Making Strides in Gender Equality

© DFG / Lichtenscheidt

It´s a mixed picture: clear progress has been made in gender equality in German research, but the proportion of women at some career levels, particularly senior positions, remains too low. For the DFG, this is a spur to greater action.

by Dorothee Dzwonnek

The topic of gender equality in the German research community is like many things in life: we address an issue that has been in need of attention for some time. There is no shortage of good ideas or good intentions, and the wheels are set in motion. Initial successes are soon followed by more, and we are pleased at our progress. At the same time, we know that however much has been achieved, there are still areas that are far from what we and others would have hoped for.

That was the impression at the DFG when we evaluated the final reports of our member institutions on the implementation of the research-oriented standards on gender equality prior to our last General Assembly. Introduced five years ago, these standards are perhaps the most important impetus for more equality at German universities – and a strong counter to discrimination against women in research, which is as unjust as it is wasteful of considerable intellectual potential.

Developed by researchers in a DFG working group and accepted by almost all our member institutions as a voluntary obligation, the standards have two main aims: firstly to raise awareness of the issue of gender equality and implement equality-promoting measures at all levels of universities, their organisation and their activities, and secondly to increase the proportion of women at all levels of the research career ladder by a certain percentage within a certain period. The model for this last objective is the “cascade model”, which is based on the recruitment potential of the next lowest career level and is therefore both research-led and made-to-measure.

Since the gender equality standards were introduced in 2008, much has been done to further their implementation. The extent of the progress that has been made was revealed in the reports submitted by the DFG’s member institutions in 2010 and 2011 and now in their final reports. An evaluation of this data reveals that basic standards to promote gender equality have now been introduced in all universities. The importance of the issue is recognised everywhere, and the vast majority of universities have instituted gender equality as a management-level responsibility and developed a recognisable integrated strategy that incorporates individual units such as faculties and departments. Naturally, some differences are still apparent, but overall the German research community is much further along with the institutional and organisational implementation of gender equality than it was five years ago. This is a clear success. However, the situation is somewhat different in the second area, the proportion of women at individual career levels. There have been improvements here, particularly of late. But overall the figures remain far below what we – the DFG and its member organisations – had hoped for. This is true in general but especially for certain key situations and positions. In the crucial transition to academic independence – from doctorate to habilitation and the first professorship – and in senior roles there are far fewer women than there could be.

This result is disappointing. And the DFG, as the driver and self-governing organisation of the research community, cannot leave the matter there. So over the next few years we intend not only to continue our efforts in the promotion of gender equality, but to intensify them. Our objective is a significant increase in the proportion of women in all areas.

At our annual meeting we therefore decided to introduce a process that will integrate equality standards more closely in our funding programmes. In the future, all funding proposals for coordinated research must include detailed information as to how many women will be involved at each qualification level. In addition, universities will be required to submit annual equality figures. Both will be taken into account in the review process. Naturally, academic quality will remain the decisive factor in funding decisions. But in the consideration of other criteria, or in choosing between several proposals of equal merit, emphasis will be given to gender equality.

We are not only placing more responsibility on the universities, but also providing them with more support in the form of a “toolbox” with further innovative models ( and extending the mandate of the DFG working group on gender equality standards.

With these actions we not only hope but expect to see good progress within a short time. In four years, at the 2017 General Assembly, we will re-evaluate this topic. By then we will be able to see whether our chosen approach has been successful, or whether different measures are called for.

In the past the research community, and first and foremost the DFG, has strongly resisted a fixed, externally stipulated female quota, for various reasons: it would not take account of the very different situations in individual disciplines and institutions; highly qualified women might end up being labelled as “quota women”, which would hinder rather than help their careers; and such a quota would not be compatible with a system that is – and must be – more self-governed than other systems.

However, this clear position can only be sustained in the long term if the research community can show that its own efforts to promote gender equality are yielding fruit. The matter is in our own hands.

Dorothee Dzwonnek is the Secretary General of the DFG.

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