"Women in science attract more women in science"

Flore Kunst, Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen, about the pioneering feminist and women’s suffrage activist Aletta Jacobs, the first female doctor in the Netherlands and a leading figure in the Dutch and international women's movement

She was the first female student to be admitted to a Dutch university, the first to complete a university education and the first female physician in the Netherlands: Aletta Henriette Jacobs (1854-1929) leaves a remarkable legacy as a feminist, suffragette, pacifist, and human rights activist, who campaigned for women’s birth control rights and sexual health. Born on 9 February 1854 in the small Dutch village of Sappemeer as the eighth of twelve children, Jacobs knew by the age of six that she wanted to become a doctor like her father. As education to women was closed in the Netherlands in the 19th century, it was only through dispensation by special permission by the Dutch government that she was permitted to register at the University of Groningen – as the first female student in the Netherlands to graduate.

After passing her medical exam and receiving her doctorate, she began working as a doctor in Amsterdam in 1879, providing free services to poor women, advocating for better working conditions for women and also becoming involved in providing women with birth-control - campaigning for “voluntary motherhood” by means of the prescription of a pessary.  In her free clinic for women she treated patients and offered advice on matters regarding personal hygiene, child care, and motherhood.

In 1903, Jacobs became the President of the Association for Women's Suffrage in the Netherlands, a post from which she stepped down in 1919, the same year that women's right to vote was accepted in parliament. She continued to travel the world to campaign for suffrage and publish writings on topics like contraception and international women’s issues until her death on 10 of August 1929, aged 75 years.

Flore Kunst, what is it about Aletta Jacobs that you find particularly fascinating?

Aletta Jacobs lived in the Netherlands in the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. In those times, women’s rights were more or less non-existent. During her lifetime, Jacobs founded one of the first birth control clinics in the world, was a prominent figure in what is known as the “first feminist wave”, and fought for the right of women to vote. As such, Jacobs played a central role in pushing women’s rights in the Netherlands, which still leaves its marks today. I can only hope I would’ve been equally courageous if I had lived in that time.

Jacobs was born in 1854, at a time when there were many restrictions placed upon women in society in general, as well as in science. How did she overcome these barriers?

Jacobs wanted to become a physician because she wanted to play her part in the women’s rights movement, and because she thought it was unfair that women could not be doctors. To be able to study, she had to ask the prime minister for permission, which he granted to her by writing to her father. Initially, this was only probationary and her admittance only for one year. On his death bed, the prime minister then gave her permission to also sit for exams, which enabled her to graduate. 

In 1871, Aletta Jacobs was the first woman in the Netherlands to register as a regular student at a university. She went on to become the first woman in the Netherlands to receive a medical degree. How relevant do you think this was for the position of women in science in the Netherlands?

I think this was very relevant. Of course, she was still very much an exception, but it certainly set things into motion. On a grander scale, I believe that her contributions to the women’s rights movement probably had a larger effect on advancing the position of women in society as a whole, but also in science.

Jacobs was also very political as a keen advocate of social injustice & women's rights. What strikes you about her activism?

What I find very amazing is that many of the ideas and beliefs Jacobs stood for are still considered progressive today. She was really ahead of her times in so many ways, and as such a very important force in the advancement of women’s rights and also human rights as a whole. At the same time, it is also rather sad that many things she fought for are still things we have to fight for today. So, on the one hand, we have gotten very far and are certainly not in the same situation that she was in. On the other hand, there are still many steps that we need to take to really ensure equality for everyone on every level.

How did you become a scientist?

Actually, it wasn’t obvious from the start that I would become a scientist. I was always quite bright at school and very much enjoyed learning new things and studying, so in that sense it is not a surprise that I am where I am now. However, for me it has always been an open question as to where to go next. It was only during my Master’s degree, while I was working on my thesis, that I decided to do a PhD, because I realised I enjoyed doing research so much. Similarly, it was only towards the end of my PhD that I decided to do a Postdoc, and only at end of my Postdoc that I decided to become a Group Leader. In any of these steps, I was asking myself: What do I like doing? What am I good at? Where do I see myself going next?

What do you like best about being a scientist?

One of the aspects I like the most about being a scientist is discussing physics with others and learning new things from them. I am a great believer in team work, and always get inspired when talking to others about new results, new ideas, or new research directions. I also very much like the international character of science. Not only does it allow for acquiring new knowledge, but is also opens your eyes in different ways as you get exposed to different cultures. Lastly, I always get genuinely excited when we make progress on some projects and new unexpected results come in. To understand something that you did not understand before is an incredibly rewarding feeling.

Which issues do you think still need to be addressed to achieve greater equality?

To really achieve greater equality, we basically need to start addressing certain issues right from birth. There are so many preconceptions in society about how men and women should behave, how they should live their lives, etc. These preconceived notions influence young children, play a role in the courses they take in school, and eventually what they end up studying. What personally always annoys me is that men are often taken as the standard and women as the exception. Just to name an example: when listing symptoms for a heart attack, it usually goes like this: The symptoms of a heart attack are this, this and this, but for women they are actually like this, this and this. Why the “but” for women? Why are they the exception? Similarly, cars are designed for the male body, which means that women usually have much worse injuries in car accidents than men do. There is a world to be won if we would simply change that.

Men are often taken as the standard and women as the exception - there is a world to be won if we would simply change that.

The underrepresentation of women in science is still pervasive today, especially in the STEM subjects. The proportion of female scientists worldwide is still only 30 percent. What factors do you think contribute to this discrepancy? 

I certainly believe that cultural biases play into the lack of women in STEM. However, that’s not the entire story because there are countries in the world, where women’s rights are not as advanced as they are, say, in the west, but where many women study physics or mathematics. Nevertheless, I think the notion that men are supposedly better at STEM courses is still prevalent in society although it is well-known that there is no difference. On top of that, it is not easy being one of the few women in a group consisting mostly of men. This makes the hurdle only higher.

What is peculiar is that even if quite a lot of women study a certain subject, the number of women continuing to do a PhD is quite a bit lower, but drops very significantly once you start looking at who continues to do a Postdoc. This is called the pipeline effect, and really shows that there is a problem.

In your opinion, what needs to happen so that more young girls and women are inspired by STEM subjects, and so that more women go on to careers in STEM fields? Do you think we need more female role models in STEM?

I am a great believer in role models. For example, I notice that I get approached by roughly as many women as men enquiring about positions in my group. This is certainly not a fair representation of the pool of physicists out there, and is already an example that women attract women. I also notice this for myself.

For example, I did my Master’s thesis with the only female professor in the physics department at Utrecht University, Cristiane Morais Smith. While I enjoyed the project, I also picked her because I wanted to work with her. What is important though is that role models are not only sitting at the top of the food chain. There should be female role models in each different stage of the scientific career.

I would like to add that I have male role models as well, and that men are also very important in attracting more women in science. I know several male scientists that are putting energy and effort into this, and that’s very inspiring.

There should be female role models in each different stage of the scientific career.

Do you think we need a structural change in science and academia to increase the proportion of women?

I certainly think so. Firstly, I believe that work culture should be focused on team work instead of competition. This is also how I work myself, and I know many other scientists that work this way too - and not only women. Secondly, the job hopping that goes hand in hand with pursuing a scientific career is not very beneficial for women. It is still that case that while many women follow their husbands or partners around the world, there are not many men that would do the same for their spouses. It would be better if the time frame between obtaining a PhD and a permanent position would be shorter, and if the emphasis on having to have been in many different places is reduced. 

Lastly, it is certainly a challenge to combine family and a career. I have a young child myself, and I certainly notice the struggles. However, this also very much depends on the employer, and I am in the very lucky situation to be working in a family friendly environment.

I would like to add though that I usually think in terms of opportunities, not in terms of problems. I know that it is not easy to be a mother and work full time, but at the same time I simply refuse to believe that it’s not possible to have both a successful career and enjoy motherhood.

In your opinion, do you think mentoring programs and/ or women's networks are useful measures? Are there any offers to overcome hurdles for women in science that you found helpful in your own experience?

Absolutely, if only because it is very nice to sometimes only be surrounded by only women for a change! I have participated in both mentoring programs and women’s networks, and I personally found the latter more useful. In chatting to your peers, you can get a lot of inspiration, as well as confirmation about certain experiences. I believe mentoring programmes can also be very useful but this very much depends on how you are paired. The best way is to always pick your mentor yourself. That has always worked well for me. Personally, I would for example not have considered doing a Postdoc if I had not been encouraged by my PhD advisor, Emil Bergholtz, to explore the possibility. This suggestion highlights how important the role of mentor can be.

What advice would you give to young women considering a career in science?

Simply go for it! It doesn’t have to be a lifelong decision, so if it is turns out to be not for you, you can always do something else. Make sure you choose supervisors that do scientific work you find interesting and that you like. This latter point cannot be emphasised enough I think. It makes all the difference in the world if you get along with the people you work with and work for, especially in science, where one typically has a rather close relationship with your supervisors.

 It makes all the difference in the world if you get along with the people you work with and work for.

What would you like to see change in the coming years to achieve a greater gender equality in science?

Hire more women on every level! If a woman applies for a job, and she has the credentials, she should always be hired. If need be, you can create an extra job to do so.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Perhaps some more general words. We were talking about the role and position of women in science here, but I believe that this goes beyond just science: while of course we should do everything we can to improve matters in science, this won’t be possible if society as a whole does not change in the same way.
I would also like to add a positive note, namely, that I believe things are improving. There are many initiatives and efforts to increase the number of women in science, and I am hopeful that in the years or probably decades to come, things will already have changed for the better.

 Flore Kunst, thank you for this interview!


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