Empowering Women and Girls in Science: Interview with Dr. Claire Grauer


In honor of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science celebrated on February 11th, the team of  UNESCO Chair in Higher Education for Sustainable Development conversed with a female researcher in the team Dr Claire Grauer, on her experiences in the field of science as woman and the challenges she faced during her research.  

Claire is doing stellar work in sustainability education and research. She has been actively engaged in many  Education for Sustainability projects for years in Germany and globally. Let us read about the insights on her research journey and the career she offered, but before that, we would like to share some facts about women in science.

According to the United Nations, 

  • Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3 per cent of all researchers, only 12 per cent of members of national science academies are women.
  • Female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion.
  • According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30 per cent  of the world’s researchers are women. 
  • According to UN Women, “a 2022 study conducted in 117 countries found that one in two women scientists reported experiencing sexual harassment at work, with 65 per cent of respondents reporting that this negatively impacted their career”.
  • Only 29.2 per cent of all STEM workers are women, compared to 49.3 per cent across non-STEM occupations.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 2024 ©Leuphana
International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 2024

Interview with Dr. Claire Grauer

1. Please introduce yourself and tell us your research focus and expertise.

I am a postdoctoral researcher at Daniel Fischer's working group for Sustainability Education and Communication at the School of Sustainability at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. My doctoral research has focussed on the potential of promoting learners' awareness of the relationship between time and sustainability in formal education. I am still interested in exploring the links between time and sustainability in education with transformative teaching and learning approaches, especially through addressing the relationship between personal needs and sustainable consumption. For some time now, I have also been working more intensively on how decolonial approaches can be more firmly anchored in sustainability education and teacher training.

2. What inspired you to pursue a career in science, specifically in your field of research? Can you highlight your key experiences in your research journey? You are also welcome to share your disappointments with us.

I came to science a little later in life because I had been working in development cooperation for a while after my first university degree, followed by a few years as a freelance educator focusing on education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship education (GCE). At some point, I increasingly felt that my work needed a sufficient theoretical foundation. Looking back, I have always had a strong interest in matters of global justice, and this is the kind of red thread spanning my professional development. My academic work helps me to better understand these processes and enables me to look at how we, as individuals and also as a society, could contribute to creating more global justice.

An important experience in this respect was that after several years outside of university, I returned to academia through a project position without having particularly planned it. Since then, I've been very involved with the topics of time, wealth, and time justice, which have significantly impacted me and influenced how I reflect on and organise my everyday life. Which I don't always manage to do in a way that I feel is balanced or sustainable.

I can't say too much about disappointments because I've been lucky in many respects and have experienced fewer barriers than other women in science. I may not be aware of some of them. But of course, not everything is always great, and there are a number of small things that I find disappointing about the academic system, such as the fact that many things take a lot of time and administrative processes often hinder spontaneous action.

3. As a woman in research, how have you navigated the challenges and struck a balance between your career and personal responsibilities, such as as a mother? What could you advise young female students like me?

Firstly, I have to say that I have been fortunate to always have good access to childcare and have always had very supportive (male) colleagues who never made me feel like I had to 'hide' my children or that I couldn't have reasonably flexible working hours. My experience here certainly does not represent what other women/carers experience. Anyone who asks around among their female colleagues or looks at more recent data knows that women and mothers, in particular, experience much greater pressure and that the precarious employment conditions in science lead to many women leaving university or starting a family late or not at all. 

Apart from that, my everyday life is very much characterised by having to juggle many different things - family, work, free time, voluntary work. My research into time wealth and sustainability has helped me in this respect, and I try to reflect on the pitfalls and organize my time in such a way that there is a balance. But of course, I also constantly fail to do so. At the moment, for example, I feel very short of time, and I ask myself why I spend so much time at university in the first place. But I also know that this will change again. 

Therefore, you should always question what is important to you and why, and what you would like to spend time on. That sounds trivial, but it's not, because - and here we are a little bit with my research - we always follow certain beliefs about what "one" should do, or what is "normal", how much time we spend working, for example. Whereby your Generation Z is supposedly far better positioned here than older generations. There is a lot of debate on time justice, and I hope that younger generations will contribute towards changing our societal approach to time to make it more just. A great reading, for everyone, not just women/mothers, is German journalist Teresa Bücker's recent book "Alle Zeit" (available in German only) because she shows the many systemic barriers women/mothers are facing, and it might help to avoid falling into one trap or the other.

4. How do you think we can create just and fair conditions for women in science?

There are a number of things we can do here. One is to question our workplace culture in academia, which needs to be more sustainable and up-to-date and challenging to combine with care tasks. Student parents have to shoulder a lot. Very often, Ph.D. students only have half-time positions (with a corresponding salary) but are expected to work twice as much, often with overtime and at weekends. I haven't experienced this myself, but I often hear this from others.

Then, of course, the high output orientation, i.e., the publish-or-perish principle, is also a problem, as mothers can often put comparatively less time into scientific publishing than their male colleagues. This was a significant problem during the COVID-19 pandemic when female researchers could focus much more on children while male researchers continued to concentrate heavily on writing. My colleague Alena Sander from the University of Louvain in Belgium and I conducted a small survey on this and compiled further recommendations, such as the need for other, also qualitative, systems of performance evaluation rather than just going by the number of publications.

``I need to say that this is a systemic problem and that structures need to change. Very often, individuals are blamed, mothers, for instance, and they are told that they cannot handle it.,that they are only made for academia if they work over time and so on. But it is never the individual. It is the structures that are not inclusive. So, for instance, policymakers would need to change laws on the duration of employment and time limits. ´´

As individuals in science, we can make certain things visible and address them. For example, I am very consciously open about my situation as a mother. I sometimes say that I can't make certain appointments because I have to pick up the children instead of making it somehow possible and getting stressed in the process. I also discuss this with the students so that they can see that there are mothers in science who somehow manage this.

5. Do you want to share any insights on how the scientific community can promote greater diversity and inclusion, especially for women in science? Have you witnessed positive changes or initiatives aimed at fostering a more inclusive environment for female researchers?

I think there are already many positive developments here, although I have just mentioned the difficulties. For me, the workplace culture I mentioned earlier is an important issue. This, in turn, is related to my doctoral research on time and time justice. I think the norm that we spend a lot of time working and that science is more of a passion than work for many makes it difficult for some people to set themselves apart here. For example, you are quickly seen as less interested or less of a scientist if you have to juggle university and care work. This thinking and focus is where academia should scrutinise itself more closely, or rather academia as an institutional framework for science.

Interview ends.

Celebrating the international day for Women and Girls in Science, we want to highlight the work of our female colleagues who are making an important contribution in the field of sustainability education and inspire other people to support women and girls to pursue careers in science. 

We hope this interview can reach and inspire fellow women in science, all researchers, and girls who hope to become future scientists. 

Thank you Claire for taking out your time!!!! 

In case you wish to contact Claire, please write to unescochair@leuphana.de and you will definitely hear from her.

This interview was conducted by our student researcher Unurjavkhlan Tuvshinbayar.

For more resources,

UN Women statement for the International Day for Women and Girls in Science

Women Scientists on the Forefront of Climate Action