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Why promote equal opportunities

Mary Louise Grossman

Position: Management and Coordination of CRC1315

Discipline: Neuroscience

Department: Institute for Biology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Website: View here

Photo: Captivation

1. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?

I don’t know if I possess the gene that influences novelty- and adventure-seeking but I do know that I have really enjoyed travels, studies and my life abroad since emigrating from Canada in the 1990s. Academically, I took a rather circuitous path. After majoring in psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, I followed STEM-related studies in landscape architecture (MLA) in Canada, joined a provincial exchange in southern China and pursued doctoral studies in Tokyo, examining case studies in the built environment and the traceable intersections of time with various scales of influence. It was in Japan that I met my German partner, who was doing research for his PhD in the humanities. When our children were younger, I worked as editorial assistant to a highly cited scientist and director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology (MPIIB). At the end of a decade at MPIIB and while replacing an RTG coordinator on maternity leave, I completed a continuing education MSc in Science Marketing at the TU Berlin. My second coordination position, at IRTG2290, involved setting up elements of its international dual degree programme.

Since 2018, I have managed the coordination office of the Collaborative Research Center 1315, a DFG-funded project focusing on long-term memory consolidation. The job involves really diverse tasks, from overseeing global finances, mobilizing strategic decisions of the CRC’s Steering Committee to implementing equal opportunity measures, outreach and scientific events to collaborating with graphic and website designers. My job requires a passion for networking and communications. I have my eight mostly older siblings in Canada to thank for my training in the nuances of networking, basically from birth. As for communications, thankfully all three of the DFG projects I have worked in at the HU have had both German and English as working languages.

2. When did you first become aware of the role of gender in your research environment or at your work place at university?

All of my academic supervisors in and outside of Canada were accomplished professors, who were very generous with their time and inspiring with their expertise. We were not rewarded on the basis of gender during my first degrees, and enrollment was gender balanced – but thinking back, the majority of my professors were men. As a foreign exchange student at Southeast University in Nanjing, the urban design class I was invited to observe and assist in was gender-balanced. However, I was the only woman staying in our foreign student dormitory, reflecting the very low participation of women studying in STEM among China’s cooperative partners in 1990. And, regrettably, I had no Japanese women as colleagues in the lab in Tokyo reflecting the poor representation of women in STEM in Japan, at the time. At work in Berlin at MPIIB, I became aware of the powerful role of publication metrics in scientific review processes – and the pressure this puts on all individuals, especially those with career breaks.

3. What challenges have you encountered in academia regarding equal opportunities?

In many academic and professional careers, working abroad is invaluable for career advancement. But being mobile, having a young family and launching dual careers was a monumental task. During our second research stay in Tokyo with one child, we could share childcare responsibilities equally, but upon returning to Berlin with a second child, coordinating our careers with the lives of our children was only doable with a 100:50 split – which can slow down career advancement for the one working half-time. Looking back, I couldn’t harmonize the physical and emotional demands of child-rearing with the intellectual demands of forging a new research career in a new country. But, making the best of working 50%, I flexibly worked on establishing a new career – which I am quite pleased with now.

4. What has been your personal experience with equal opportunities offers? What have you taken away from them?

In CRC 1315, we implement equal opportunity measures outlined in our phase 1 funding proposal. This means our CRC awards scientific excellence with our Brenda Milner Award, offers emergency child care for parents, ensures the gender balance of speakers in our lecture series, and pools resources with METIS partners since 2019. We also encourage our members to take part in the mentoring programs of their respective research institutions.  The CRC has members in and outside of Berlin in Greifswald, Magdeburg, Frankfurt and Seewiesen – so we have to make sure that all benefit from our measures. Thanks to news spread by METIS, we have the possibility of joining innumerable online events concerning gender and equal opportunities. Recently a spontaneous poll taken during an event held by BIH/MDC showed that the audience was more than 90% women. So I left the event thinking that while the event gives a voice to issues and creates a space for discussion, a more diverse audience is also needed to raise awareness and have impact. This might require smaller or more targeted discussion formats.

5. What do you think still needs to be done?

Much needs to be done. While discussing the leaky pipeline – where scientists drop out of the career track while raising a family – with our international guest speaker Catherine Carr, she suggested that a closer look at the careers of our alumni might help us better understand the nature of “leaky” in our consortium. Secondly, to ensure that recruitment and scientific review processes of all kinds are fair and unbiased, we need to create spaces for informed and constructive dialogue with relevant stakeholders. And last but not least, we need to keep an eye on articles of interest that our members share on our #gender channel on slack. We are fortunate that METIS hosts all of our offers and more, for the benefit of all.

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