„The onus should not always be on the minority to adapt to the majority“ - Vicky Temperton in interview

2021-07-08 What does it mean to be a professor? Vicky Temperton, Professor of Ecosystem Functioning & Services, talks in an interview about the path she has taken, the funding that has helped her and what she would like to see for young female scientists.

 Prof. Dr. Vicky Temperton ©Leuphana
Vicky Temperton is professor of Ecosystem Functioning & Services at the Faculty of Sustainability.
How is it for you to work as a female professor? What do you perceive as positive and what specific challenges do you see as a woman in your daily work?
I love the creativity and freedom of being a professor. I have always been a very free-thinking person who was philosophical and thought about nature a lot. I knew that I wanted to work in ecology and understand the intricacies of nature better, and knew I was very curious about how nature works and how humans fit into this scheme. So, during my studies I was trying to figure out what job that could be. Pretty quickly I came into the academic area where I was free to be as curious as I want, to ask questions of nature and find answers using scientific methods. I had a mentor at the University of York, Jonathan Graves, who suggested that I would be great in scientific research. He helped significantly to put me on the path to becoming a professor. I think it’s extremely important for your success whether you have some experienced and powerful people backing you. And I get the feeling that men still get that more often than women. I was lucky that I had these mentors as an undergraduate student, otherwise I don’t know if I would have gone down the academic path. In my daily work, I notice that I still am the only woman in some situations, e.g. in some professor-only meetings. It changes the dynamics and the way of doing things to have other women or other non-dominant groups around. 
Looking back on your career, are there any areas or issues that you can say have changed with regard to gender discrimination? So mainly for the better, but possibly also for the worse?
In the past, there often was a (conscious or unconscious) bias related to who is invited to give talks at different institutes and keynotes at conferences, as well as to a certain extent who is invited to cooperate in large or prestigious research projects. People still tend to invite men more than women. That is currently changing in some areas. There is currently a push, fuelled by the MeToo and Black Live Matter movements, to avoid this bias and people are consciously trying to diversify the speakers invited so that there are more women, PoC or LGBTI perspectives. Professor Franciska de Vries, an inspirational Dutch soil ecologist, has set up a website for soil ecologists with a list of brilliant women in this field so that there cannot be any excuses like “We couldn’t find any women to invite for a keynote speech”. 
Were there any challenges or difficult moments in your career that you assume you would not have had - or would have had differently - if you had been a man?
What happens often in teaching is that women get described as “nice” and their “softer” traits are noticed while men get the tag of knowing a lot about their field. Sometimes women get fewer positive reviews than men for a similar level of teaching. I struggle a bit with these classic expectations and notice them periodically in general as well as applied to myself. 
What do you think, is a special funding for women in science useful? Is there a need for it?
I think there is definitely a place for special funding for women in science, yes. Raising awareness of the realities of people in a minority situation is going to be key to creating more equality both in terms of gender and diversity though. The onus should not always be on the minority to adapt to the majority.  We recently had a workshop in the faculty of sustainability on anti-bias-training that was fascinating and very useful. Ideally, as many of the male professors would attend such workshops as the female professors, as the increase in equality derives from the interplay of this discussion and awareness of the issues. The point of such training is not to point the finger at anyone but to raise awareness and help level out the playing field. 
I think that it is very important to raise awareness about what are the stumbling blocks for minorities (women included) and what aspects are conscious as well as realising how many components are unconscious. Even women can be biased against other women. Also, things like Franciska de Vries’ website are extremely helpful for people who organise conferences to make sure that there is a balance between men and women and to help realise that it is not “normal” to have only white men speaking. Looking at the financial funding, I think it is important to particularly support women who are for example finishing their Ph.D. or in the postdoc stage of their careers, since it is often still the case that women who have children bear more of the burden of the care work, as well as the fact that the number of women staying in academia reduces drastically after the PhD phase (leaky pipe syndrome).  From point on, we are losing the most women out of the system. There are many reasons for this, that I cannot elaborate here, but one of them is that we need to create a system that women and other minorities feel comfortable in and wish to partake of. Role models are important as well as different formats for being productive and balancing work and life. 
Which funding instruments have you personally benefited from? 
What I really profited from was the possibility of a tenure track young investigator position at the Forschungszentrum Jülich, a Helmholtz research centre, where I worked in Plant Sciences and built up my own research group. I saw this advert when I was a post-doc in Jena and knew immediately that I needed to apply for it. You had to write a proposal for your own junior research group, and it was tenure track which means once you get the job and if you are evaluated positively, you have a permanent position on which you can build a strong research profile. That programme was addressed specifically to women (at the time) and it was a game changer for me because you need the security to be at peak creativity. Once you have the security you can focus on what you’re supposed to be focusing on which is doing the creative science and teaching. Otherwise, you tend to be distracted and find yourself wondering what’s next.
Which funding instruments would you like to see for your (female) doctoral and post-doctoral students?
In my view, the “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” (German Act on Fixed-Term Scientific Contracts) is problematic: this law was designed to help people obtain permanent positions in academia but, in the end, it creates large uncertainties, a limited number of short-term contracts and if people don’t have a permanent job six years after their Ph.D. – which most of the time means a professorship – they have no chance to stay in academia in Germany. The law needs adjusting to the realities in academia – or we need to change how Universities allocate and finance permanent position. 
We lose a lot of brilliant people at the moment because there are not enough permanent jobs in academia other than the few professorships. We would need more positions in the academic middle management – who help running research groups, teach and run the place. I think the programmes ProViae and ProScience here at Leuphana are excellent ways to prepare young scientists for both, a career in academia and also a life outside of academia – but if there are too few permanent positions other than professorships this means we train brilliant people only to (often) let them down and lose their expertise to organisations and companies outside of academia. I feel there must be a way to swing this back into a more balanced place.

The interview was conducted by Gina La Mela.

On 13 July 2021, a digital talk will take place on the topic "Women's path to professorship". Female professors at Leuphana will provide insights into their career paths as well as their associated activities and areas of responsibility. The talk offers space for exchange on career perspectives of female doctoral and postdoctoral researchers and is intended to motivate women to take the path to professorship. This bilingual talk takes place as part of the Summer School "How many roads...?" and is open to women only. It is a cooperation between the Graduate School and the mentoring programmes ProScience and ProViae. Registration for the salon talk is possible until 10 July 2021.