What’s it Like to Be a Woman in Science at the University of Basel?

We asked several women working at the University of Basel about their career paths, the gender equality at their workplace and their secrets to success.

Female scientists at work (Image: Martina Ribar Hestericová)

Being a woman in science is definitely not the easiest task in the world. Even though we live in the 21st century, we quite often encounter stereotypes or signs of so-called microaggression.

It starts with the terminology. The fact that we have to talk about “being a female scientist” or “being a woman in science” introduces unwanted gender bias to the discourse. Aren’t we all just scientists — chasing data, forming hypotheses and performing experiments — regardless of the gender we identify with?

Sadly, many of us have already noticed during our studies that the pipeline along the way is leaky. This is especially true for women in the natural sciences. Although 50% of first semester students in this field are women, only a handful end up as postdocs or professors.

What could be the reason for this underrepresentation of women in higher university positions? We asked several women working at our University about their career paths, the gender equality at their workplace and their secrets to becoming successful scientists.

Prof. Dr. Catherine Housecroft

Prof. Dr. Catherine Housecroft (image: University of Basel)

Every chemistry, nano and biology student in Basel knows Prof. Housecroft. She has been working here since 1993 running a joint research group with Prof. Edwin Constable, her husband, giving lectures in inorganic chemistry and writing chemistry textbooks.

Her interest in science was already sparked in high school. “In the English education system, you have to specialize very early on. So I made the decision to focus on physical sciences already at the age of 16,” she explains. “My teachers had a strong influence on me. I kept in touch with my chemistry teacher until she died two years ago.”

Prof. Housecroft’s success as a scientist, teacher and role model originates in her attitude towards life and work. “I’ve been brought up in an atmosphere in which I consider myself to be a scientist, not a female scientist. You have to have a strong personality in this line of work.“

The research group of her and her husband consists of roughly 50% women, making it one of the most balanced ones at the University of Basel. However, they do not recruit women intentionally.

Constable/Housecroft Research Group, Department of Chemistry (image: University of Basel)

“When Ed and I are recruiting, we recruit the best people we can find. At the PhD level, we get more or less equal numbers of applications from men and women. At the postdoc level, there are fewer women. There definitely is a leaky pipeline and I that will be hard to change.”

“The fact that I never took a career break was probably quite important to my success. The academic system doesn’t support longer breaks — it is challenging to combine lab work and having a family.”

She also has a important message to all the scientists out there:

“You have to be able to protect your ideas and you should not be easily intimidated. There is no reason you should be. After all, you are a scientist, not a woman in science. That’s important to remember!”

Dr. Michela Pellizzoni

Michela next to a shaking incubator. (Image: Martina Ribar Hestericová)

Michela Pellizzoni currently holds a postdoctoral position in the research group of Prof. Thomas Ward, where she focuses on artificial metalloenzymes, their fine-tuning and application in catalysis. She has been living in Basel since 2015. Originally coming from Como in Italy, a country where women have a very traditional role — at least in the past. However, Michela has been breaking the rules since she was a child.

“When I was 10 years old, I wanted to play football. I was very passionate about it. I was always perceived as strange for it, but I did not care. Back then, playing football in a real team was not possible for women in Italy. I wasn’t even allowed to join practice. My parents decided to support me and started taking me to another village, where they had a female team,“ she explaines. „When I came to Basel for the first time for a scientific visit during my PhD studies, I played in the Concordia Basel team.“

Michela decided to become a scientist thanks to her father and his bakery. “It was interesting to see what happens when you melt chocolate, cook sugar, or to understand how yeast transforms dough into bread.”

Michela is very satisfied with the working conditions and gender equality at our University. “Unlike in Italy, where there are currently no special promotion programs for women, we have programs like Antelope or Stay on Track in Basel. I think this is great, because as a woman if you want to have a family, it is much more challenging than for a man.“

She also shared her secret to beeing successful:

“You need passion, self-confidence, and support from family and friends. These things make you strong. When someone tells you that you do not belong somewhere just because of your gender, do not listen to them! Surround yourself with people that support you and your career.”

Juliane Klehr, M.Sc.

Juliane performing fermentation. (Image: Martina Ribar Hestericová)

Juliane Klehr is working as a laboratory technician at the Department of Chemistry. After her master defense in Biology, she interrupted her academic career due to family reasons.

As a mother of two sons, Julius (5) and Moritz (2), she knows exactly how hard it is to juggle different roles in life. “I was always convinced that I can reach everything I want to as long as I just work hard enough. With children, it gets very tough to live according to this principle — unless your day somehow has 36 hours.”

Her work is not easy and taking into account the needs of her family, she has to make hard decisions every day. “My coworkers and boss are always very understanding and supportive. The university helps as well, for instance, I was able to place one of my kids in the University’s day care.”

Thanks to the University of Basel’s day care it was possible for her to continue working after only a short maternity break. Thus, combining being a mother and a research assistant.

She also appreciates the positive change happening in her research group. “Back when I had just started, we only had three women in a big group of 20 people. Now I see big development, we are hiring much more women. A good third of our group is now female” she adds. “But many of these women want to become a mother at some point and some have disclosed their concern to me. But I always tell them:

“You can combine career and family but you need to be tough and confident, well organized and highly efficient. A good support system is essential. I believe things are developing into a positive direction. The University of Basel offers interesting forms of support to researchers at the early stage of motherhood with programs such as Stay on Track.”

Dear ladies, as you can see, the gender equality should definitely not be the reason you change your career plans. Enjoy your studies, be strong and don´t be afraid!

The University of Basel has an international reputation of outstanding achievements in research and teaching. Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland and has a history of success going back over 550 years. Learn more