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Spotlight on Women in Science with Sofie Carsten Nielsen

Sofie Carsten Nielsen

Kim Vadskær

Naturejobs is celebrating Women in Science. Every day this week we’re interviewing an inspirational female scientist. Yesterday, we spoke to Edwina Dunn, founder of dunnhumby and the Tesco Club card.

So far, each of the women in the spotlight series have studied some form of science subject (I’m now including geography is in this group too); some of them have faced barriers in their careers, and all of them are doing things to help other women in science avoid these barriers entirely.

Today’s interview, the final part of the series, is with Sofie Carsten Nielsen, the Danish Minister for Higher Education and Science. Although the minister doesn’t have a science background, she is incredibly keen to help Danish female scientists shine in their academic system, and is putting several plans in place to make this happen.

“I didn’t plan to become a politician. Maybe subconsciously, I actually tried to avoid becoming a politician…but in the end I just couldn’t resist.” Sofie believes that being in the position to help drive higher education and science forward is one of the most interesting of all. “That’s the future.”

She hopes to make a difference in her role, to make sure that in the future, Denmark will be a knowledgeable society and that more of the Danish population goes through higher education. If they do, she says they will have more options available to them in later life. “I find that extremely fascinating.”

But Sofie has a particular subgroup of society that she is focussing a lot of her energy on. Women in Danish science institutions and universities are not getting through to the senior positions. However, it’s not just about that, it’s about getting a greater amount of diversity into the education system to work together. “I’m interested in getting all talents to work: using all of the potential we have in society. And we really have a problem with not using, and tapping into the potential of the entire population. And women are half of the population and we simply need leave that pool of talent too untouched.”

So when it comes to Danish science, “we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We’re still fishing in only half of the pond much of the time.” In 2012, 31% of Danish researchers in postdoc positions or higher were women, but only 17% carried on the career path to become professors. “To me personally… it is slightly embarrassing I think. We’re below the European average. We are only number 17 out of 24 comparable countries in Europe.”

Instead of female scientists becoming professors, “it seems they just stay on at medium level or lower levels, but they don’t get into the professorships.” The problem also appears to lie in the application process – 31% of all advertised positions for professorships or associate professorships are only receiving male candidates, whereas only 9% of these positions have only female candidates. “Simply not enough women apply. But it could also indicate that some positions are simply tailor-made for a specific candidate.” And more often than not, these are the male scientists.

But as a country that prides itself in gender equality, they are doing their best to reduce the gender imbalance. “We’ve taken a major step by introducing…the YDUN program, short for Younger women Devoted to a UNiversity career.” This program will allocate about €15million to encourage talented female scientists to pursue a career in research. The programme doesn’t look to discriminate, but “promote a more equal gender composition of researchers.” Both men and women can apply, but if male and female candidates are equally qualified, the female scientist will get the grant.

This programme is based on a similar programme that the Danish Ministry commissioned in the 1990’s called Freya. “It really worked in the sense that today, the 16 or 17 female researchers that got grants through the Freya programme (which had the same sort of aim) are all top researchers and professors today. And they’re really role models in terms of women in science.” Sofie and the rest of the ministry recognise that these women might not have reached these positions if it wasn’t for the opportunity that the Freya programme offered. This is why they’re repeating something similar, “We know you have the talent, please, now it’s time to apply and we’ll help you. We’re sure you’re good enough! And I think there are many female researchers who know they are good enough, but they are banging their heads against a wall sometimes because there are so many positions that are already tailor-made for a specific candidate, but not for them.”

An example of a female researcher that came through the Freya programme is Nina Smith, who is a professor at the School of Economics and Management at Aarhus University, and has been an active voice in the public debate for a number of years. “She’s highly, highly respected.” At a conference last week Professor Smith mentioned to the minister just how grateful she was of the Freya programme. “It was crucial for her to get that grant at the time in the 90’s…. and this sort of made a hole through the wall… because then she did excellent research, and she was really recognised for it…. This just shows me that it’s important that we keep working this way.”

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