What does a scientist look like? In a study conducted in the US over 5 decades, children were asked to draw a scientist without any further specification. While between 1966 and 1977, only 0.6 % of children drew a woman, this number has increased to 34 % in 2016 (on average, when asked to draw a person, 70 % of children draw their own sex). The study suggests that, on the one hand, more women actually choose a professional career in science and are therefore more visible, but also, that how we talk about and depict scientists in children’s books and media in general has become more equal and inclusive.
Work-life-balance, the gender pay gap, family considerations and workplace culture are some aspects women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) still consider challenging today. At CLR we want to promote women and their career journey by providing a work environment that allows all employees to identify their professional potential and develop their academic skills without sacrificing their personal and social lives.
But raising awareness for women’s achievements is just as important. In February, we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This day was implemented by the UNESCO and UN-Women to acknowledge women’s contribution to science and to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.
In celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science we asked women at CLR about their female perspectives on working in STEM, what it means to be a woman in science and what we can further improve to help women gain the success and acknowledgement they truly deserve.
Interview with Sabrina John, Head of Research at CLR
You are Head of Research at CLR. Why did you choose a career in science?
A lot of young people today do not have a clue how their future professional career will be by the time they graduate from school, but I already knew that I wanted to become a scientist when I was in elementary school. I remember, when I was in third grade my teacher asked us to write an essay on how we imagined our lives to be in thirty years. I remember answering: “I am going to work in a laboratory and travel to international conferences.” Growing up in East Germany this goal seemed fairly unrealistic at that time.
I have always been fascinated by biological mechanisms and how and why they operate the way they do. When I was still in school I was given the opportunity to work on projects together with students and professors of Humboldt University Berlin and since then I have been following that path. As Head of Research at CLR, I am able to put the hopes I had as a young student into reality.
What do you find most appealing about your profession?
Even after all these years, research is the most fascinating field to me. There will always be a next challenge that requires a new, creative approach and the application of new methods. My job at CLR will never become boring and I believe this is the best thing that could have happened to me in my career.
How do others – your family and friend, but also society – react to your profession?
What a terrible question. Why would anyone be critical of my profession? Generally, people are very interested, but also surprised about the intensity of research that is required for the development of cosmetic products.
How compatible is your work as a scientist with other aspects of your life?
My schedule is determined by our studies and sometimes working at night and on holidays is part of my job, but I find it manageable.
What do you consider challenging about your work?
Of course, it can be quite frustrating when you created a promising extract but cannot prove its efficacy. Positive results just cannot be forced – neither in science nor in other parts of life.
What are you most proud of?
I know, our research is not fundamental enough to win a Nobel Prize (laughs). But I am proud on my publications and especially my approved patents.
What keeps you motivated?
It is always satisfying when a new product gets added to the CLR portfolio after a long development process. When I find my work represented in our products, brochures and presentations it keeps me motivated for our next projects.
What would you change to improve working conditions for women in science?
A good team should be diverse – not necessarily in terms of gender, but in terms of different skill sets, fields of expertise and ways of thinking to enhance efficiency and creativity.
What are your wishes for the future for women working in science and research?
I grew up in East Germany where it was common for women to work as crane operators, mechanical engineers or physicians. Today our society reimposes a certain stereotype on girls again. Most little girls want to be princesses. Toys are often marketed and bought according to gender. It is important to enable children to make their own experiences and find their own interest. Parents can help by buying technical toys for girls, too. But the formative influence from environment, peers, kindergarten and schools is strong. I don’t expect society to change by itself. Parents have to act responsibly as well.
And we need to raise recognition for women’s inventions, discoveries and general achievements in school, media and society to make it more obvious that women are just as resourceful, smart and successful as men.
Ivonne Burger, Scientific Assistant Product Development Laboratory
One hundred years ago, women’s lives were a lot different than they are today: Their role was rigidly defined with very limited options to choose their own paths. A self-determined life was only attainable for a few wealthy women and only to a certain extent.
How difficult it was for a woman to study medicine and become a physician is something Rahel Hirsch experienced when she was told that “women cannot physically nor mentally meet the requirements to be a medical doctor.” But against all opposition she became the second female doctor at the well-known Berlin Charité hospital and the first female professor in Prussia.
But Rahel Hirsch and all the other brave women who fought for their right to become scientists, didn’t just do it for themselves – they fought for all of us, so that women today can decide for themselves who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. I am happy and thankful because I love being a scientist!
I remember, my first class reunion was around the time when I was about to attend university to study biotechnology. My former classmates passed around pictures of their children while I showed them pictures of my bacterial colonies, all their beautiful, unique colors and shapes and I felt very proud.
Science has always been my life and it still is. Today I am also a happy wife and mother. Traditional gender roles are more and more replaced by diverse ways of living, which enable us to lead self-determined lives. To meet all expectations while pursuing our own happiness is today’s biggest challenge for women.
I am thankful to all those women who paved the way in the past so I can work as a scientist today and contribute to the wonderful world of science.
Barbara Restel, Technical Assistant Cell Biology Laboratory
In school I had always been good at maths and biology but, like many others, as a young woman I found it hard to choose the right profession for myself. Fortunately, I listened to the advice of my counselor and pursued a career in scientific research. I had the chance to look at different scientific fields through internships and soon discovered, that I wanted to study cells. I am fascinated by their immediate reactions to environmental influences.
I have always felt the urge to get to the bottom of any problem. While my friends sometimes make fun of me for wanting to know the reason behind everything, now I actually get to work with people who share the same deep sense of curiosity. I enjoy working in a team in which everyone can contribute their individual skills, expertise and mindset and gender is not important. In the future I would love to see even more women in leading positions, not only in science but in all professional fields. Today I am very happy, that I chose to follow a career in research where I can work on finding new solutions and developing innovative products.
Elvira Wurl, Technical Assistant Microbiology / Technical Application Laboratory
“Why is that?“ was my favorite question when I was a little girl. I was a curious child and conducted ‘experiments’ that included food or cleaning products, much to the disapproval of my mother. In school biology and chemistry were my absolute favorite subjects. I did my school internship at a children’s hospital which made me fully realize the importance of science. Scientific research does not only help us understand ourselves and the world around us, it also improves and even saves lives.
With all the challenges science is facing right now we need the contribution of the brightest minds, regardless of gender. Thanks to Marie Curie and other strong and intelligent women who fought to become scientists in the past, women and girls nowadays can participate in all fields of science.
Today only 33 % of scientists worldwide are women. I am confident that if we keep up educational programs for girls, improve life-work-balance for mothers and recognize and communicate women’s accomplishments, men and women in science are going to be fully equal in the future.
I want girls and young women who aspire a career in science to stay positive even in challenging times, because we can achieve anything if we have trust in ourselves and believe in our work.