Smaller labs than male colleagues, lower salaries, belittling, bullying, verbal abuse, causing doubt regarding competence and sexual harassment. This is what happened to three female scientists who play the leading roles in the American documentary Picture a Scientist from 2020. They refuse - sometimes after years of inner struggle – to let things go and are now fighting for equal treatment for men and women in science. For love of their field as well as for the future of their children. Last Monday evening, the Maastricht Young Academy (MYA) and cinema Lumière organised a showing, followed by a debate with three Maastricht female professors: Lisa Brüggen (SBE), Pamela Habibovic (FHML) and Leo Köhler (FHML).
Who makes the rules?
It is after nine o’clock in the evening when the panel discussion starts in Lumière. A handful of interested parties in the hall, the rest is following the evening online. “I do recognise a couple of issues,” says Habibovic. She refers to a remark by one of the main characters: ‘For a long time, you try to belong, but you will never become one of them.’ Habibovic: “Who makes the rules in science, who determines what is professional? Men do. Sometimes you go along with it because you want to be successful, but at the same time it means that I, as a female scientist, cannot always be myself.” To later on continue with: “A female colleague had a meeting with only men. When she arrived, she heard the men talking about telephones and cars. She said: shall we get started? The comment by the male colleagues afterwards: ‘She doesn’t know how it works, how meetings work.’ This wouldn’t happen in a team with about the same number of men and women,” said Habibovic.
Lisa Brüggen: “I thought it was very emotional, but also inspiring. I experienced a number of issues myself and they still make me angry.” She had two children during her tenure track, her teaching task didn’t decrease during that time, which meant that she had no time for research for two years. At the end of the five years, her achievements were compared to a postdoc without children, with fewer teaching tasks and who had not been absent for a couple of months on two occasions. “I thought that was so unfair, I was so done with it all. I wanted to quit. But my colleague and role model Gaby Odekerken (SBE professor, ed.) said: you are talented, try it, give yourself another year. I did so and regained my intrinsic motivation. I have a great job, but it isn’t always easy, things need to change.” She personally set up the Elinor Ostrom Fund in 2014 to support women in their academic careers.
“I am shocked,” says Köhler about the documentary, “but also impressed by these women.” She emphasises that it is important that everyone realises that these kinds of practices are still occurring. “I am a tutor and one of my groups consists of mainly women. I felt that we were not very in-depth so I asked why that was. ‘We don’t want to bore anyone with our stories, we don’t want to talk for too long,’ they said. This was a rude awakening for me. Guys in my groups go on and on, they are not worried about anything. We need to show female students that it is important that they make themselves heard and convince them that they have something to say.”
The three panel members feel that awareness is the first step, followed by support from the top of the university, but also by heads of departments. Brüggen: “They are in places where real changes can be made.” A good training of these leaders is crucial, as far as she is concerned. And last but not least, all three point out the importance of mentors who can listen, taking the female scientist more seriously and knowing when to give a nudge and when not to. “It doesn’t need to be one person,” they say. As long as it happens, because “if we lose a large number of important scientists through inequality between men and women, that will affect all of us.”