• Karin Höhne, Equal Opportunities Officer at the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH)

    “There are now many great female scientists, achieving great things”

At the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH), the main focus is on "translational research” - the transfer of findings from the research lab into clinical research. The institute was founded by the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). With a range of support programmes and courses, BIH is committed to helping more women scientists get into top positions. We spoke to Karin Höhne, Equal Opportunities Officer at the BIH about glass ceilings, system-defined barriers and new female role models in Berlin academia.

Mrs Höhne, how would you define equal opportunities?

I prefer to talk about equity of opportunities, as equal opportunities can scarcely be created. To achieve an equity of opportunities, we need to break down barriers inherent within the science system. To ensure everyone has fair opportunities according to their starting conditions, as well as access to education and research. 

What are you doing at BIH for equity of opportunities in medical research?

We work on several levels. For one, we offer a range of classic courses, to give the next generation of female scientists a boost on their career path. These might include individual career coaching or courses on presentation techniques. On top of that, there is direct promotion through financial support. For example, to compensate for career breaks during pregnancy or parental leave. Another area is the work on committees. This involves breaking down system-defined barriers and shaping the system so that more women in science can climb the career ladder upwards. Our focus is on bringing women into top positions and not losing them within the scientific system after they have completed their PhD.

Is this “getting lost” on the way up still a trend we need to look at seriously?

Unfortunately, yes. I have seen that there are lots of great, young female scientists, who know what they can do. And they show it. Then, in the post-doc phase they experience inequality or discrimination for the first time, bump their heads against the glass ceiling and are forced out of the system.

How can such mechanisms be overcome?

That’s difficult. Science is still dominated by men and uses measurement benchmarks which are aligned to men. The achievements of women are often rated less highly. In addition, women are often put into roles and positions which are less appreciated in science, such as teaching positions or lab work. They are less likely to get lucrative author positions in publications and are cited less than male colleagues.  To help make female scientists and other groups that are under-represented in the Life Sciences more visible on Wikipedia, we hosted a Diversithon at the BIH as part of Berlin Science Week 2019. To be more precise, an Edit-a-thon, where the female participants edited the entries for women scientists in Wikipedia or created them for the first time.

How important are female role models for young women scientists?

Very important. The saying “You can’t be what you can’t see” definitely applies here. As long as only a few women are at the top, only these female scientists will be in public focus. For men, there is a much wider “range” of role models to choose from. The more women with diverse CVs we have in top positions in the future, the better. For that will also mean more female role models for the next generation of women scientists. That is really important. There are now many great female scientists, achieving great things.

Can you give us a few examples?

One of our BIH Quandt Professors, Professor Petra Ritter is working along with her research team at the Charité on a visionary project: personalised brain simulation. This is about being able to test therapies for illnesses such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease on digital avatars of the brain at some time in the future. Another extraordinary female scientist in Berlin is Dr Thi-Minh-Tam Ta. She is Senior Physician at the Charité and leads not only the special outpatient clinic for Vietnamese migrants, but also the psychiatric institution outpatient clinic. Dr Thi-Minh-Tam Ta is also taking part in the BIH Charité Clinician Scientist Program. This allows doctors to use 50 percent of their working time during their specialist medical training for research, for up to three years.

33 percent share of female professors at state universities, around 48 percent of doctoral candidates are women: Berlin is really well positioned nationally with regard to the equal position of female scientists. What makes the Brain City Berlin so special?

The numbers are good, but I haven’t got enough insight into the situation in the universities to judge what has really worked well in recent years. The funds which the Berlin Equal Opportunity Programme has made available to support female scientists is certainly extremely important. In addition, the Berlin universities are really engaged to ensure they don’t lose female talent again. Support for diversity and gender equality is also approached in a targeted way as part of the Berlin University Alliance.

Do you have a tip for women who would like to start their career in science in Berlin? 

Networking is the key to everything! It’s incredibly important for female scientists to network with colleagues and offer mutual support to each other. Because a lot of things are done in the background. Just being good isn’t enough to get you to the top.

If you could wish for something with regard to equality for women in science - what would that be? 

Above all, that women show even greater solidarity with each other. But I would also have another wish, which is certainly a little utopian: a Science that is not only defined by publications, awards or third-party funding, but is also more closely oriented towards content and uses new evaluation criteria for excellence. That would make a whole different group of people visible than under current conditions.


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