leadership is empathy

Interviews with participants

Ana Violeta Trevizo, Mexico

Which (female) leader has inspired you in your life so far and why?

Michelle Obama, due to her unparalleled leadership, honesty, eloquence, intelligence, and mainly because of the impact she has on young women of her community and the world, regardless of her role as first lady but because of her conviction to help and empower women.

Have you made contact with the famous ‘glass ceiling’ in leadership yet?

I have encountered something more basic than the “glass ceiling effect”: In Mexico, my area of research has not been fully developed yet. Therefore, there are fewer opportunities, that’s the reason I created my startup, hoping that I can help other women in their reproductive decision-making. Creating a network of female talents can lead not only to support and exchange of experiences but also to multidisciplinary collaborative work.

Have you noticed changes towards more inclusiveness and equality at your institution?

Inclusiveness and equality are fundamental values in my startup. At the University I teach, just this year, they incorporated inclusiveness as part of their institutional values which I applauded and celebrated. Without equality, in my country, women are stripped from the most basic opportunities, first access to food, health, and education, and then the possibility to thrive and become someone.

What impressed you about our female role models during the round table?

Their honesty, experience, and openness to talk about their path in science.

Did you learn something (new) from our short reflection on leadership exercise?

Yes! I loved the feedback of one of the participants in my private zoom room, she made me realize that we can find leadership values in the most interesting places. The network proved that we need more female networks, particularly in science!

Carolina Doran, Berlin

Do you find that there is a lack of female leaders to look up to?

There have been many amazing women who inspired me at different points in my life, but not just ‘the one woman’. So the answer to this question is a big YES. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot more stories from inspiring men than women. When women appeared, they were so extraordinary that I very often felt that to be part of certain environments I had to be so much more than what I was. I often felt that it was impossible, and I was never going to make it.

Why is gender equality and representation so important in leadership?

It is super important. You can’t be what you can’t see. We start internalizing these ideas very early in our life, and when all we see is white men as the heroes, saviors, professors, scientists, everyone who is not a CIS gender white man believes that those roles are not for them, without anyone ever telling them. Representation is key!!

What leadership styles do you value?

Thanks to the workshop, these are now very easy for me to point out. For me, the most important traits are: a sense of purpose, empathy, humility and accountability. I would like to emphasize empathy because I think a good leader will always create spaces where people feel they belong. In other words, people will feel like their experiences matter and they are worthy of being present.

Did you learn something (new) from our short reflection on leadership exercise?

I found it interesting how many people said confidence to be in their top 3 traits for a good leader. I  strongly disagree with this, because it propagates the idea that leaders have to be fearless and never be insecure. I think this can be damaging because it makes some people feel like they can’t be leaders. We can all be leaders! Confidence is a perceived trait anyway, as in something we project on to those we consider to be our leaders. I really enjoyed this exercise because it made me think very carefully about what kind of leader I want to be and therefore which leaders am I choosing to follow.

Anastasiia Hryhorzhevska, Munich

Which female leader has inspired you in your life so far and why?

Margaret Thatcher is one female leader who inspires me by her passion, drive, and determination. She is a female leader who transformed Great Britain to a powerful country of big opportunities and innovation. She was always remaining tough and determined, and she never allowed gender to doubt her goals, but also she never let anyone else dwell on this fact either.

What motivates you to keep on your current career path?

To make others lives better, to understand that I am involved in something that is beneficial for other people. And of course, the team and people who are around me are a great support when I feel unbalanced and lost. This is the team who brings me closer to my goal and helps my ideas come true.

What would you like to learn more about in regards to female leadership?

How to overcome obstacles that women are facing in the business world. How to maintain strength and ‘softness’ at the same time. How to control those emotions that are mainly intrinsic to females rather than males.

What was your favourite part of the networking event?

I really enjoyed the session with young female leaders from Bayer. It was a great opportunity to ask about their experience and the doubts they had throughout their career. There are three things I would like to highlight: 1. You can completely change the field after 15 years in research. 2. Science is useful when non-scientists can get access to it and easily understand it. The public must be able to understand the basics of science in order to make informed decisions. 3. Team is important. Build your network. It will help you to keep on your career path.

Alevtina Smekhova, Berlin

Do you find that there is a lack of female leaders or mentors to look up to?

That is a difficult question. It is always interesting to learn about the experience of successful female leaders; it can be really useful and encouraging in many situations. However, we have to understand that it would be rather useless to just “copy” their behaviour, since each of us has to solve their own puzzle.

Have you noticed changes towards more inclusiveness and equality at your institution?

I think so, yes, although I do not really know everything about the situation before. Still, there is a long way to go and still nobody really knows which competences have to be developed by those who would like to overcome this situation.

Do you think it is important to stay in contact with other female talents?

It is important because each of us has her own experience/vision/talents, and an exchange could trigger more effective solutions for the particular problem which each of us are currently facing. For achieving this we have to be ready to invest a part of our time and efforts in this exchange

Which leadership challenges are you currently facing?

There are a lot of them! The most simple ones are convincing colleagues of higher or equal status not to do obvious mistakes (e.g. in a scientific publication) or to convince them to provider clearer statements for a broader audience. Also, there are “standard challenges”, like organizing a smooth workflow (technically and by inspiration), and keeping deadlines and accuracy in communication.

What did you take away from the round table discussion with Helga Nowotny?

I very much enjoyed the interview. Her style of speaking and describing her personal experience and thoughts were very inspiring. I would be happy to be able to hold a discussion in such a manner.

Isabella Bower, Melbourne

In your opinion, what defines a good leader?

Good leaders recognize that you build teams based on people, rather than knowledge. The leader who continues to inspire me builds up the confidence and abilities of those around them, figuratively opening doors which may be unimaginable, and creating a sense of belonging and support.

What motivates you to keep on your career path?

I’m motivated by belief in the benefits of good design, curiosity to understand the brain, and passion to make a positive and impactful difference in my lifetime. I believe effort counts, and research is an endurance sport. Perhaps most important to keeping me on my path is my environment. I would not be where I am without the support of others.

Are there certain leadership challenges that are you currently facing?

There are always roadblocks and setbacks, especially in emergent research areas where leaders and pathways have not been established and/or recognized yet. I think the most difficult challenge is building a supportive environment around yourself, enabling you to push the boundaries.

What are your thoughts on the Female Science Talents Gathering in general?

Virtually connecting with other young female researchers from across the world was fantastic! I really enjoyed listening to the speakers share their insights and advice, alongside the chance to exchange experiences and challenges with the other participants. 

Cathrine Berg, Stockholm

Which (female) leader has inspired you in your life so far and why?

I have been fortunate to have many female leaders to draw inspiration from in my life, and I think I have picked up different tips or approaches here and there. However, one person that has inspired me a lot is my grandmother who died six years ago. She went through war, having to live with the constant stream of unnecessary deaths of family members and friends, and later in her life she had to live with several difficult diseases. Despite all these challenges and a modest education she still managed to achieve many good things in her life. I think the best leaders are the ones who are able to keep going and overcome difficulties in times of crisis, and encourage others to do the same.

When and how did you decide to become a scientist?

Since I was a child I knew I wanted to work within in STEM or medicine, and now I work at the interface of multiple STEM disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology and computer science) and that never gets boring! I also love to write, teach and mentor students, which is another integral part of my job. However, I’m not sure this will be able to keep me on my current career path, but as Elizabeth Blackburn (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine) used to say: “If you find an obstacle in your career you just have to walk around it”. I’m currently trying to find such a path and the Female Science Talents Network allowed me to identify a few possible solutions!

Do you find that there is a lack of female leaders to look up to?

Definitely not! I think great female leaders and mentors can be found almost anywhere. We are fortunate to live at a time where we have access to endless mentoring possibilities or inspiration through our phones or computers.

Have you noticed changes towards more inclusiveness and equality at your institution?

There’s definitely more talk about inclusiveness and I’ve noticed a few changes, like childcare assistance at some large conferences, which can definitely help mothers in science. However, when talking to other women I find that the main problem lies in the rigid career structure of academia and how poorly it aligns with the life of a typical woman. In order to qualify for a permanent position one often has to go through a series of short-term postdoc contracts, often moving countries every two years. If a woman has a partner or family (or plans to have one) this frequent moving and uncertainty can be very difficult and often results in personal sacrifices (long-distance relationships, deciding to not have children even though she would want to, the partner sacrificing their career).

The early career years in academia are of course difficult for anyone, but since these make-it-or-break-it years overlap with the typical time of family formation for women, an academic career can be extremely challenging especially since we know mothers are penalized for every child, while the same is not true for fathers. My experience is that many talented female scientists look at these challenges and conclude it will not be worth it and drop out around the postdoc stage of their careers. As Helga Nowotny pointed out, I think we need to recognize that scientist are humans and should be able to combine their careers with the rest of life. Building in more flexibility and alternative career paths in academia would help retain women, I think. Although still rare, the permanent staff scientist position is a great alternative I hope to see more of in the future – particularly the ones that have potential for promotion to leadership roles – as well as better possibilities to move between academia and industry at all career stages.

Did you learn something from our role models and young female leaders?

Yes! I definitely agree with Helga regarding the point that we need to recognize that scientist are humans and make academic careers more compatible to other parts of life. It was great to meet the scientists from Bayer, too. I talked to one scientist from my own research field and realized there were more opportunities to do cutting-edge research in industry than I first realized.


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