Women in science – interview with Dr Magdalena Żadkowska
Do you recollect a woman or a man who has had particular influence on your academic career?
I rather remember moments in which I had to take decisions concerning my professional future and I was lacking advice or motivation. In my case career counselling hinged on the standard critical question “And what are you going to do when you graduate?”. I was lacking people who could encourage me and support my difficult choices, those from my professional circles because I had always had support at home from my husband. Once I remember, I was travelling on a train from Cracow and some elderly man who had heard that I was going to take up Italian Studies said to me: “Wouldn’t you rather they were translating you and not you translating someone else?”. Maybe this got me thinking.
Is it hard for a woman to have an academic career? Harder than for a man?
It definitely depends on the discipline. A stereotypical scientist is a man but we are slowly witnessing signs of change. I have recently seen results of research which shows that children in the United States more and more often draw a woman when presented with the task of drawing a scientist. In Poland a scientist is stereotypically still a man. But if we look at various disciplines, then some of them turn out to be more female-dominated, for example social sciences or biotechnology where, especially at the doctoral level, we have many examples of women. The exact sciences is still a very masculine world and ladies might find it hard to imagine being welcomed in it. Therefore, they might consider appearing in this world as a great success because the obstacle at the very start is all the greater. This, on the other hand, results in many gifted women deciding not to overcome this obstacle and making their mark in a given discipline.
In the course of your scientific career have you ever experienced any unpleasant situations caused by men?
I remember from my studies that some professors used inappropriate language to refer to women. I never really encountered anything similar afterwards. But I do see the necessity to care about the relations between men and women in science. In our institute we’ve had experience in cooperation with men where we were mutually responsible for our careers in science. I’ll give you an example: very often, and not at all in bad faith, when we refer to each other with some students present, or some guests, or other male or female academics, we use some common terms, and so my colleagues will not refer to me as Dr Żadkowska, but Ms Magda, or even Magda, or when referring to our group they’ll say “girls, do something”. This may be nice, and they certainly do not have any ill intentions, but they will more often refer to men, their colleagues, by using their surname and their academic title. Such a habit in communication does not strengthen our position and we have tried talking about it and making sure that we are not taking away each other’s achievements. And I have observed a change here over the past few years. Living in this rather linguistically formal society, we really do try to use titles and surnames or at least talk in the same way about men and women. So, if someone says Krzysiek is going there and Magda there, then of course this really shortens the distance but maybe a given situation demands it. But in other cases it will be Dr Such-and-such (male or female) to show that we serve very similar roles and are at a similar stage in our careers. As I said, this isn’t the result of bad will but rather such interaction rituals which are worth changing because research shows that it has a great influence on our esteem both with other people and even with ourselves.
Do you know women who, despite enormous talent for science, have had to abandon their careers for family reasons?
In my environment, here in sociology, quite a number of us have families and children and I think that, at the most, this has slowed down a given stage, that I have heard my female colleagues say that maybe it’s a pity that they did their doctorate before they had children because those children had greatly shortened the time for doing their habilitation and that they should have planned it another way and have done their doctorate after they’d had one or two children, if theoretically there was time to do it. In our focus study at Biotechnology it turned out that some of our female respondents admitted that they would happily use the services of a career counsellor or a tutor with whom they could discuss various academic scenarios. Not to plan children for them but to show them what the consequences might be of concentrating on family at particular levels of the academic career. At the institute we also act as a support group for each other. I think the ladies who have taken maternity leave were all happy to come back and had no problem finding their feet back at work again. It’s a pity that men still don’t use this possibility much. Some of my male colleagues have had children and they still haven’t taken more than the two-week paternity leave right after the birth. Though I know they are very much involved in the upbringing. I have heard of such cases in psychology and education. I think such men should be supported and such positive examples should show that it is possible and that it has a strong influence on the careers of their wives/partners. Especially if they’re also professionally active. In the Faculty of Biotechnology studies female students spoke of the fact that running a NSC or any European grant project seemed very difficult to reconcile with pregnancy and giving birth, and that such a situation might happen, and then no-one knows what to do because the National Science Centre does not foresee situations in which you might stop or postpone your maternity leave. Giving the project away to someone is a risk because the project will not come back to us later and there are no ready solutions to this. We’ve had such situations in the Norwegian project we’ve been running over the past couple of years. I’ve had a deal with a female colleague that if she had a child, I would take over from her as Head of Project for a while and that as soon as she returned, she would still continue managing the project. And because I was into this ‘job sharing’ from the start, into the duties of Head of Project, although I wasn’t one at the time, this swap was not harmful for anyone and in fact worked really well. I know that in Biotechnology, where we conducted interviews with ladies who work there, having a child might greatly stall research implementation or deprive them of a chance, with someone discovering something sooner. In social sciences we don’t have such a race over who comes first, or over patents.
You certainly meet women who do not want the large burden of duties, so the lesser participation of women in university authorities might be the result of being unevenly burdened with duties. The duties connected with holding power is something that women do not take upon themselves. They have a great number of other activities at home and at work they prefer to concentrate on those strictly connected with research and teaching rather than adding the extra administrative functions.
Again, I would like to briefly come back to the general subject of women in science. According to statistics, 29% per cent of women are scientists and although this figure is on the rise, it is still very slow because it has gone up only by 2-3% over 20 years. Why do you think this happens?
We can observe a great rise in the numbers of women who finish first- and second-cycle studies and there are more and more women in doctoral studies but habilitations and professorships still belong more to a male-represented world. This change certainly requires a great deal of time. It is said that it takes forty years to educate a Chairman of the Board of a very large corporation. It takes a similar amount of time to educate a person from the level of secondary school to that of, say, a full professor. We still have to wait for changes to become visible in statistics. In addition, the social context is undergoing change and in Poland it is not at all continuously equal as regards women. Since 1990 we’ve had very different tendencies. In some periods, women at the age of 45+ were the first to lose employment and there were great numbers of them amongst the unemployed. On the other hand, they were also the ones who proved to be professionally flexible and willing to change their profession. And for them it was very hard to go back to the job market after they’d had children because, despite the fact that, according to labour law, work was supposed to be waiting for them, it turned out that it wasn’t. Now we are also experiencing a very interesting moment of low unemployment which I think might lead to women being truly appreciated like any well-qualified employee and this might also transfer to the world of science. I believe that everything takes time. There are also statistics which show that we’ve been doing quite well at salary adjustments, the so called “pay gap” and when I talk to my colleagues from Italy or France, it turns out that the situation in Poland is not that bad. We, women, are authors of large projects, heads of grants and we don’t have a situation that there has to be a male colleague as head above us, which I have been told by my female Mediterranean colleagues is quite common with them. It’s not easy then but I think that we can look optimistically into the future.
Has the image of the female scientist changed over the years?
If you think about it, the times of Marie Skłodowska-Curie are not so remote. I think there’s been a great change from the time when women did not do doctorates to the time when it is practically common. I don’t think anyone at home in Poland when their daughter says that she’s going to do a doctorate is going to think that it is something extraordinary, that it is not appropriate or that it’s going to be a threat to her family. I think we’ve got used to the fact that there are women in science but they do, in fact, encounter a glass ceiling when trying to reach higher levels of the academic career or university administration. There are practically no women there and for different reasons they do not stand for election or are not elected.
Why, in your view, is it mainly men who occupy high positions, even if we look at the way a university is organised? I mean the positions of, say, rectors or deans?
I don’t think it’s about fear. Women tend to opt out of standing for such positions, like in politics, probably on the hand thinking that it’s not their world, that it’s a more masculine world, and on the other hand selecting their duties and taking into consideration their family and home obligations. Holding power calls for a certain personality and maybe power is a need which we don’t share with men in an equal measure? I think that men in their heads and in their imagination have an easier route mapped out for reaching different positions. They consider them places where they might simply find themselves if only they want to. Women do not see this route. And in addition they also know how many people, themselves included, would have to be convinced that this is their career path. All kinds of research show, though, that it is the various boards of directors or various authorities for whom it is easier to adopt the perspective of varied employees and that is why they are more effective. There are organisations which see it and where it is implemented in the form of parity because it does evidently affect the results, so in a way it’s a pity that the university still represents the traditional model of organisation, managed mainly by men. I think that universities would have a lot to gain by adopting a female perspective or by having representatives of various nationalities who could definitely support them in a more innovative development. Variety certainly influences innovation. We have a great deal of proof for this in research and I do think that the university would gain having more women in the authorities.
What would have to happen for this to change?
There’s certainly a chance for that. Sadly, as I have said before, we need many years to educate a male or female rector and that is why I think that this is, most of all, a question of education. Today we can see a great potential for change and, in order to create a vision of ourselves in future, we have to go back to a kindergarten where boys and girls present quite an open-minded attitude to who can do what job. However, similar studies conducted amongst teenagers, the current pupils of lower secondary schools, show that the patterns which are deeply ingrained in our heads are much more stereotypical. When a boy wants to be a leader, whether he ends up in a company or a university, this will translate to certain actions, he might be active in a student union, organising conferences or organising something for students. He will meet fewer girls active there but in fact, when it comes to managerial competences in relation to gender, there are no special differences there. But undertaking such activities will make a difference in the chances to practise, because these are more often used by boys than girls. Girls don’t do it from the start. Either because they don’t want to or they don’t feel it’s right for them and that it won’t be socially approved by a close reference group. You can see it among students even during classes. When we have mixed groups and group work, then when it comes to presenting results, girls always push a boy to the middle of the room. He doesn’t necessarily want to jump the line but they say “Go, you say it” and what does he do? He practises presentation competences and being a leader and it’s easier for him later on. In my opinion it is us, educators, who can play a great role in giving girls responsible tasks. It is clear that not all of them will be leaders but let us try not to waste this chance to have great leaders within the girls who might simply be only slightly more shy.
Interview by Julia Bereszczyńska