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The ‘5 to 5 interview’
Women in Vision Research and Ophthalmology - Still a long way to go?

A joint initiative by the ‘Gateway to Vision research (vision-research.eu)’ and the European Vision Institute EEIG

The Questions

  • Question 1:
    Although their presence has grown steadily for the past 3 decades, women hoping for a career in science still face many obstacles. What are the two or three most important steps that need to be taken to increase the number of women going into Vision Research and to improve conditions for those already in the field?
  • Question 2:
    The UNESCO-L’Oreal Award honors exceptional women scientists. Do you feel that such gender-based awards are useful?
  • Question 3:
    To what extent do you have to blend your personal and your professional life to achieve a balance?
  • Question 4:
    Many reports have said that women leave academic science because they are looking for more regular hours, and a more predictable schedule?
  • Question 5:
    The next time you talk to a 12-year-old girl who shows a passion for science, what would you most want her to know?

Question 1:

Although their presence has grown steadily for the past 3 decades, women hoping for a career in science still face many obstacles. What are the two or three most important steps that need to be taken to increase the number of women going into Vision Research and to improve conditions for those already in the field?

M Francesca Cordeiro

More role models; more specific funding.

Valeria Marigo

There are many women working in the field as PhD students, post-docs. However not many continue heading a lab and the number of women with positions of Institute/department directors it quite low. I believe that there women starting the career but they need to be given the opportunity to start their lab and to get positions as leader. I hope that directors of important European ophthalmologic centres will be more open to recruitment of women as PIs.

Elke Lütjen-Drecoll

Flexible time schedules, optimal child care.

Veronica van Heyningen

Illustrate what amazing progress has been made over the last twenty years and what a difference the research has made. Show the many remaining areas where more knowledge is needed from growing stem cells for corneal replacement to developing artificial retinas.  Showcase some of the women of all ages who are already engaged in vision research.

Christina Zeitz

Foremost I believe that the attitude that prevails within most of the Western societies is not supporting a career for a woman. It is still believed that women cannot combine a career with family. For example in Germany and Switzerland an overall opinion exists that both, the education of children as well science will suffer by combing these elements. Thus not enough support is provided for women who want to fuse their career with family life. Finding places in day-care institution is usually a daunting task since there are not enough spaces available or the day nursery is very expensive. Different countries can be used as positive examples like France, where childcare is affordable and women are supported to combine science and family. Therefore I am convinced that a supporting infrastructure organized by research or governmental agencies are necessary to increase the number of women in research.

In addition, the time aspect is of equal importance. Flexibility of working hours is essential. Concepts of job sharing are being discussed, but no serious efforts have been taken to establish these. This may be due to increased costs involved in job sharing as benefit costs would double. I do believe though, that such investments would be worth their effort as two brains will be more creative and successful.

Finally, more women who were/are able to pursue both activities are needed to provide role models for budding scientist girls. The few existing successful women are often truly exceptional and many young women may not feel they have the extra strength that it needs today to have both, family and career.


Question 2:

The UNESCO-L’Oreal Award honors exceptional women scientists. Do you feel that such gender-based awards are useful?

M Francesca Cordeiro

Yes

Valeria Marigo

I believe it does. It helps to bring up the attention to outstanding women scientists that otherwise wouldn’t be well known

Elke Lütjen-Drecoll

I don’t know, but may be it is stimulating

Veronica van Heyningen

No, I prefer to be judged on a level playing field with everyone and most of my female colleagues at all levels agree on this: we do not want special treatment

Christina Zeitz

Absolutely, yes. As mentioned above, women are still not enough supported to pursue their career in science. Thus, the “exceptional” women should be honored for her exceptional qualifications in science.


Question 3:

To what extent do you have to blend your personal and your professional life to achieve a balance?

M Francesca Cordeiro

Balancing both inclusive travel is the biggest hurdle requiring absolute and rigorous organisation.

Valeria Marigo

During my scientific training I used to spend many hours in the lab and many weekends were dedicated to science. This was a requirement from long experiments and it was important to achieve results. This was taking time from my personal life but when you are young you like to invest your time for your future.  With time you learn how to be more efficient and focused in your job and organize better your day to save time for yourself. This also helped me to find more time for personal life and balance the enthusiasm in doing science with important personal issues.

Elke Lütjen-Drecoll

For me it was only possible to achieve a balance between family and job because of the help of others in the household.

Veronica van Heyningen

When my children were young it was a fine balancing act to ensure that children, husband and work all received suitable time and engagement.  Now it is much easier, but actually it makes life less balanced as I spend too much time on work.

Christina Zeitz

To answer this question some details about my person needs to be communicated. I studied Chemistry in Freiburg and Berlin, obtained my PhD for work performed in Berlin(Max-Planck-Institute) and Zurich (Institute of Medical Genetics) on molecular genetics in vision, continued as a postdoc in Zurich and became a group leader 2007 of an emerging team at the Department of Genetics at the Institut de la Vision in Paris.

During my PhD studies, research became my passion, which continued through post-doc time and now as a senior scientist and group leader. During this time, I did not have children to care for.  Although I was in a stable relationship with my now- husband, we did not live in the same city. Our commuting contacts were limited to week ends, but not every weekend.  This allowed me to work very hard and longer hours during the week.  In addition, I was fortunate that my supervisors did not object to the longer week ends that I would spend to attend to my private life – although a large fraction of that time was also devoted to reading and writing for science. 

My situation changed 2007, when I got married and my husband and I are now living and working in the same city. To sum it up, I found my personal solution to the challenge, something that certainly will not work for every one.


Question 4:

Many reports have said that women leave academic science because they are looking for more regular hours, and a more predictable schedule?

M Francesca Cordeiro

Don’t agree.

Valeria Marigo

I agree for women with children. This is particularly true in countries where childcare in not supported enough.

Elke Lütjen-Drecoll

I think this is true.

Veronica van Heyningen

In my experience research in a friendly understanding environment (such as I aim to provide for all my postdocs female and male – as they all have young families) is the best possible job for flexibility. It was always possible to tailor the time to fit in with work and family, even if work was sometimes done at unorthodox hours when for example a child was ill. However, I do have a very supportive husband.  His mother was also a vision research scientist – a biochemist who worked on the mechanisms of cataract formation. She was awarded the Proctor Medal by ARVO in 1976. I was very pleased to hear that I had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s 350 year-old science academy, in the same month that my first granddaughter was born. Incidentally, in 2009 three of the Nobel prize winners were women.

Christina Zeitz

I think that is true. As mentioned earlier working hours need to be planned since several people’s needs have to be considered and combined. Child care providers need to be able to plan and go home at a particular time. But I also think flexibility is of importance. When a child gets ill or has an accident, mothers should be able to tend to their children without guilt of leaving work.


Question 5:

The next time you talk to a 12-year-old girl who shows a passion for science, what would you most want her to know?

M Francesca Cordeiro

Satisfaction from surprising and good results is the greatest feeling.

Valeria Marigo

Follow your passion, science is fun! Do not be worried by the future and by lower career achievement that sometimes you see in women. This is may be important but shouldn’t stop you from taking a career that will bring anyway fulfilment.

Elke Lütjen-Drecoll

If you really want to go into science you should do that, there will come help from outside.

Veronica van Heyningen

Being a scientist brings lasting interest and excitement to life; being a research scientists is rewarding and never dull. Women can achieve anything men can. Eye research is a particularly central area in biology, since the eye is part of the brain and a fine precision instrument that seems to have evolved multiple times, from common genetic components. So, research in many different organisms, from flies to fish, mice and humans, can add to our knowledge of visual function and visual organ architecture.

Christina Zeitz

I would strongly urge her to pursue her passion in science, and that it is wonderful if one can combine passion with work. I would also want her to know that she should ignore comments that I heard during my study time that e.g. "women only study science to find a husband". Of course I would warn her that the society is not quite ready to make it perfect for women scientists. But I also would like to tell her that a lot of changes have been already undertaken to support women in science and that our society needs exactly persons like her to prove that women are needed equally in science!


Thank you for the interview!

European Vision Institute EEIG

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