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Prof. Anne Spang about gender equality

The world of science remains dominated by men. The further up the career ladder, the more women are lost from the academic system. This phenomenon is known as the “leaky pipeline”. While the proportion of men and women is almost balanced at the undergraduate level, the gender gap widens quickly from the postdoctoral stage onwards. At the highest level of the career ladder, women only account for 23 percent. At the Biozentrum, female professors are even more underrepresented, with not quite 19 percent.

Prof. Anne Spang has given much thought as to why this is so. Being both a professor and research group leader, she speaks from her own experience. “I also experience that the greatest leakage occurs at the postdoc level”, says Anne Spang. “Many women face a dilemma during this phase. They must push ahead with their career and, at the same time, it is also the time for starting a family.” In the rush hour of life, the period that is so decisive for a successful career, many women scale down their professional life. “I also think, that men strive more for top positions and are more persistent and egocentric. And if ‘he’ does not make any career concessions, ‘she’ compromises hers, if the need arises.”

Traditional ideas of how to live together as a couple, along with social norms and how we have been socialized, play a role in career decisions. Even today, we are still far from enjoying equal rights, in which career and family responsibilities are shared fairly by the partners. A further aspect is that women with an academic background often have a highly qualified partner. And as even still today women are mostly younger than their partners, man are a career step ahead – often a reason to focus on his career. Anne is convinced that, “women also have what it needs for a career in science, just like men. The external factors are the major problem. Ultimately, we can only achieve true equality through a change in our society.”

Anne Spang has an ambivalent opinion about the female quota. It does indeed help us to break up outdated structures but it puts on pressure to recruit a woman that one is absolutely sure will succeed despite any challenging or difficult circumstance that may arise. Otherwise you will quickly hear that she only got the position because of the quota. Another factor is certainly that men and women communicate differently. Women look at themselves more critically and tend to “hide their light under a bushel”. This is a disadvantage when applying for jobs, particularly for high level positions.

“What we need is an honest debate that questions old patterns in all areas of society,” says Anne Spang. “We must be proactive, courageous and above all be willing to bring about change in the research landscape and incorporate equality into our lives.” We already know that mixed teams work better and are more successful. So, we should be making every effort to promote diversity at each career level. Anne would like to empower women: “Be authentic and visible, and have confidence in your own achievements.”