In this joint interview, Katalin Solymosi and Linn Leppert discuss Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, their experiences as women in science and the importance of the CALIPER project in addressing the gender balance in STEM fields.
About Katalin Solymosi
Dr Katalin Solymosi is a plant biologist and an Assistant Professor at the Eötvös Loránd University (Hungary). She is active in science policy and diplomacy and has an interest in science outreach and engagement. She advocates for early-career researchers, as well as equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in academia. She is a Co-Vice-Chair of the Young Academy of Europe and Co-Chair of the Hungarian Young Academy.
About Linn Leppert
Dr. Linn Leppert is Associate Professor at the University of Twente (Netherlands). Having obtained a PhD in physics at the University of Bayreuth (Germany) in 2013, she moved to Berkeley for a postdoc at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the University of California, Berkeley. In 2017 she returned to her alma mater, where she led an independent junior research group in the Department of Physics. Since 2020, she is faculty member at the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Twente. Her research interests and main expertise are the development and application of accurate numerical simulation techniques for calculating the electronic structure and dynamics of light-converting systems. She is a Board Member and Treasurer of the Young Academy of Europe.
Linn and Katalin, why did you get involved in young academies at European and national level? What difference do you hope to make?
KS: “I very strongly believe in the crucial importance of diversity at all levels including age, gender, and ethnicity, but also concerning the complementarity of expertise of people working in a team. Diversity represents a huge potential for scientific research, for decision making, and finally benefits the entire academic community. I’ve always felt very saddened to see how much diversity decreases along the scientific career path, and I really think and fear that we are losing some of the best talents in science due to their personal circumstances or other external, non-meritocratic factors. My decision to be involved in launching and running the Hungarian Young Academy, and in becoming engaged with the activities of the Young Academy of Europe was related to my strong belief that early- and mid-career researchers can effectively advocate for diversity, partially because they have first-hand experience about difficulties due to inequalities that result in the loss of diversity, and thus they may also suggest viable solutions to retain best talents in science. At the level of European science advice for instance, I am convinced that more diversified teams of people can come forward with more adequate answers to the complex challenges faced by our societies.”
LL: “Researchers at European universities and other research institutions are often in an interesting situation: On the one hand, they are extremely privileged – working in highly flexible, fulfilling, usually well-paid jobs, highly educated, and, statistically speaking, quite likely to come from an academic background themselves. At the same time, we are, especially at the beginning of our careers, often employed under precarious circumstances, face enormous pressure to “perform”, and are part of complex organisational structures which are subject to the same forces of capitalist self-selection and commodification as every other area of life. For me there is no way to “complain” your way out of these structures, nor can we train ourselves to overcome them (without perpetuating them). Systemic changes are necessary, and those can only happen through national and international organisations such as the Young Academies. In my opinion, the Young Academies have unique opportunities for tackling systemic challenges, for example those related to gender and other issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, from an insider viewpoint. This all maybe sounds a little too grandiose, but I think what has been achieved for example on Open Access or on Rewards and Recognition in the last years is proof that things can be changed.”
You are both members of the YAE taskforce on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Why was it set up, and what does it hope to achieve?
KS: “In January 2021 we ran a survey among YAE members and asked them about topics and issues they would like to be engaged with, and work together on, with other members. These included EDI topics, so we decided to set up a relevant task force. Within the task force we wanted to analyse diversity and inclusion within YAE and see how it could be showcased from one side or improved on the other side. As former recruitment vice-chair of YAE I was and remain strongly devoted to increasing geographical representation within YAE by identifying potential YAE members in EU13 or other underrepresented countries. The aim of the task force was also to contribute as early- to mid-career researchers to the general discussion on EDI topics at the European level. So, we proposed and organised, along with CALIPER or Academia Europaea panels related to EDI on for instance ESOF 2022 or Building Bridges 2022, respectively.”
LL: “There is not much to add, other than a comment on something that I found interesting co-organising this task force: from the start, our discussions on this platform have been centred on how we understand EDI ourselves. What do we mean by diversity? Which aspects of diversity are important to us? Where should our focus lie? The answers to these questions have changed with every time we have met and depending on which of our members were present for these meetings. For me this goes to show how difficult it is to even define a set of goals for a task force like this. I would be lying if I claimed I had satisfying answers to these questions.”
YAE is involved in the CALIPER project, funded by the EU. CALIPER plays an important role in addressing the gender balance in STEM fields. As female STEM researchers, what has your personal experience been of working in STEM?
KS: “As mentioned earlier I find it quite demotivating that while we have – especially in life sciences – equal proportion of female and male PhD students and early postdocs (50-50%), many women get lost along the leaky pipeline at later stages of career development, and only around 10-20% of them reach the highest levels of recognition and accomplishment, i.e. professorship. This means on the one side that society loses many of its best talents as well as investment into their formation, and on the other side this often represents personal failures for women who have to give up their dreams, in most cases in my opinion simply because they cannot find the work-life balance and have to choose between motherhood or scientific careers, as they cannot keep up the pace with their male peers in the highly competitive research landscape during their early motherhood period. As in a vicious circle, all this results in having very few role models for girls and young women in science. My personal experience reinforces that doing experimental research is especially challenging for young mothers, because increased caring responsibilities coincide with the moment of taking over higher responsibilities as independent principal investigator.”
LL: “I am a physicist and have for a long time always been “the only one” (the only woman in the class, in the research group, in the conference…). This only changed during my postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, in a wonderful team of people led by Prof. Jeff Neaton, who manages to maintain a 50:50 male:female ratio and an incredibly diverse research group in many other aspects. For me, the time I spent in Jeff’s team was a big eye-opener in how science can (and should) be conducted, very reassured as to my own place in it, and an inspiration for how I wanted my own team to be.
My experiences over time have changed quite drastically: as a student and young researcher there was mostly a lot of insecurity and an experience of being “the odd one out”. As I have grown older and more secure and confident, I have become more aware of the many subtle ways men “keep women out”, sometimes without any bad intentions. I have luckily never experienced sexual harassment but cannot count the number of times my successes (and failures) were ascribed to my gender rather than my skills, intelligence and hard work.”
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by female STEM researchers, and how would you address them?
KS: “This is a highly complex issue that should be tackled at several levels (including for instance societal and institutional levels), and which has several different aspects (e.g., lower visibility of women, their underrepresentation at various levels of the academic landscape, the Mathilda effect etc.). However, according to my own experience, the most critical point is when women working in experimental research are starting their family. I have spent 6 years on maternity leave, and my return to my university teacher and researcher role was highly challenging. I had one child starting primary school, the other starting nursery school, whilst I had to teach 12 hours per week (not counting consultation and preparation for the courses).At the same time I had to start a completely new research topic from zero without any research group, students, staff, with no funding and no institutional support. Without the help of my family (parents and husband) and very few supporting colleagues I would have left science long ago. (I was conscious and I kept on publishing collaborative work and reviews during my maternity leave, so my CV remained relatively competitive and thus within a year I could get some grants to finance my new research topic.) However, children and teaching are duties that cannot be postponed. If I was overwhelmed, it was my research that came last. Based on this, I think that reintegration grants or special national or institutional measures to support caregivers returning from their career break either financially or also by decreasing their teaching loads could effectively help us to retain more women on the academic track.”
LL: “I agree with most of what Katalin says and have little to add. Great science is done most of the time when the circumstances are right, and this can usually be boiled down to time and space. Everything that takes away time and (mental) space for the hard, creative work of scientific thought and experiment from female researchers needs to be brought into focus: unfair teaching loads, unfair divisions of care work (at home), unfair divisions of emotional labour in the workplace, etc. Critical mass is also really important, which is why I also tend to be in favour of quotas and “affirmative action” type of measures to increase the numbers of female researchers in STEM. I fully acknowledge how complicated this topic is though. In physics we still have a huge issue with attracting female students to the study program and very little has changed about this in the last decades.”
CALIPER’s unique approach is to engage with all stakeholders involved in research and innovation (R&I) – not only the research sector, but also industry, government and civic society. How do you think we can engage all stakeholders in the debate on gender equality, and persuade them to work with us?
KS: “I am maybe too optimistic, but I see the European Union’s recently adopted measures requesting all research institutions (including industry, government, and NGOs) applying for EU funding to have a gender equality plan (GEP) as an important step towards improving the situation of women in science. I think that if these GEPs are not only tick-box exercises but are developed on the basis of scientific evidence (e.g., institutional surveys and data) and on discussions involving all stakeholders (especially women), if proper funding and staff is also allocated to them, and their implementation is also strictly controlled, then they may result in highly important institutional changes. CALIPER has the great advantage of being a network within which best practices can be shared in this field, especially in countries in which EDI topics are not very much discussed at the level of the society or in academia.”
LL: “I agree with what Katalin has said about the importance of sharing best practices between stakeholders. As a university researcher I always complain about my experiences as a woman in physics, but what I hear from industry and other sectors is by no means suggesting that these stakeholders are doing much better than we are in academia. With a focus on gender equality, we are also only just scratching the surface of the problem. We also need to consider the experiences of other minority groups.”
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 873134
Interview by the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub. Posted 19th December 2022. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk
As part of the CALIPER project, we are conducting a series of interviews with inspirational role models who work in STEM research and innovation. We explore what motivated them to choose their career, their experiences and the barriers that they faced.
About the CALIPER project
The CALIPER project’s goal is to make research organisations more gender equal by increasing the number of female researchers in STEM, improving their careers prospects and integrating a gender dimension in research. The project supports nine research organisations, predominantly in Southern and Eastern Europe, to establish Gender Equality Plans. Here are some key facts about the CALIPER project. Find out more about the project’s progress.
AE Cardiff’s role in CALIPER
The Cardiff Hub is leading on communications across Europe and encouraging wider engagement with the project, producing digital content and organising events.