Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Haibo Ruan from the Lise Meitner Gesellschaft on the forms of power abuse in science, its gender dimension, and how to address and overcome it.

The Lise Meitner Society (Lise-Meitner-Gesellschaft) is a non-profit organization founded by young scientists, which works towards equal opportunities in mathematics and natural sciences and inside and outside of academia. As part of our special issue on power in academia, we spoke to Dr. habil. Haibo Ruan, a member of the LMG board, and a mathematician at Technical University of Hamburg, to find out more about the challenges faced by female scholars in mathematics and natural sciences, and how the LMG is working towards addressing these issues.

Q: In your experience and opinion, where and how is power exercised or abused? And how can this be addressed? 

Haibo Ruan

A: It takes place at many different levels – on the individual level, a student’s ability to start or finish a degree on time relies a lot on the willingness and/or power of the supervisor, who can choose the topic, the regularity of meetings, the approval of a thesis and the composition of defence committees. Also the possibility for a student to attend conferences, give talks or make research visits depend a lot on the supervisor’s vision and  his/her connections and funding resources. On the collective level we can see power being exercised on committees and decision-making bodies which deal with topics such as academic position openings, funding distribution and negotiations, as well as recruiting processes and allocating teaching load and content, or design of completely new study programs.

To address these, we may need overall more transparency in communicating how things are being done. Students need to be able to access information about the personalities, supervising records, academic achievements and resources of potential supervisors prior to their entrance to a degree. Researchers with limited contracts including PhD students, postdocs and junior professors or research group leaders can benefit greatly from more transparency in policy making at universities and other research institutes on how decision making comes about.

Q: What is the LMG and how does it work towards addressing these issues?

A: The LMG was founded in 2016 by a group of young female physicists and mathematicians in Berlin. At the time it was motivated by a necessity since in physics, even compared with other natural sciences, female scientists are often perceived as exotic. They practically don’t exist, and when they do, people think that it is weird, since being a physicist is not a typical career choice for a woman, so when a woman decides to pursue research in physics, she often faces an indirect, subtle and implicit discrimination that stems from a collective social prejudice.

But during this initial gathering, which extended to LMG today, of both senior female scientists and young women PhD students, they found that being together, not having to work on these issues on their own, made all the difference and helped them to feel encouraged and empowered. Motivated by this, they founded the LMG, which is named after Lise Meitner (1878-1968) [1], one of the most famous female physicists of her time. They saw this as a milestone in encouraging more women to pursue careers in physics, mathematics and other natural sciences, and to show that this is not impossible for women. The LMG is a young and ever-growing organisation, and following the recent discussions on gender equality, we are seeing a historic moment in addressing these topics in academia today.

The main organisational project has been the I, Scientist conference that takes place every year so far. The “I” in I, Scientist, is a gender-neutral way of referring to a scientist. At the conference, female scientists (and a small number of men who supported our mission) gather together to talk about what their working environments are like, and how they might be able to support and encourage each other and to plan other networking events. Of course, there is a lot of scholarly discussion, but we also talk about how to deal with gender-based discrimination, and how to help women scientists consider their possible career paths and career choices. For example, showing people finishing PhDs that there are several options, such as staying in academia or going into the industry or starting something on their own. It’s important to encourage this type of independent research and thinking and creativity. We also try to provide more for our members outside of the yearly conference, and are working to develop a more diverse profile and range of regular workshops to our members, which address topics such as gender in science, or creativity. We especially encourage members to pitch their ideas to make the events practical and useful to their fellow members.

Q: Do members come from the natural sciences, or other disciplines as well? 

A: It’s very diverse, we started with the natural sciences, so that’s mathematics and physics, but now we include all branches of science.

Q: In theory, the scholarly system should be gender-neutral, right? Peer review is an established process, we have clear pathways to different stages of our careers – so why do you think there are still some areas where women are so under-represented? 

A: I think it has something to do with the evaluation methods. For example, at the beginning of the first year of university, in science and maths, there is often a 50-50 division, and equal numbers of men and women who want to study these disciplines. But by the end of the graduation year, it is not unusual to have only 10% of the graduates to be women. I think it has to do with the different evaluation methods between university and school. In mathematics classes in school, girls tend to have better grades than boys, because they study really hard, follow the set steps and get good grades. But the evaluation system in university is different. It’s more about meeting challenges, promoting a more open study system, and getting students used to the idea that you can’t expect to have 100% on every exam. Exams are designed in such a way that there are easier questions and harder questions, but generally, there are very black and white answers to questions, and the system is designed specifically to show that there are questions for which it is impossible to get 100%. And that can be very easily discouraging for girls, who are used to thinking of themselves as good students who work hard, and are accustomed to getting 100%. Meanwhile, their male colleagues may think ‘Oh, 80% is enough, I’m happy, I passed,’ and they have more motivation to go forward, without questioning their own abilities. But in some ways, girls have a harder time taking on failures. But the university system encourages people who are able to take their own failures and still be motivated to carry on learning and exploring the unknown. And of course, the more you learn, the more mistakes you make – that’s how you learn. But in science, it is very harsh, very black and white. Grades are supposedly objective, but it can also be very discouraging. That’s why I think women are underrepresented in science, compared to the humanities where you can learn a lot by self-study and you can really have these open type of answers to open questions.

Q: In the experiences of the LMG, what are the kinds of issues that female scholars describe as gender-based challenges?

A: Sometimes discrimination is explicit, especially in fields where women are rare, and where the attitudes can be like “Oh, well, it’s ok if you can’t do something, because you are a girl’, or the opposite, which is just as bad: “Oh, wow, girls can do that too?” And then, like I said, there is also the more implicit stereotyping, which is reinforced by social expectations of what women can and can’t do. For many women, it often feels like, although no one in the immediate environment is being discriminatory, they still feel out of place as a minority, and they feel as though they have to justify themselves. And that’s why the networking aspect is very important for us.

Q: It reminds me of the ‘Distractingly Sexy’ meme [2] a few years back, when a prominent male scientist said that women were a problem in a lab, and female scientists responded by posting pictures of themselves in lab gear. And it’s a reminder that even now, these very outdated ways of thinking about women in science exist.

A: Right, and I also think that one of the problems that science is facing today is that it is run by only half of the population, at the most. Science today faces many issues, related to how it is run. It’s very rarely about truthful statements or scientific facts, it is about how people express themselves and how they organise, and by having a majority of men running things, we only get the perspectives of one group of people. It is a high time we have more balance.

Q: So what practices and mechanisms are ensuring an equal workplace or perpetuating inequalities?

A: Collective instead of hierarchical internal structures would be a good start to ensure equality, so would relying more on open science approaches, instead of group clustering. Better science communication strategies to the outside world (including students, the general public and policy makers) should be encouraged and supported financially, instead of the current practice of writing trizillion of papers for the sake of funded projects, which carry a lot of pressure to publish, but only ensuring the reputation of a few.

Q: Perhaps that has something to do with the way universities are organised, and positions are endowed?

A: Oh yes, I think Germany is a very good case to look at when thinking about power in academia – I can’t think of another country where the power is so clustered or accumulated around a few people, because of the academic system. Running for a professorship is like running for politics – it takes much, much more than scientific work. And this is something I only recently noticed – as a person with a migration background, I did my PhD in Canada for example, which is a very different system in this perspective. When I arrived here 12 years ago, nobody told me how things worked and how they were different. I mean, if you know it, you know it, but if you don’t, no one will tell you, as these things tend to be subtle and indirect.

Q: This also makes me think that showing women and other people that there are alternatives, and routes out of academia is really important, but that sideways step is still invisible to a lot of people.

A: I think that is also because of the academic environment that one is in – if you are in the world of academic research, and surrounded by academics, your supervisors will always tell you, or at least give you the impression, that leaving academia is a worse choice. Because they have made it this far, so they will obviously think that it is a better choice. So you often are surrounded by this availability bias, which makes you feel like you were a loser if you were to leave. But once you are out of there, you may feel that “Wow, the world is much bigger!” and that it is absolutely normal to leave academia and to apply your knowledge and learning skill to something that is practical and useful for the general public. So there is a tremendous value out there to be explored. But within academia this is very seldom discussed or maybe it is potentially discouraged.

Q: Under these circumstances, how can we improve leadership and working conditions for women in academia and science? 

A: Open ranking systems would be very useful and would help to develop a “something for everyone” kind of wholesome approach, instead of the rigid structure of “everything or nothing” kind of philosophy which defines more or less the current academic system in Germany. Also, added emphasis on teaching skills in the broadest sense, including science communication, mentoring and supervising abilities, would naturally add more attractiveness for women scientists to stay with academia and more importantly, add more perceivable values of science to the outside world and encourage young talented people to pursue science.