemists at the IFW in Dresden (1), they both turn 40 this year, are passionate about the nanosciences, work almost 50 hours a week, and like to devote what little time is left over to social projects. Even if it takes up their evenings and weekends!

Annett Gebert was planning to speak at a European Commission call for projects on the role of women in science via a Romanian colleague, Mariana Calin. They were soon joined by Ulrike Wolff and followed rapidly by nine other women researchers occupying highlevel positions in the nanosciences. “We very quickly came up with a lot of ideas on the actions we could pursue in our speciality.” It was finally a group of 12 women, from nine European countries, who in October 2005 launched Women in Nano. (2) It is Annett and Ulrike who head this unique consortium.

Exceptional paths

There was nothing about these two women researchers to mark them in advance as campaigners against discriminatory practices against women in science. Their route ran smoothly, from the chemistry faculty to their present position at the IFW, by way of a doctorate from Dresden, a post-doctorate in which they discovered the nanosciences, and a year’s experience abroad. At no time did they feel disadvantaged by their sex. “We may even have benefited from a certain positive discrimination,” adds Ulrike. Be that as it may, they did not hesi tate for a moment when it came to committing themselves to a project whose goal is precisely that of supporting and encouraging women in science. Why? “Because we knew that our route was not the norm!” answers Annett. “We heard reports from colleagues, often outside Germany, for whom the situation as a woman was much more difficult. Through Women in Nano we are not seeking to defend our own rights but to improve a very unequal global situation.”

The 12 Women in Nano ambassadors first set about examining the situation of women in the nanosciences and attempting to understand the reasons for their under-representation in this field. A number of surveys were carried out, among research bodies and scientists. But the results proved disappointing and unsuitable for use. “The nanosciences are a very wide field. It was very difficult for us to identify all the research groups in such an interdisciplinary sector and to find the right person to contact. The few responses we received were also not very satisfactory, probably due to a lack of time or interest.” The study nevertheless showed that the differences between countries in terms of career plans and promotion structures have little impact on the role of women in science. It is cultural aspects that seem to play a much more important role.

Women and young people

Next came phase two of the project, devoted to attracting young people to the nanosciences and encouraging women to continue their careers. This took the form of events held in schools, participation at public events and, most importantly, the organisation of a summer university (in Coma-Ruga, Spain) and a winter university (in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia). “These two workshops are my very best memories of this campaign,” explains Ulrike Wolff. “The participants were so enthusiastic and so keen to learn…” These ‘extramural universities’ not only aimed to give high quality courses on different nanoscience subjects but also to improve the ability of female students to present their scientific results, orally as well as in writing.

“Many women abandon their careers after their post-doctorate because they lack self-confidence and are unable to really show what they are capable of,” explain the two scientists. It seems that women are not as good at selfevaluation than men and it is this relatively negative image that they transmit to their future employer. Work on presenting their results was thus a means of improving this weak point and giving them renewed confidence in their work as a basis for communicating it more easily. One course, for example, dealt exclusively with behaviour when faced with an audience. “I discovered that during scientific presentations men generally stand up very straight and look their interlocutors in the eyes whereas women are less stable, always moving around and rarely looking directly at their audience,” explains Ulrike. At the subsequent sessions to present the results, the progress made was flagrant. “Self-confidence is something that can be learned,” confirms Annett – and she certainly knows what she is talking about! On returning from her first post-doctorate year spent at the Polytechnic School of Montreal, in Canada, she quickly found herself presented with the opportunity of heading the Electrochemical Properties of Functional Materials group at the IFW in Dresden. “I was terrified at the idea of so much responsibility! But it is by seizing such opportunities that you become much more confident of your abilities”

Organisational wizards

Another feature of these summer and winter universities were debates on problems of society and on matters of gender equality in particular. During these discussions, one question came up repeatedly: is it really possible to combine a family life with a scientific career? As they do not themselves have children, it is a difficult question for Annet and Ulrike to answer. “That is a situation totally independent of my career,” declares Ulrike. “There is no doubt a link with my career, but my profession does not explain everything,” is Annett’s reply. In any event, they both believe it is possible to reconcile the two. Proof of this is the fact that half of the 12 women scientists in the team do combine a family with a high level career. “You probably need more organisation in your everyday work,” admits Ulrike. “Above all, you must create the conditions to make life easier for women with children,” remarks Annett. At the IFW, for example, the laboratory managers are all perfectly aware of the difficulties faced by young parents and therefore afford them greater flexibility. The institute also offers facilities for finding a place at a crèche.

The Women in Nano project also set up meetings with the authorities from the world of higher education, industry and politics to discuss what gender equality strategies should be put into place. What support measures could be useful to women? Should special funds be granted to allow female researchers to pursue their careers? How should the education system be transformed to encourage young girls to opt for careers in science?

It is, however, difficult to give concrete answers to all these questions in a short space of time. Financed by the European Commission for a period of 30 months, the Women in Nano consortium ended in late March 2008 with a final workshop on the dissemination of results. But the adventure continues and a new three-year project (3) started this year. This involves 11 European countries and aims to strengthen the position of women in scientific decision-making posts as well as to improve solidarity and the involvement of men in the campaign for gender equality. This time their male colleagues will be welcome. But Annett and Ulrike will not be participating in this new project. For these two top level female scientists it is difficult to commit themselves immediately without a break, given the demands of their career on their time and energy.

Lise Barnéoud

  1. Leibniz-Institut für Festkörper- und Werkstoffforschung Dresden (Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research). www.ifw-dresden.de
  2. www.womeninnano.de
  3. Improving gender diversity management in materials research institutions.