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The numbers speak for themselves


Interview with Detlef Weigel, Chair of EMBO Council for 2013-2015 and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, on the representation of women in academia and his role in the EMBO-led study on gender quotas. The report of the study conducted by EMBO in collaboration with and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung is entitled Exploring quotas in academia. It was published in September 2015.


You were one of the motivators of the gender quota study. Where did the idea come from?

Like many others, I was initially sceptical about quotas, not least because of the concern that women would be branded as “quota candidates”, whose success was not merely due to their scientific achievements. However, it was clear that the Max Planck Institute and other organizations were increasing the number of women in leadership positions too slowly, and that new measures were required to change this situation. While it is rare these days to encounter blatant discrimination, the numbers speak for themselves. I had already come to the conclusion that formal rules can be a powerful tool to redress the current imbalances. For example, I have been organizing quite a few conferences over the years, and I had noticed that male names surfaced much quicker than female names when my colleagues and I started to think of potential speakers. Once I had identified this as a problem and made it a personal rule not to be satisfied with an unbalanced list of speakers, I was surprised how easy it was to come up with lists where half or more were women, without any compromise in quality.


What did you think about the process and the methodology used in the project?

I was very impressed by the systematic approach that Michele, Sandra and Gerlind took. They started with a literature meta-analysis, and updated the conclusions with lessons learned from interviewing a wide range of people in executive positions who had direct experience with quotas. I particularly appreciated the workshop that they organized together with Ingrid Wünning Tschol from the Bosch Foundation, to help identify best practices in implementing quotas. One of the greatest challenges is that hiring or funding decisions are generally made at such a fine-grained level that bias, be it conscious or not, is difficult to detect. The report describes a series of possible solutions to this issue.


In your various leadership roles as scientist, director at the Max Planck Institute and Chair of EMBO Council, what do you think about using quotas?

Although I thought that I was already quite well informed, the workshop drove home the point that quotas are not only an appropriate, but also in my view essential tool to accelerate the pace with which women are hired in academic leadership positions. That progress has been too modest so far has many reasons, one being that performance criteria are often skewed and do not take the entire breadth of academic work, such as departmental responsibilities, teaching, mentoring and supervision, properly into account. Finally, I do not accept the excuse that “academia is simply different” and that quotas are therefore not workable. Large corporations and parliaments can do it, and we should be up to the task as well. After all, as scientists we often pride ourselves in being in the avant-garde. This is certainly one area where we have not always shown such leadership. And as it turns out, I learned from the workshop that the concerns about the “quota” perception are largely unjustified.


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Tilmann KießlingTilmann Kießling
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