International Women’s Day: Talking Gender Equity in STEM

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Wed Mar 8 2023

Author: Guest contributor

In honour of International Women's Day (March 8th), we take the opportunity to shed more light into the issues that women in science and academia are facing and explore initiatives that have helped in improving diversity and inclusion. In this interview, Josefine Proll, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Physics and Science Education at Eindhoven University of Technology, discusses her experience as a woman in STEM and provides advice to women starting out in the space.

Can you tell us a bit about your work and what inspired you to start a career in the field?

I grew up in the Northern German countryside – very idyllic, but not all that much going on in terms of science. So, for the science-interested kid that I was, it was a great day when aged 13 my parents took me to visit the newly-opened Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, designated to be the new site of Germany’s main research centre on nuclear fusion. Already before I had been quite interested in science, and when I learned about nuclear fusion and its potential for green, nearly limitless energy I was sold – I knew this is what I wanted to work on. Since then, my career choices – from where I did my high school internship (at the IPP, naturally), where I went for my undergraduate degree, to the choices of graduation project topics, were all geared towards landing me a spot in nuclear fusion research. 

In your view, what are the issues women are facing in terms of diversity and inclusion in academia? What has been your experience?

In the field of plasma physics I can report that we are few, right from the start of the PhD (also during my undergrad there were maybe 20% women). In the beginning it was a bit odd, noticing that I was often the only woman in a room of scientists for certain meetings, but I was never made to feel inadequate because of that. 

I sometimes wish there were more female role models around – I’m noticing how having even a few (the head of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics is a woman, and both a formidable scientist and excellent leader) is so motivating. Within Eindhoven University of Technology, where I am an Assistant Professor since 2017, they’ve introduced a – quite heavily debated – rule that new positions should first be only open to female applicants and only if suitable candidates can’t be found they should be open to everyone. As someone who has been on the receiving end of comments like “Ah you only got this grant/this position because you’re a woman and this was a diversity decision”, which surely hurts and is quite destructive to the ego, I am not an absolute fan of the Eindhoven decision, but it sure has been effective! Within my department of Applied Physics and Science Education we now have a significant increase in female staff.

So far, I’ve really felt very valued in the community and like I belonged. I know of female colleagues within the field of plasma physics who haven’t, which always makes me incredibly angry, so it’s not like plasma physics is the perfect place to be. And I know there were many more senior colleagues who have worked hard on making diversity and inclusion a priority. So yes, for me, it’s been good, but I know there are still a lot of challenges.

How open is science to diversity in your opinion?

When it comes to gender diversity, I do believe there has been an increase in awareness, and a few very nice initiatives exist, which have already helped.

I would like to note though that, so far, diversity mostly means gender diversity, and while there are rules for ensuring female speakers’ inclusion in a conference or a panel or during the hiring process, we haven’t really seen the same happening for racial and ethnic diversity, and this is something that should be addressed. 

What could be some changes that you would like to see to bring more inclusion?

I do believe that having more non-white, non-male scientists around would change the atmosphere and the conditions, and more women and BIPOC would be encouraged to stay in the field. 

Do you have any advice you would like to share with women just starting out in the field?

  • Ask for what you want! While people tend to want to be supportive, they usually can’t read minds. So, if you’d like to be nominated for an award or if you would like to go abroad for some collaborations – just ask!
  • Get to know your fellow students – it will make all future conferences and new positions infinitely more enjoyable if you already know people wherever you go.
  • Find yourself someone you’d consider a mentor and just ask them for advice. Also, you can be a mentor, too! It doesn’t just go in one direction! And you can have more than one mentor!
  • Decide which parts you enjoy and try to do more of those. Do you like outreach? Do you like teaching? You prefer tinkering on your experiment alone in the lab? Do you really love talking about career advice with others? There's a lot of ways to be involved in academia if you enjoy being there!

Visit Springer Nature’s SDG5: Gender Equality hub to learn more.

About Josefine Proll

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Josefine is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Physics and Science Education at Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, and currently a guest professor at the Institute of Advanced Energy at Kyoto University, Japan. She works on nuclear fusion, which promises clean and abundant energy for all. Her research focus is studying how the intricate, twisted shape of the fusion reactor influences the turbulence in the fusion fuel, and how this knowledge can help with the design of future fusion reactors.


Author: Guest contributor

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