Conference on gender equality in research funding: promoting new ideas

The roundtable of international experts at the "Gender and Excellence" conference © SNSF

The annual meeting of the National Research Council of the SNSF at the end of October offered the perfect opportunity for the international conference on "Gender and Excellence". One subject of debate was how the SNSF could further promote gender equality in research funding.

Around 200 people from Switzerland and abroad arrived on the second day of the Séance de Réflexion of the National Research Council at the Kursaal in Berne. Susan Gasser, director of the Friedrich Miescher Institute and professor at the University of Basel, opened the conference on "Gender and Excellence: Challenges in Research Funding". Since May this year, she has been president of the newly appointed Gender Equality Commission of the SNSF.

Women should not have to choose between career and family

Even though a relatively high number of women complete a higher education degree in Switzerland, women are underrepresented in influential academic positions compared to the rest of Europe and the US. Susan Gasser sees this as a disadvantage not only for women but for society as a whole. "Why are women underrepresented in top academic posts?", she asked. Citing various studies, she showed how subtle gender prejudices make both men and women believe that men are better scientists. "Women think they have to make a choice between career and family; as a result they question if they are really good enough for a top position. Men climb up the ladder without asking themselves this question", Gasser said. The key is to eliminate prejudices, which is something the SNSF can contribute to with its funding policy, she added.

More open-mindedness for alternative career paths

Claartje Vinkenburg, second speaker and professor for organisational behaviour at VU Amsterdam, then presented a study commissioned by the ERC. This study analyses the career paths of researchers who applied for or received ERC funding. The results show that different career paths can lead to success and that dual career couples are the norm. Unconventional career paths need to receive more support, Vinkenburg argued, and interrupted careers should not be stigmatised. The aim of the study is to achieve a more gender equal distribution of ERC funding.

Excellence alone is not enough

In the third speech, Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of theoretical astrophysics from Yale University, argued that excellence alone is not enough to succeed in science and that gender and origin still play an important role. She supported this claim by citing impressive findings from numerous studies. According to Natarajan, implicit prejudices are the main cause why the scientific careers of women are often stalled. "We need a working culture in which women feel that they are welcome. We need active mentoring and networks for women and we need to promote family support in general", Natarajan said. This requires concerted efforts from politicians and scientists.

Panel debate with young researchers

Subsequently, the speakers formed a panel with two young researchers, Claire Gervais (SNSF professor) and Andréas Stauder (professor and until recently Ambizione grantee), as well as Martin Vetterli, President of the National Research Council. Early on, Vetterli demanded that the rules of the game would need to be changed fundamentally: "The rules of science were defined by men." He said that the SNSF was striving to encourage a change of culture at higher education institutions. Claire Gervais proposed that the SNSF needed to emphasise more strongly that researchers also have private lives. Personally, she feels criticised both as a mother and a part-time employee. "Many researchers think that I am not taking my profession seriously enough, while many mothers feel that I work too much". Andréas Stauder, whose wife works in the same field, criticised that Switzerland does not offer incentives for dual career couples, as is the case in the USA. This is what led him to consider relocating to the USA.

Recommendations of the Gender Equality Commission

In her speech, Susan Gasser presented the most important recommendation of the Gender Equality Commission, which had met for the first time this summer: the introduction of a new funding scheme for outstanding young women researchers at postdoc level, called PRIMA (promoting women in academia). This scheme, she argued, should replace the Marie Heim-Vögtlin grants that were introduced 20 years ago. In the context of the next multi-year programme, the SNSF is discussing this recommendation as well as others put forward by the Gender Equality Commission, e.g. family-friendly measures for both genders at all levels. The SNSF will also consider other suggestions made at the conference.