Interview | Ute Weckmann "Overcome unconscious biases"

Today’s International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to ask Ute Weckmann, GFZ’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner, about the situation of women in the geosciences in general and specifically at our centre. Ute Weckmann, GFZ section Near-Surface Geophysics, is a scientist and group leader herself.

GFZ: Ms Weckmann, imagining working in the field with a hammer or heavy drilling equipment, one might think that geosciences are more prone to gender stereotypes than other fields of research. Do you think that’s true and that women shy away from our field of research?

Ute Weckmann: No, I think all sciences in the STEM field are prone to traditional stereotypes. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. However, statistics show that nearly half of all students in geophysics and related areas are female. For PhD candidates, our numbers at GFZ are also quite high, oscillating around 44 per cent – plus or minus 5 per cent. Yet, many people within science as well as outside of it still think of white men pursuing their research 80 hours a week with deep dedication.

GFZ: The long hours in the lab are not only fictional.

Weckmann: True enough, but today’s science is more of a team effort. Many processes and tasks can be organised in a way that scientists regardless of gender have time for their private lifes and families. Even part-time work is possible as I know from one of my team members. Admittedly, it is not easy to organise but it can be done.

GFZ: So where’s the problem?

Weckmann: We keep on loosing women along the career pathway. The crucial time is the period after the PhD. For many women, it takes too long to establish a career with a certain amount of job security and a perspective for professional development. They don’t want to take the risk, and I hear quite often that female scientists drop out of the system because they have male partners with a better paying and/or more secure job.

GFZ: How would you phrase it, leaky pipeline or glass ceiling?

Weckmann: It’s both. There’s the stereotype “Can she do all of this having kids and all?” which comes down to the glass ceiling, and then there’s the dropping out of the system because of lacking career perspectives also known as the leaky pipeline.

GFZ: A few days ago, we heard at the GFZ Forum, a GFZ staff meeting, about plans to establish a career centre. Could that help?

Weckmann: Definitely. Career planning for female scientists must be part of the service that this centre should offer, and the topic must be part of the annual discussion between group leader and employee.

GFZ: Should female employees ask you or your deputies for advice before going into such discussions?

Weckmann: We are open for that but I think that there are more pressing issues.

GFZ: Such as?

Weckmann: I think all group leaders and people responsible for hiring staff should be trained to be more aware of their own unconscious biases. Everyone has such biases and acts or decides according to them. Our goal should be to overcome these biases.

GFZ: So nothing has changed?

Weckmann: No. The situation has approved quite significantly. We have female directors and section heads and group leaders, we have role models, and I know quite a number of colleagues who are well aware of their biases. They use highly structured interviews and pre-defined criteria for decision-making.

GFZ: As it’s Women’s Day, what is your wish for it?

Weckmann: I’d like to see more women come to my office before they apply for leading positions and especially before they go into the interview situation. I would give them advice on self-presentation and how to avoid pitfalls.


The interview was led by Josef Zens