Women in science – interview with Prof. Małgorzata Omilanowska | University of Gdańsk

Women in science – interview with Prof. Małgorzata Omilanowska

  1. Was there a person in your life who ‘pushed’ you towards science, encouraged you from the start and showed you the right direction or are all your achievements the result of your own determination?

Orientation towards academic work and the choice of History of Art are two different issues for me. The person who has certainly had the greatest influence on shaping me and my attitude to work, types of this work or the choices of what the work should be like, was undoubtedly my father who devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to shaping his child. This was not such a popular thing at all, in the 1960s men concentrated on being earners and left upbringing to mothers, the kindergarten and the school. My father was very much involved in my upbringing and from the beginning educated me to be a person who works creatively because this held the greatest value for him. But it wasn’t him who directed my interests because he tried rather to expand my horizons, to give me access to knowledge and interest me in many very different fields. I was meant to have a choice but I had to choose myself. And I don’t think he was very pleased that I chose History of Art. He thought I could test myself in “more serious” disciplines but he never tried to influence my choice. But the fact that I became an art historian was partly the result of a coincidence and partly adolescent love for a boy who was quite good at it. Wanting to impress him, I took part in an art competition and, as a winner, was given the right to take up my studies without any entrance exams. This was very tempting because at the time when I was entering university, in the History of Art there were 15 people per place and universities held difficult entrance exams which lasted several days. Very few people who wanted to study could actually enjoy this privilege, so the mere fact of having a place guaranteed was really liberating. I didn’t even consider exams for any other field of study and decided to do History of Art right away.

  1. Times have changed now and women openly fight for equality. What was it like back then? I would like to know about your experiences with science as well as politics.

I don’t think my experience is typical for my generation because being a woman at those times overlapped, in my case straight away, with being a mother. I gave birth to my daughter half way through the second year of my study, I wasn’t yet 21. I met with various problems which I would now call discriminatory but which mainly resulted from the world’s distrust towards a woman who had become a mother so soon. During my studies not all professors were willing to offer their academic support because they did not think it was worth it. They considered motherhood as the end to all dreams and plans a woman might have in connection with science. They treated is as an “either-or” situation and if the choice was to have a child then nothing would become of it academically. They were very seriously mistaken in my case.

  1. During the course of your scientific career, have you ever encountered any unpleasant situations on the part of men? Chauvinistic remarks, allusions that a woman’s place is elsewhere? What was your reaction?

The only unpleasant situation which I encountered was one professor’s refusal to supervise my MA thesis and to accept me for his MA seminar, with an explanation that it was not worth investing in me. Inevitably, this professor forced me to choose a different seminar, of another professor, which I have never regretted because I met an excellent supervisor and teacher but which caused me to shift my focus of interest because I had to change the period with which I was dealing. When it came to work, however, then both the men and the women who either employed or promoted me, always expressed their reservations relating to motherhood. “We will take you on but do you have anyone to look after your child when it becomes sick because we cannot afford a situation where you would take doctor’s leave”. So, in the eyes of my employees, it was my motherhood which presented a burden and not the fact that I was a woman, which, in the case of History of Art, is not at all surprising.

  1. Have you ever had moments when things did not go right, when you suffered failure and wanted to abandon it all?

I have never experienced such failure that I would have wanted to drop it all. But there must have been a moment when I doubted the sense of being an art historian and was seriously considering a change of profession and following a completely different career path but this was not the result of failure but more of a feeling of a lack of perspectives. Such moments did happen in Polish science at the end of 1989 and beginning of 1990.

  1. You have had numerous scientific publications, you work at university, you are a member of many councils of Polish and German scientific and cultural institutions, you have been Minister of Culture and National Heritage. Could you tell me how you manage to combine your professional and private life?

This was very difficult and called for support. In my situation it was made even more difficult by the fact that I was a single mother. For this reason anything connected with academic life needed the support of my family and I always received that support. My mum deliberately took early retirement to make it possible for me to continue my studies and she looked after my daughter when I was attending classes or getting ready for exams. My parents always looked after my child when I travelled on official business, grant visits or foreign conferences. I can even say that they supported me financially. They were being very discreet and never handed me the money, I myself had to earn money to live on, but they bought us many useful things, financed my daughter’s holidays etc. But in my life I’ve written the most and achieved the most scientifically only after my daughter became independent. And because I became a mum very early, I also freed myself from mother’s duties relatively early and in fact I was about forty when my scientific and any other career accelerated.

  1. The percentage of women pursuing a scientific career stands at 29% and is rising, albeit slowly (over 20 years, from 1990 to 2000 it went up by a mere 3%). Why is this, in your opinion?

First of all it, this is due to (and not only in Poland) the mechanisms of practising science and pursuing a scientific career being based to a large degree on working the number of hours far beyond one’s working hours. For this reason, this always clashes with family life. In my day the overtime was unpaid. Today, young scientists have different options of obtaining financial resources or grants, and although not everyone has access to them, such options do exist. In my day, you worked for peanuts in your job at university or a research institute and the requirements imposed meant that we worked much more than 40 hours a week. A researcher does a great deal of work for free. Writing presentations for symposia, articles for points for publications or, finally, writing books is an effort which is never financially rewarded. We don’t receive royalties for our scientific books and even if we have a grant to support us at some point in the research, then it will never cover all the costs of the work invested in a scientific career. The work is simply, to a large degree, an absolutely vocational and voluntary activity. The salaries we have today, after all the pay rises, still bear no relation to the actual number of hours which you have to work to attain a certain level. Let’s say that a professor’s salary is enough to live on but to attain such a title, you have to work for practically nothing for thirty years. There are, of course, areas of science in which you can engage in cooperation with business but this does not include most Humanities. A researcher is doomed to work at a salary and the salary, in relation to what is required of him or her, is still simply pathetic. Those from outside science don’t realise at all that all the scientific books which we write and which fill the bookshops are royalty-free and that a majority of our scientific publications not only require an effort to get them ready but we also have to cover the cost of getting them translated into a foreign language and often to have them published in a prestigious journal. For this reason, a career costs money and someone has to fork it out. If it’s not the state, which is the case, then it must either be the family or some incredible sources of earning outside of the person interested in this career. In reality you work practically non-stop. My adult scientific life brings to mind mostly a lack of any hobby outside my work, not dealing with anything which isn’t History of Art and a constant lack of sleep. Only for a few years now have I been allowing myself the luxury of free Saturdays and Sundays, which I spend on, for example, tending to my daughter’s garden. Approaching sixty, I discovered that something like time to have a rest actually exists. For thirty years after I graduated, I did not know the notion of free days, I worked even on days off. A weekend was the time when I could leave my child with my parents and really sit down and write something. Memories of my youth and middle age are memories of a person who on average sleeps 4 hours a day and is constantly ridden by remorse that she cannot manage with things on time. Therefore, I think that we are living in a reality in which women either have scientific careers but then decide not to have any family life (I have such female colleagues too), or by choosing to combine science, motherhood and the duties of wives, they meet with real and enormous support from their life partners or other close relatives.

The social expectations that Polish science will one day rise to higher levels of global ranking is based on a basic logical flaw in that you cannot pay people little and promise them that if they try very hard, the state will provide support to some of their research, and then expect that this kind of a life career will be interesting for those most talented, and it’s only the most talented who create the best science. As long as practically all branches of the economy and many other areas of public life can offer a young, twenty-something-old person more attractive conditions of pay and work than a university, then we can be sure that these young people will not choose the path of science. Money for grants is not going to help to change this viewpoint because grant money, i.e. money obtained by the best by means of a competition system, is an excellent way to support good research teams focused around certain projects but it will never cause a shift in the choice vector of young graduates. A young person at the age of twenty-four is interested in work which in a short perspective will allow him or her to become independent, move out of the parents’ house and possibly start their own family. And the meagre doctoral scholarships or the perspective of possible support for postdoctoral research from a state grant do not matter to them at all. Take a look at how enormous a scientific collapse (not registered by journalists or analysts) was caused in Poland by the political change in 1989. Until 1989 a great many most outstanding Polish people opted for science because it was very attractive for many reasons. Not really financial but other choices weren’t especially financially attractive, either, because in a state job you earned the same money everywhere. Practising science did, however, give you freedom, an option of going abroad, of developing scientifically, it gave you individualism and, most of all, in many disciplines it freed you from political dependencies. In fact, a scientific career has always called for one’s own work and when someone did the work, then they would attain subsequent levels of a scientific career. Of course, I am not talking about a certain politically dependent area, because an area like this has always existed, but in many fields e.g. an excellent biochemist or an art historian was able to have a career and not become involved in dealings with communists. Because of this, in the 1960s and 1970s, many of the most outstanding people went into science just because there was a chance for the most interesting career, maybe not the best financially but certainly the most interesting. After 1989 completely new perspectives opened up in Poland. It turned out that there are many other areas in the new reality in which you could have a much more interesting life and much more money, and the numbers of young people turning away from science were enormous. It is worth looking at some statistics of, say, numbers of doctorates and habilitations completed annually before and after 1989. I saw with my own eyes how many excellent people were leaving science because it was more interesting and attractive elsewhere. Opportunities emerged for setting up your own business or having a career in new companies and institutions. Note how many excellent scientists were taken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Piotr Skubiszewski built the entire Polish diplomatic service on young adjuncts whom he had drawn in from universities across Poland, from the faculties of political science, history, philologies and foreign languages. Today they are outstanding ambassadors but they started off as scientists. The 1990s saw a collapse in science and we have never really been able to rebuild the attractiveness of this career to make it competitive enough. Only a tiny percentage of those most talented choose a career in science. Fortunately, there are people like this because otherwise we, scientists, would not exist anymore but there is also a great number of people in science who should not be here at all and they occupy the places which have not been taken by those who are better but who opted for other career paths. I have been watching the best of many of my graduates and doctoral students leave. Many of them would like to be involved in science but their life situations such as moving out of the parents’ home, getting married or getting pregnant result in decisions to find a job in which they will earn money and become independent because science really has too little to offer them at this stage. And until we change it, no world rankings are going to notice us.

  1. In your opinion, why is it that higher positions in even such organisations as a university, are taken up by men? I mean, for example, the positions of deans or rectors.

We are speaking of more general mechanisms and not only the ones which govern science. Firstly, men have more time because it is women who are more intensely involved in running the family and the home. When a woman raises her own children, she starts taking care of her parents or grandchildren and the woman’s caring role never ends. Secondly, it might be to do with ambitions which in men tend to determine their lives to a greater degree and thirdly, social habits and a lack of obligatory parity. And I don’t mean parity based on the preference for women in the competition, but women participating in bodies, mainly competition committees, which are formed by nomination and not election.

  1. I think the same applies to cultural institutions.

Of course, but I would like to draw your attention to the fact that when I was Minister of Culture and decided over appointments for the positions in which the minister is responsible for the final nomination, the Director of Zachęta, the National Gallery of Art in Warsaw was (and still is) Hanna Wróblewska, the Director of the National Museum in Warsaw ─ Agnieszka Morawińska, the Director of the National Museum in Cracow ─ Zofia Gołubiew, the Director of the Polish Film Institute ─ Agnieszka Odorowicz, with Magdalena Sroka winning a further competition, the Director of the National Heritage Board of Poland was Prof. Małgorzata Rozbicka, of the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute ─ Dorota Buchwald, of the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art ─ Małgorzata Ludwisiak and of the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko ─ Eulalia Domanowska. I am convinced that when I headed this ministry, there were around 40% female directors in the positions dependent on me. It should be remembered, however, that this was both the result of the high competencies of the women who entered the competitions and applied for the high positions as well as observing the principles of parity when selecting jury members in these competitions. If the decision-maker chooses only men for the jury, he or she can count on the fact that they will choose a man as well.

  1. What does a scientist do in moments of doubt?

I don’t think I can answer this question because I haven’t had such moments of professional doubt for a long time. Life outside work is such a strong motivator for action that at the stage I am at, you don’t ask yourself such questions. In the past years I have had to face new life situations. Firstly, to decide to return to science from politics (which I did with joy) and to become more involved in family life because my daughter has three children now. But the most important event recently was cancer. It has been a year exactly to the day, on 5 April 2017 I had my entire stomach removed because I had been diagnosed with malignant cancer, luckily at a very early stage. I have lived for a year praying that subsequent tests, done every three months, don’t detect anything. It really changes your perspective and makes you enjoy the work which you like and which is brilliant at distracting you from the bad thoughts which always accompany this illness. Now I’m concentrating mainly on the fact that most effects of my research, which are stored away as notes, see the light of day. I know perfectly well that if I die, no doctoral student or student of mine will be able write anything on the basis of these notes. I will either do it myself or it will have to be thrown away. I am also trying to think of life not only in professional categories but also as enjoying every moment and every experience because every day matters.

Interview by Julia Bereszczyńska 


Last modified by: Tadeusz Zaleski
Created by: Tadeusz Zaleski
Last modified: 
2018, June 19 - 10:29am