We have to act as role models.

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Manuela Brunner at work: The scientist is committed to tackling imbalances in thManuela Brunner at work: The scientist is committed to tackling imbalances in the professional sphere in favour of minorities. picture: Jochen Bettzieche, SLF
11 February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science: In this interview, SLF and ETH assistant professor Manuela Brunner talks about positive and negative experiences in the traditionally male world of science, how she deals with them, and how she is actively trying to improve the situation for minorities.

Manuela, as a woman, do you find it difficult to assert yourself in a male-dominated scientific environment?

For a long time I wasn’t that aware of feeling ’I’m in the minority and I have to assert myself’. I studied geography, you see, where the gender balance is relatively even. I also did my PhD thesis in a group with a large number of female scientists. I only really became aware of inequality when I started attending conferences and realised, wow, it’s not the same in other research groups as it is in ours. At other universities there are groups made up entirely of men. I also don’t feel that being a woman has necessarily been a disadvantage for me so far. Being in the minority offers opportunities as well, doesn’t it? But I want to, and have to, do what I can to eliminate this imbalance.

How do you go about doing that?

For example, if I get an invitation to a workshop or a series of colloquiums and nine out of ten of the speakers are men, I tell the organisers, hey, I don’t think this line-up is ideal. As a research institution and university, we also have to act as role models for young female scientists and students. And if they don’t see themselves represented at an event, I think that’s setting an extremely bad example.

Do your efforts achieve anything?

So, one reaction is ’Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise. I’ll do better next time.’ But then you also get the attitude of ’Oh, this issue again...’. That is a sign of indifference, which is a hard thing to combat. But the first type of conversation very often leads to tangible results. For example, the organisers might try to adapt the seminar series at short notice. Or at least I get a promise that it’ll be different next time round. Similarly, when I’m organising something myself, I make an active effort to be balanced. But it’s not just about the ratio of women to men.

What else?

Maybe giving young female scientists a chance to present something, and not just older ones. And I’m also mindful of geographical balance. The world is bigger than just Europe. People from other continents also have interesting things to say. So I really try to make a positive difference.

But you’ve never been directly affected yourself?

Well, there was a review process recently where a man criticised a study I’d written with a female colleague. There was no reason for the sentence he wrote, other than that he was just extremely prejudiced and thought that two young women couldn’t have designed a study all by themselves, so it must have come from some supervisor. So there are definitely people who underestimate you or don’t take you seriously.

But while you might be underestimated a bit in some situations, that isn’t the whole story. In other situations, I think you may actually get given an opportunity precisely because you’re in the minority, because they’re looking for your particular profile and not just another older white man.

Outdated role stereotypes still prevent some girls from discovering their interest in technology. Click here to meet six girls who nevertheless want to learn a STEM profession.