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Where were my male colleagues?

27 Oct 2017

“I shouldn’t be here” said Dr. David Kent to a mostly female audience which barely filled the first few rows of the lecture theatre. Dr. Kent, living in Cambridge, was referring to the struggle by the organisers to find a male scientist, working in Germany, who was willing to talk about equality in Science. Here lies the problem. On October 9th, 2017 the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association hosted the 50/50 Symposium with the tag line ‘why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. The posters for the symposium were spread all over the campus and, in my opinion, inspired interest. The message was clear and simple. That is, equality and diversity benefits everyone and men are essential to advance equality. From a research institute with over 700 research staff and over 500 PhD students and Postdoctoral researchers combined, less than 20 people attended and the only men there were either presenting or performing.

During the Symposium, two excellent speakers shared their path through Science and the impact that their life choices had on their careers. First, Christa Schleper, a Professor in Ecogenomics and Systems Biology at the University of Vienna, suggested that we bring a little bit of Scandinavia into our work places, referring to the flexible day care that she experienced whilst working in Norway. During that time, Professor Schleper was in the Department of Biology at the University of Bergen where she juggled a successful career and two young children. Professor Schleper was careful to point out that everything was 50/50 between her and her partner, another scientist. She also spoke of the importance of choosing your scientific family and how crucial it is to feel authentic and comfortable.        
The second speaker, Dr. David Kent, a group leader at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and admirable blogger (check out The Black Hole), spoke about shared parental leave and the very polar reactions he received from fellow scientists. One reaction was a metaphorical pat on the back. Who knew that a man would step away from his career and devote his time to raising a young child? What a rarity! What a hero!? Another, very different reaction that Dr. Kent spoke of highlights just how far we are from achieving equality in Science. When sharing his plans of parental leave with a colleague he was met with a reaction along the lines of ‘If you do this, you will destroy your career!’. Following this anecdote, Dr. Kent posed the questions ‘What about my wife’s career?’ and ‘Who is patting my wife on the back?’. After the talks by Professor Schleper and Dr. Kent, there was an Impro Theatre Show from the Freiwild Group who incorporated what we had learnt from the talks into improvised skits including gender-swapped scenes from the film ‘Titanic’ to a laboratory-being from the horror genre. 

The 50/50 Symposium was inspiring, informative and entertaining. It is one of several initiatives that the MDC has undertaken to improve gender equality in the workplace. However, there was one crucial aspect missing. Where were my male colleagues? My current view is that the struggles and barriers that a female scientist faces to achieve at the same level as her male colleagues seem like details to my fellow scientists and this leads to complacency. I believe this prevents a lot of changes that would hasten equality in Science. How do I encourage male scientists to join the discussion and be a role model for their colleagues? As of this moment, I am unsure.

The 50/50 Symposium highlighted the massive disparity in the views that people of female and male genders have towards female careers in Science. The fact is, the further one goes along the scientific career path, the fewer women there are in positions of power. We can change this. When the speaker Dr. Kent was asked at which level change should come from he replied ‘at all levels’. It’s time that we all start working together to make equality in Science a reality and, when we do, everyone will benefit.


Anna Reid, Post-doc at MDC, Berlin