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Interview: Sonoko Bellingrath-Kimura

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​​Women in the natural sciences - Tackling the gender gap

Ms. Bellingrath-Kimura, you were invited as a speaker to this year’s Gender Summit 10 in Tokyo to report on gender equality in scientific professions in Germany. How equal are things here in Germany?

Also in Germany there are fewer women than men studying for a profession in the natural sciences, which of course has a lot to do with social role models. Physics, chemistry, technology etc. are more likely to be seen as male domains. This is a picture that is also imprinted in the minds of women. According to a study carried out in 2015, almost 30% of young women who were very good at mathematics in school still choose to study languages, culture, sport or art. The figure for boys is just below 10%. When girls go into the sciences, they tend to go into medicine or biology.

How should we deal with this?

We have to address young girls in school education more intensively about the topics that are relevant to them and encourage them to become enthusiastic about science. For example, they are much more interested in mental and physical well-being than boys and less so in technology. Of course, we can now discuss to what extent this has to do with adopted prejudices, but I think it is more efficient to accept these differences and to work with them.

What about the working conditions in the scientific professions themselves?

Unfortunately, the same also applies here: the higher you look up the career ladder, the lower the proportion of women. According to a survey among professors in leading positions, the reasons for this are perceived differently. Both women and men saw the reconciliation of work and family life as a major obstacle. But significantly more women also consider covert discrimination and the formation of male social networks to be equally solid reasons. The latter especially when women are limited in time and place of work.

You became a mother yourself in July 2016. How do you manage to reconcile your family with your position as director of an institute?

To state it quite clearly: you cannot do it alone. It is important to have a good team around me in my job, to which I can hand over tasks and responsibilities. And at times when I have to be present on site as a decision-maker, you will also find me with a child on my arm. Of course, to do so requires an environment that accepts this. We must however also strengthen men in their roles as fathers. My experience is that as soon as paternal commitment goes beyond the occasional sick leave, men at work are chastised even more than women. Which only makes it clearer that childcare is often still seen as a woman’s job.

What more can we do to close the gender gap in the natural sciences?

Mentoring programs to help women better identify career ladder structures are definitely useful. The discussion of a women’s quota also helps, as it encourages a new way of thinking. In the meantime, I often observe that consideration is given to a genuinely balanced relationship between the genders before any quota is even brought into play.


Interview conducted by Tom Baumeister


Prof. Dr. Sonoko Dorothea Bellingrath-Kimura
is Head of the Institute for Land Use Systems at ZALF since April 2015. Her fields of expertise are plant production, soil science and agricultural sciences. As a mentor she is also specifically involved in the promotion of young female scientists.


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