The fact that something must be done to narrow the gender gap and achieve more diversity in male-dominated disciplines (like mathematics) is undisputed. For example, women in the U.S. hold only 14 percent of full-time tenured positions in academic doctoral math departments .
The question of how to achieve gender parity poses more of a challenge. Many previous attempts—like special awards for women—are decried as tokenism; while they may benefit the individual, they seem unlikely to induce sustained and systemic change. Given this mindset, our research team decided to take a slightly different approach — with promising results.
Our project—the German Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 154—develops mathematical solutions in the fields of modeling, simulation, and optimization, using gas networks as an example. Multiple companies in the newly-deregulated European market must cooperate to adapt gas supply and transport to ever-changing demand. Adjusting gas flow in the network of pipelines to safely and quickly deliver energy requires complex optimization- and simulation-based tasks with thousands of variables, including pressure changes, valve operations, compressor workload, and hub management. All of this must be completed in a dynamic and robust fashion while accounting for both market forces and uncertainties.
Within the CRC, teams at four universities—Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (home of CRC spokesperson Alexander Martin), the Technische Universität Berlin, the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and the Technische Universität Darmstadt—in three German cities are cooperating to develop the necessary mathematical theory and algorithms. As is typical in such situations, nearly all of the project’s first hires were male. While this may have been coincidental and illustrative of small-number statistics, it also reflects a bigger issue. In Germany, mathematics and the natural sciences are now attracting equal numbers of male and female undergraduate students, and many women go on to finish graduate school. However, the numbers plummet when it comes to careers in academia. Only one in five tenured professors in the sciences is a woman . It is widely acknowledged that the uncertainty of succeeding in an academic career contributes to this disparity, particularly since tenure is typically acquired relatively late in the German system.
CRC 154 is funded by the German Research Foundation with the understanding that part of the budget will go towards promoting gender equality and diversity. From the beginning, we considered this as much an opportunity as a challenge and focused on developing tailored strategies to make progress throughout the project’s duration. We established gender teams, each with a female and male principal investigator at all three project sites who played critical roles in determining measures to advance gender parity.
Raising awareness became a special focus, as many people do not grasp the challenges that male and female researchers face to grow beyond traditional gender roles. To address this difficulty, we incorporated obligatory workshops into research meetings. One of these workshops explored the different communication styles of men and women and offered solutions on how to avoid (and resolve) conflicts that arise from this discrepancy. Although the mandatory nature of these workshops elicited some groans, we feel that the effort helped to at least increase people’s awareness of the problem.
We also participated in high school programs that encourage young women to consider science-based careers. We established a summer school for female students in the fields of mathematics and informatics that promoted interdisciplinary networking and introduced them to project-specific modeling methods. An existing budget, which includes research grants for up to one year for prospective doctoral candidates, helps women pursue scientific collaborations abroad and improve career-enhancing soft skills in management and leadership. Additionally, we recently implemented steps to ensure that job postings are gender inclusive and promote diversity.
Participants of a mathematics and informatics summer school for female students established by the German Collaborative Research Center. The school promoted interdisciplinary networking and introduced students to project-specific modeling methods. Photo courtesy of Petra Metz.
Another set of measures aims to make family and work life more compatible. These include practical steps, such as guaranteed access to local childcare facilities and “mobile parent-kid-stations”—wheeled cupboards equipped with toys, diaper changing supplies, and everything else a parent might need to keep a small child happy for a few hours at the workplace in case of a childcare emergency—at every project site. We also recorded a selection of conference presentations for project members unable to attend sessions in person.
Financial support is available for project members who need to hire babysitters during out-of-town meetings or at times when regular childcare facilities might be inaccessible. For example, one colleague participated in a weekly project-related teleconference on late Friday afternoons when the local daycare was closed. CRC 154 provided a budget that helped offset the cost of babysitting services during those times.
Our overall goal is to achieve an equal representation of female and male researchers at all levels. We often find that the names of male researchers are first to spring to mind when putting together a high-caliber board or workshop program. It may take more time and sometimes require creativity to identify outstanding female candidates, but of course it can be done.
This premise is borne out by our own project. The aforementioned measures—as well as some very active headhunting in the recruitment stages—are making a noticeable difference. During the project’s initial four-year phase, we increased the ratio of female team members to 24 percent within the group of doctoral candidates and 33 percent at the postdoctoral level. The number of female professors involved in CRC 154 has risen from 17 to 21 percent in the beginning states of the project’s second phase. These statistics compare favorably with the German national average in mathematics.
The biggest lesson we have learned from our experience thus far is that it is essential to grant teams some autonomy and flexibility when it comes to effectively boosting gender equality and diversity. For example, most institutional budgets simply do not include provisions to allocate travel money for family members who might accompany young researchers to out-of-town conferences and provide reliable childcare. But this is the kind of financial investment that can make a very big difference in either allowing a junior scientist to fully participate and build a career in her chosen area, or forcing her to abandon the field.
CRC 154 is scheduled to run for another three to seven years. By the end of that time we hope to have made continued and long-lasting strides towards our goal of full gender parity.
Acknowledgments: We are very grateful to members of German Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 154’s former and current gender team for their fruitful joint work and many inspiring discussions on establishing gender equity in the CRC and beyond. Many thanks go to Pia Domschke, Herbert Egger, Veronika Grimm, René Henrion, Max Klimm, Alexandra Schwartz, and Caren Tischendorf for their invested time, energy, and thoughts.
 American Mathematical Society. (2015). 2015 Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences in the US. Retrieved from https://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/Excerpt_Faculty_Female.pdf.
 Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. (2017, July). Gleichstellung in der Wissenschaft: DFG setzt neue Akzente. (Press release no. 24). Retrieved from http://www.dfg.de/service/presse/pressemitteilungen/2017/pressemitteilung_nr_24/index.html.