Women in science. Prof. Dr hab. Ewa Łojkowska in conversation with Julia Bereszczyńska | University of Gdańsk

Women in science. Prof. Dr hab. Ewa Łojkowska in conversation with Julia Bereszczyńska

I have always maintained that women have two projects: the one with which they’re involved at work and the other one, a family project. In the work project they find themselves at different levels while in the family one, they are usually both, managers and chief executive officers.

Prof. Dr hab. Ewa Łojkowska in conversation with Julia Bereszczyńska.

Your career as a scientist has been flourishing and evolving for many years now. But if we went back to the beginnings, to your school or study days, was there a person in your life who pointed you in the right direction and encouraged you to keep going?

In secondary school I had a very good biology teacher. Both my parents had degrees in agriculture so issues of biology or agriculture were always close to me. After secondary school I started my studies at the Faculty of Biology and Earth Sciences of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, right from the start with a view to specialising in biochemistry or plant physiology. During the course of my studies, my interests in these fields developed further. I had a very good promotor for my M.A. thesis, the outstanding scientist Prof. Marian Michniewicz, but he was a very busy and distant person and contact with him was very limited. However, as I was preparing my doctoral dissertation, I met Professor Alina Kacperska-Lewak, who was later my doctoral promotor, and she pointed me in the right direction and showed me what academic work should be, how I should develop, and also made me realise that I should go on an internship abroad. She simply showed me how to work as an academic.

Why did you choose biotechnology?

I’d rather say, biology, plant physiology. I later worked in plant biochemistry, back then plant biotechnology was only just starting.

Were you always better at exact sciences?

Yes, I was generally better at exact subjects. I was in a mathematics class in secondary school but I was always interested in biology. When I went for walks, my mum used to teach me how to recognise plants, all kinds, from grasses to trees. And then it evolved into plant physiology and biochemistry, phytopathology, and all these constitute broadly defined modern plant biotechnology. Thus, plant biotechnology came gradually, through the molecular biology of bacteria.

Now times are different, with women openly striving for equality and the presence of feminist movements. What was it like back then, at the start of your career?

There were no such forward movements back then of course but, because my mum was an educated person and had always worked in her profession, it was obvious to me that I would finish my studies and would be working, too. There was never anything special in that for me. That’s simply the model I had from home.

How do you manage to combine the role of a mum and a wife with that of a scientist?

We’ve never had a problem with it. My husband knew very well what academic work is like and knew that the working hours were unlimited. I left for a two-year internship to the United States when my daughter was starting the first grade. It was quite a difficult situation for both sides, both for me as well as my husband but we were assuming that they would join me as soon as possible. The whole family saw the possibility of going on a scientific internship as an enormous chance. My husband and daughter joined me in Madison six months later and we spent a year in the States together. After that I went away one more time, for two years to France but this was much closer and contact was easier. It was very natural for us.

Has your husband ever made you feel that he was jealous of your success?

No, on the contrary, he has always supported me. We’ve never had a problem with it, either of us.

During the course of your scientific career, have you ever met with unpleasant situations on the part of men?

Of course, there have been some minor situations like that but I’d say I am rather tough and have never really taken them to heart. When in 1993 I had a rather difficult situation at work, I simply changed my job. I entered a competition and was employed at the University of Gdańsk, at the newly emerging Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology and I have never had any problems here.

I am asking because one hears stories of male chauvinist remarks …

Yes, I’ve had those too, but rather when I was a student or at the early stages of my academic career but they have never bothered me.

Do you know women who, despite their enormous talent for science, had to discontinue their career because of family? I mean women who had already had some successes and at some point had to stop their academic careers for the sake of family.

Let me think … I don’t remember people who began their academic careers and then stopped but some of my friends must have decided early on, right after their studies, that they don’t want to work in science because it’s too absorbing and does not give enough time to devote to family. I think that this is a very individual thing. I have many female doctoral students and colleagues and among them there are those who have three children and have completed their habilitation. I think it depends on many circumstances in life which might make a professional career easier or more difficult. It must depend mostly on people’s life partners but I do not recollect a drastic incident of anyone abandoning their academic career for family reasons. And I would certainly remember such a case.

You lived in the States for two years, then in France and Italy, do you think that in order to have a career in science one has to leave Poland?

‘Has to’ is too strong a statement but going away gives you a lot. And I mean as far as scientific work is concerned but also your general development. The University of Wisconsin–Madison in the USA, where I worked, was actually a great research centre, excellently equipped and with outstanding scientists. I really learnt a great deal there because it was a centre which attracted great scientists from all over the world. Until this day I have stayed in touch with the people I met at the end of the 1980s in Madison at the Department of Plant Pathology. My stay there taught me many things: how to present the results of scientific research, how to publish, how to contact people, how to be more open and braver in academic contact.

Then when I left for the second time, for Lyon in France, it was much easier but the conditions were totally different too. Radically different. Not even so much when it came to science but as far as life was concerned. In the States you worked from morning till night. You came in the morning and left the lab in the evening. France was more ‘European’ in that you worked until a certain time, usually 5 p.m. Of course, as I was there with no family, I worked longer but French scientists had a different approach from their American counterparts. I worked in a very good laboratory, excellently equipped, but my colleagues also valued their family life very highly. So I had the chance to see that you can work in different ways. In Italy, in turn, I did not work in research, I only lectured so it was also a different type of experience, mostly through contact with young people.

I always tell my doctoral or undergraduate students that a scientific internship abroad is very important because on the one hand it shows you the best possibilities of work in the best centres and on the other, which is also even more important, it gives you the chance to compare the place where you normally work to the place which you visit. Sometimes to the detriment of the place where you work but often such comparison lets you appreciate what we have here. I naturally left for a scientific internship in a different situation and from a different centre. The level of science in our country at the time was completely different than now, laboratories were not equipped in the same way, possibilities were not the same. Now when our young people leave for internships, they often meet conditions similar to what we have in our laboratories. It is a very positive phenomenon because the young researchers see that they really have great possibilities for scientific work here and sometimes, after such an internship, they appreciate much more what they have in their own country. Of course, I do not mean to say that an internship does not develop one scientifically, it definitely does and very much so.

What about the material conditions? We hear a great deal about the conditions in the States being better.

Of course, these are richer countries, with different incomes and salaries, but I am talking about the possibilities for scientific development. Our colleagues, friends, visiting professors often say that the conditions in which we work and the way our laboratories are equipped is enviable.

Have you had moments of failure or misfortune? What does a scientist think then? Have you ever wanted to leave it all, quit and become involved in something else?

Of course, such moments always come but rather than abandon science, I wanted to change my environment and as a result moved here, to Gdańsk, from my previous place of work. At the time I also had other plans and was intensively looking for what I could change in my life. A few new options had cropped up but the then emerging Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology of the University of Gdańsk and the Medical University of Gdańsk was the most attractive. That is why I decided to apply.

But, you know, different things happen in life. You might be thinking that you’ve got great results, you prepare a publication and send it off and they tell you that it is not good enough. But you cannot break down, you have to rectify what you can, fine-tune the experiments and keep fighting. I have never doubted my work so seriously. But I had a difficult period when I began working as a dean. This was perhaps the most difficult time in my life. It really took a lot out of me. And not because I had any problems with people but I was just very nervous myself because I wanted to fulfil my new duties to the best of my ability. There were great many duties indeed and on top of that I had my lab with many doctorate students finishing their doctoral dissertations, and the research and didactic duties overlapped with those organisational duties. That was a really difficult period, especially the first two years. But then I thought that being Dean at the university is for one, maximum two terms.

I must stress, though, that the position of Dean gave me plenty of satisfaction, with the successes of my Faculty being my own successes. I also had family duties at the time although my daughter was a grown-up girl then. I think, though, that if it hadn’t been for the support of my family, my husband and daughter, it wouldn’t have been easy to cope with all those responsibilities.

I would like to come back to the subject of women in science for a moment. According to statistics women scientists constitute 29% of the total. It is on the rise but very slowly because over the space of 20 years it has risen only by 2 to 3%. What do you think is the reason?

This is certainly due to some internal and external circumstances. Internal, as so few women are determined to have a career in science because they realise that it calls for a great deal of devotion and time. It is not even about whether someone is less or more talented but they simply have to devote much more time to scientific work than the standard eight working hours. Therefore probably more men than women choose to work in science. Women additionally have a family on their mind. I have always maintained that women have two projects: the one with which they’re involved at work and the other one, a family project. In the work project they find themselves at different levels while in the family one, they are usually both, managers and chief executive officers. As a result, they usually have more duties and have to be really determined and organised to work in science. On the other hand, many women simply decide that they don’t want to do that. I’ve had such female doctoral students who started their doctoral dissertations with me and gave them up after a year. And I hope that this wasn’t because they perceived the contact with me as difficult. They had simply just realised what it means to be working in science. One of my female doctoral students told me that when she sees how hard I work, she wouldn’t like to be working like this all her life. She then went on to have a completely different career, she has a good professional standing and is doing quite well. She simply decided that she didn’t want to work in science. She could see that I was at full stretch all the time and that work never ends. But there are also, of course, external circumstances. It often happens that men’s career path is easier. This might not be so visible in science because here there’s the option of a more objective assessment of achievements. But men are more readily chosen over women for managerial bodies or scientific committees. The same situation applies to such positions as Dean or Rector. Generally those who elect, the majority of whom are men, decide to choose men.

Why is that?

This is probably conditioned by civilisation. Although it is gradually changing, if you look at various advisory bodies, in which I participate as well, for many years women have generally been in minority. Maybe there is something in the fact that men vote for men because they work better with men than with women. They probably think that men are flexible because if there’s a need, they can leave a sick child to be looked after by the mum who in turn will do anything for the home to function normally and for family life to be brilliantly organised. Women always find themselves torn between family and professional duties.

Do you think there are features which distinguish a female scientist from a male scientist?

I think that men are greater go-getters, they’re more self-confident and push themselves forward more. Women tend to be more subdued and less competitive and they need to know more precisely what they’ve achieved to be able to push those achievements to the fore.

Has the image of a woman scientist changed somehow over the years?

Not really, no. When I worked on my doctorate or right after it, there were many women at the same career level. At the doctoral level, there have been around 40% women, maybe more. Then it starts to change, so it is hard to say. My best teacher and the person who taught me most was a woman, a very wise woman and an excellent scientist, Prof. Alina Kacperska-Lewak. Then I also worked in France under the supervision of an outstanding woman, Prof. Janine Robert-Baudouy. In the Italian project, in the international studies entitled “Job Creation Biotechnology Diploma”, the coordinator was also a woman, Prof. Mariapia Viola Magni. In the States, in Madison, my boss was a man, Prof. Arthur Kelman. He was an ideal boss who taught me a great deal of different things. He never let me feel that his trust was any less because I was a woman. He gave me tasks and appreciated it when I solved them. When I was doing my internship in Madison, Wisconsin, it was a very modern state, the ‘Scandinavia’ of America. The rights of women were being respected and, for example, smoking , as far back as in the 1980s, was considered silly because how can you harm your own health so much? The balance between men and women was far greater there. There were a few women professors at the Department of Phytopathology and they might have been in the minority but they were there. Granted, they often had no families or they did but with no children. But that was just characteristic for America, the work there was really very hard, at least when I was there and it would be hard to imagine combining work with raising a small child. All in all, over these few decades of my life, the figure of a woman scientist has acquired more presence but at the highest levels of a career in science, there are still fewer women than men.

Do you have female doctoral students asking for advice, wanting to know how you coped with a similar problem?

Of course, it does happen. I try to have very good contact with my doctoral or undergraduate students. And, by and large, if there are any problems, then I try to offer them my advice or help. Maybe I don’t always manage to and maybe this is not always what they expect of me but I also have a daughter who has two small children so I know what it is like to raise small kids and the limitations connected with it.

Interview by Julia Bereszczyńska 


Prof. Dr hab. Ewa Łojkowska
Last modified by: Tadeusz Zaleski
Created by: Tadeusz Zaleski
Last modified: 
2018, May 15 - 11:16am