Katalin Karikó's impressive ascension is just a glitch in the matrix

August 11. 2022. – 04:53 AM


Katalin Karikó's impressive ascension is just a glitch in the matrix
Illustration by Péter Somogyi (szarvas) / Telex

The 26:0 male to female ratio of the new full members to be admitted to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – and Anna Kende's subsequent protest – have once again drawn attention to the question: what gave rise to the fact that female academics are still receiving far less recognition and senior positions in Hungary and abroad, while the proportion of women in higher education has remained steadily at a higher level? Is academia male-centric? Is the research institutional system inherently patriarchal? Are workplaces insensitive to having children? Is it latent discrimination and sexism? When combined, these factors can shape the difficult paths that women scientists and researchers have to navigate. We explored the topic with a sociologist, a historian, a data scientist, a materials scientist, and a nuclear physicist, as well as members of the Academy of Sciences – experts who, as women themselves, have overcome these hurdles.

While the portrait of a Hungarian woman has covered the front pages of newspapers around the world for the past two years – and moreover, no Hungarian scientist has been held in such esteem by colleagues and society alike since the 1940s – among the 26 scientists elected as new full members to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences this year, not a single one of them is female. There is, of course, no connection between Katalin Karikó's success and the unfortunate timeliness of the academy's elections; yet the US-based, Nobel-nominated biochemist represents a group of which she is the very exception: a woman with a family who has reached the highest peak of academia.

According to the latest statistics from She Figures, the European Commission's publication on the role of women in research in Europe, the average proportion of female researchers in the 27 EU Member States is 32.8%, while in Hungary it is 30.5%, earning the country a position in the bottom third of the list. According to Veronika Paksi, a sociologist and researcher on women's careers in academia at the Institute of Sociology of the Center for Social Sciences, in order to understand the reasons for this we have to first consider the explicit and implicit obstacles that women have to overcome in their professional development. Academic literature on the matter presents these fundamental obstacles with two striking images. The first one compares the academic researcher's career path to a "leaky pipeline": as women progress further in their careers, some trickle off the path without notice. The second metaphor derives from the fact that women are increasingly under-represented in higher academic and leadership positions because they are not able to progress at all in their careers or only at a much slower pace as compared to their male colleagues – i.e. they hit a "glass ceiling." And the glass ceiling is difficult to break through because the barriers are largely hidden and invisible. With almost two and a half times fewer women than men in the most senior positions (research and university professors), Hungary ranks among the worst EU countries in terms of the glass ceiling index.

"If a woman is thinking about having a baby while working on her PhD, she might as well go and buy a shovel too so she can bury her career"

Dr. Ágnes Mócsy is a theoretical physicist and professor who has lived in the US for 26 years and has previously taught at Yale University and the Pratt Institute. Taking a break from her university work, she is making a documentary at the Michigan State University's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams about how the staff at the world's new particle accelerator are faring in their careers as physicists and what it takes to become a physicist in the first place. In Mócsy's field of theoretical heavy-ion physics, women make up 3-4% of university professors, compared to around 15-20% in experimental physics. "So there are far fewer female theoretical physicists than experimental physicists because, of course, women are not smart enough for it. And that's also why there are twice as many female chemists as physicists." The primary reason for this, she says, is that women – and other minorities – tend to avoid high-profile fields of science that are mythologized as being meant for natural-born geniuses. And these myths are propagated by films and TV series such as The Big Bang Theory. Yet, according to Mócsy, access to resources plays just as important of a role in a physics career as such fundamental abilities. "A related study by the American Institute of Physics also showed that women are systematically paid less than men and have smaller offices and smaller grants. Unfortunately, this pleasant-sounding meritocracy is also bullshit in academia,"

– said the professor. She went on to explain that in 2018 when NASA changed the system for evaluating applications for observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope and introduced a double-blind system (in which neither the applicants nor the reviewers who evaluate their applications know each other's identities), there was an instant boost in the presence of women.

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) continue to see the lowest proportion of women, regardless of position. This is largely due to a public mindset that has traditionally associated science and its pursuit with men, which influences the interests and career choices of boys and girls from an early age. It was this perception, among other things, that ten Hungarian women researchers set out to change by setting up the Association of Hungarian Women in Science (NaTE) in 2008, practically on their own. The association supports the careers of young women and girls in science and technology through such initiatives as mentoring programs, the annual Girls' Day – an open day at universities and research institutions modeled on the international Girls' Day – and Teachers' Day, an event dedicated to school teachers.

Dr. Ágnes Mócsy – Source: Ágnes Mócsy
Dr. Ágnes Mócsy – Source: Ágnes Mócsy

"The girls themselves also report that they often do not get the support they need from their teachers: in science classes, they don't receive assignments of the same level of difficulty as their bright male classmates; they are not sent to the more serious competitions. In other words, teachers also need to be sensitized in order to overcome their prejudices," said Dr. Katalin Balázsi, materials scientist and engineer and current president of NaTe. Here's something else worth considering: this year, only 28 high school students applied to institutions of higher education to become physics teachers and only 30 applied to become chemistry teachers – a matter that goes far beyond the issue of gender equality.

The internationally renowned materials scientist says that, as a mother of two young children, she herself has "been through the whole gamut of problems" that can arise in such a career. She stayed at home as a full-time mother for a total of four years, following which she had to make up for the four years of missed publications, citations, and conferences over an even shorter time span. "Institutional leaders and proposal evaluators need to take into account that the path of a woman's academic career is very different from a man's, in particular, due to childbearing," she says. She goes on to cite the National Research, Development and Innovation Office's proposal-evaluation system as a good example: it gives researchers who are mothers an extra two years per child under 14 years old with respect to the age limit for applications. This also takes into account the inactive years spent on childcare and maternity leave. "This means that a 37-year-old woman with two children is only 33 years old as far as the application process is concerned, so she will have a chance to apply for grants open to those under the age of 35."

"If a woman is thinking about having a baby while working on her PhD, she might as well go and buy a shovel too so she can bury her career," – these words were uttered by a middle-aged man during the focus group conducted by Veronika Paksi and her colleague Katalin Tardos in 2020. After all, the most critical point in a female researcher's career is the period of time when she is starting a family and establishing her career, and these two phases usually overlap. One of the reasons for this problem is that research positions in industrial sectors currently require full-time employment and workdays exceeding 8 hours, and neither temporary absences (career breaks) nor flexible working arrangements are supported. Women returning after childbirth often do not receive adequate organizational support for their reintegration, and they are not brought up to speed regarding the latest developments in their field, which is a major disadvantage with respect to the ever-evolving careers in engineering and technology. In short, the system does not take into account the periodic performance fluctuations that come with having children, which often sets off both a domino effect (one unsuccessful application after another) and the Matthew effect ("the rich get richer and the poor get poorer"). It is therefore no coincidence that there are far more single women in higher-skilled occupations and a higher proportion of childless women than their male counterparts.

Dr. Katalin Balázsi – Source: Katalin Balázsi
Dr. Katalin Balázsi – Source: Katalin Balázsi

In fact, research shows that while motherhood constitutes a clear disadvantage for a woman's academic career, fatherhood tends to have a positive effect on a man's.

Katalin Balázsi and her husband (Dennis Gabor Award-winning researcher Dr. Csaba Balázsi), another materials scientist, jointly supervise domestic and international PhD theses and work together on the same research topics – all from the same room. Katalin also heads the Thin Film Physics Laboratory at the Center for Energy Research. However, Hungary's scientific community has long been suspicious of her work. For example, the material scientist's submission to the MTA's Lendület ["Momentum"] Program three years ago was rejected by the jury on the grounds that there was no evidence of her contribution to the articles she and her husband wrote together.

"Many have insinuated that I've been building my career on top of my husband's success – riding his coattails – and that is very degrading,"

– she says, adding that, at her lowest points, when she felt like she no longer had the energy to fight and would rather pursue her hobby as a profession: she would become a confectioner.

In the words of Dr. Andrea Pető, an internationally renowned historian and researcher of gender studies: "If I had a scoop of ice cream for every time I brought up something in a meeting that no one responded to, only then to have that same comment repeated by a male colleague and subsequently embraced and celebrated by the rest, I could open an ice cream parlor." According to the CEU professor, however, between this scenario and the one in which a woman's work and ideas are taken without reference, the former is still better. And the literature already has a name for this phenomenon: the Matilda effect, which is the general bias that attributes women's achievements to men.

Pető's ice cream example is repeated almost word for word by Mócsy, who then goes on to tell how sexism has strongly permeated the male-dominated academic world up until very recently. Today, the situation is somewhat better: in the US, for example, almost every academic conference has a code of conduct, which stresses the need to prevent all forms of discrimination and harassment. And such behavior is being more severely punished: The organization in the US that allocates public money for research has withdrawn funding for such incidents on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, the nuclear physicist still has her share of bad experiences, such as being asked by Hungarian colleagues at a prestigious international conference why she cut her "long sexy hair", or being alerted to her ticking biological clock. And to illustrate how male privilege is still made so explicit, Mócsy cites a recent example of a transgender woman being asked by a colleague at an academic meeting whether she was sure it was worth giving up her former male privileges.

Dr. Andrea Pető – Photo by Robert Haas
Dr. Andrea Pető – Photo by Robert Haas

In 2014, while examining gender culture in technical institutes around the country, Dr. Beáta Nagy, a prominent Hungarian researcher on the topic, found that even if there was evidence of gender inequality, it was not perceived by the parties involved. Paksi's focus-group research that involved PhD graduates also confirmed this: even if women perceived the discrimination, they did not necessarily denounce it, as patterns are often internalized, reinforcing such norms.

This compulsory strategy is often the only chance for women to gain recognition for themselves and their scientific achievements.

According to another study conducted a few years ago, young female researchers in Hungarian academia are more than five times likelier to experience negative discrimination than men (21.7% of women, as compared to 4.1% of men). According to Orsolya Vásárhelyi, data scientist and researcher at the NETI Lab at Budapest's Corvinus University and Hungary's ambassador at Stanford University's Women in Data Science, non-overt discrimination is difficult to measure because, in addition to being against the law, it is also an increasingly detested behavior and therefore difficult to measure based on personal accounts. And latent (i.e. unintentional or concealed) discrimination is more likely to be inferred from patterns of behavior that show women to be often at a disadvantage in their careers because they don't have the right connections and tend to be excluded from both formal and informal networks. Paksi adds that this is what is known as the "good ol' boys' club'' phenomenon: male members tend to prefer to admit male candidates.

Databases with millions of researchers also show that when comparing male and female scientists of similar quality and productivity, women not only earn less but also win fewer grants and are cited less frequently for their scientific publications. Vásárhelyi and colleagues examined data from more than half a million scholars and found that women were less likely than men to have their articles shared on social media in all areas, which is problematic because, in academia, online presence is correlated with the number of subsequent citations, which is the primary "measure" of academic work.

"Women themselves are also less likely to share their work than men, one reason being that they are more often subject to aggression and having their expertise questioned online.

The comments sections of interviews with female experts are also worth checking: you're always bound to find some remarks about the interviewee's appearance,"

– said Vásárhelyi, responding to Telex's questions with her newborn by her side.

According to Pető, surveys show that women need to publish three times as much to achieve the same results as their male counterparts. “On top of this, there is the unpaid care work provided by the wives of male colleagues. Once I asked a male colleague how he keeps his citation list in order, and he replied – with a modest but obvious smile – that his wife, another successful historian, does it for him free of charge and without pay.”

Hungary currently has a gender pay gap of 17%, which puts us in a poor position among EU Member States. According to Paksi, the pay gap in research and development is exacerbated by the fact that it is typically women who take on or are given unpaid tasks related to the management of education and administration, which places yet another burden on them without any financial compensation. "Difficulties in gaining scientific recognition tend to arise in fields where the proportion of women is significantly lower and they occupy a so-called 'token' position. Fortunately, there are already good examples: the recognition of Katalin Karikó's achievements, for example, is a milestone in this respect," the sociologist pointed out.

Orsolya Vásárhelyi – Photo by János Bődey / Telex
Orsolya Vásárhelyi – Photo by János Bődey / Telex

According to Paksi, their research has also shown that age plays a role in the perception of the problems identified as well. The younger generation, for example, has a more modern attitude towards gender and family roles, while the older generation has a more traditional view of the roles, which in turn is a breeding ground for prejudice and discrimination. "Female professors are often just as prone to discriminate against their younger female colleagues, for example by belittling their expertise or ignoring the glass ceiling phenomenon." In other words, even the academic community is divided on how to tackle the disadvantages faced by women.

"Are women fit for membership to the MTA?"

It is under these circumstances that we come to this year's unusual election of members to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Anna Kende's subsequent protest. In response to our questions, two of the Academy's full members – Dr. Vanda Lamm, Vice-President of Social Sciences, and Dr. Katalin Kamarás – now say that they had mixed feelings about Kende's statements. They say that while it's always positive when someone draws attention to social problems affecting women, they stress that, contrary to the psychologist's claim, the Academy has taken steps in recent years to eliminate discrimination against women. The result of this was precisely a similarly "shameful" election result in 2016 when no women were elected as corresponding members. (The MTA's new members – the so-called corresponding members – are selected from among the MTA's doctorates, and they become full members after an average of six years.) This unseemly situation was then brought to the attention of the board by neurobiologist Péter Somogyi, who gave a provocative speech at the General Assembly entitled "Are women fit for membership to the MTA?" Then, on the initiative of President László Lovász, the Presidential Committee on Women in Research was set up to identify the problems associated with the low number of female academics and to propose solutions to address them.

The first chair of the committee was Vanda Lamm, lawyer and legal scholar, researcher and professor emerita at the Center for Social Sciences. Katalin Kamarás, a physical chemist and researcher at the Wigner Research Center for Physics, is still a member of the committee. They both stress that today's result is a consequence of the situation six years ago, when no women were admitted as corresponding members, and so there wasn't anyone to become a full member. And here is a recent striking statistic: since its foundation in 1825 (almost two hundred years ago), the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has inducted 52 women – whereas 26 men were elected as full members this year alone. This is a staggering proportion even if you take into account that until 1895 women were not admitted to universities in Hungary, and certain faculties, such as law, remained this way even until 1945.

Hungary's figures also capture the image of the leaky pipeline representing the academic career paths of women: they still make up 37% of PhD holders, but only 17% of academic doctorates, and by the time they reach the peak of their careers (membership to the academy) the proportion falls to 10%.

Since a prerequisite for academy membership is the acquisition of an academic doctorate, the question for the committee was what assistance they could provide to women in the dissertation phase of their academic careers as well as the stage in life of starting a family. This led to the creation of a scholarship open to female researchers with young children (and male researchers raising young children on their own). The scholarship awards 1.5 million forints [~3,800 euros] to each recipient. The money may be used for whatever the recipient sees fit – even for paying a babysitter. The results of the program could already be felt in 2021, as just a few days ago, 26 women out of 80 researchers were awarded the MTA's title of Doctor of Science, setting a record at 33%.

Lamm says that in addition to life circumstances, individual ambitions also shape women's career paths in science: many, for example, go on to become full-time grandmothers after a certain age. According to the legal scholar, it is not so much men who are the obstacle to women's progress in science but women themselves who believe to be content with their current status. Katalin Kamarás recalls speaking to a female researcher who refused to write her doctoral thesis on the grounds that she and her husband only have a single desk at their home, and he is the one who uses it.

Moreover, the two academics do not consider themselves special for having made it into the select, elite club of women who make up 10% of the MTA's members: they believe that "a thousand other" female scholars could have achieved this. They attribute their success primarily to luck, and secondarily to their extraordinary dedication and perseverance. Katalin Kamarás, for example, switched from chemistry to physics in the late 1970s and joined a strong team of scientists, and, following the birth of her two children, returned to said team, where she was tasked with only less-challenging experiments. Slowly but surely, she climbed her way back up and was admitted as a member to the academy – the second woman from the physics department to do so. Granted, she ended up doing all this six to eight years later than her male colleagues. For this reason, she also advocates for parents with young children to be evaluated based on their last five active years of academic performance – not merely the last five years. "All age limits are biased against women," she stressed.

Dr. Vanda Lamm and Dr. Katalin Kamarás – Photo by János Bődey / Telex
Dr. Vanda Lamm and Dr. Katalin Kamarás – Photo by János Bődey / Telex

The question of a quota for women was of course also raised at the Academy during the debates, and it was overwhelmingly opposed by participants. "Membership to the MTA has very strict rules and criteria related to measurements of academic performance. We cannot say that from tomorrow we will simply elect forty percent more women," said Lamm. "However, according to the policy of the Academy's General Assembly, women should be given preference when deciding between members of equal academic merit." As a result of the work of the presidential committee, in 2019 there were already 10 women on the list of corresponding members, representing a share of 28% – a record since the founding of the MTA. And it could mean up to 8-10 women becoming full members by 2025.

Even the MTA's Academy of Young Researchers, an institution established in 2019 that works in line with the Academy's public tasks, also puts a special emphasis on supporting young female researchers – offering some very practical solutions. For instance, the organization's co-chair, plant biologist Dr. Katalin Solymosi, mentioned that their events offer childcare to researchers with young children in order to encourage them to participate in academic programs and public activities. They also keep a close eye on the criteria of calls for proposals in Hungary and suggest possible ways to compensate for the disadvantages of researchers with young children, for example by introducing an age exemption. The biologist, who has two children, says that the public mindset of Hungarian society (focused on traditional gender roles and family model) also plays a role in the disadvantages female researchers face, with much depending on family background and the micro-environment at work. "Perhaps a step forward in the latter category is that starting this year, the European Union has made it a condition for participation in EU calls for proposals that all applicant research organizations must have a gender equality plan. If real help can be provided to women on the basis of relevant institutional data, consultations and needs, a positive impact can be expected to be felt over a 5-10 year period. The institutions are therefore now working hard to implement measures to support women and those with young children," says Solymosi.

Finally, Anna Kende, quoted in a Telex article mentioned above, also criticized the fact that the MTA often does not even take sufficient care to ensure that men are not the only ones on the podium at its events. According to Pető, who is herself a member of the Presidential Committee on Women in Research, it is precisely through such symbolic means, among other things, that social practices could change.

“During the committee's previous cycle, we suggested that the MTA should not hold conferences consisting of only male speakers, and this recommendation was accepted. It is another matter that it is not being followed. Now it is up to the male colleagues: when they are invited and see that all the presenters are men, they should write to the organizers to say that they will not participate. If the organizers simply go on to replace those men with others, then there is no alternative but to do what I usually do: write to the organizers and tell them that I am unable to attend such a conference. It would be nice if colleagues who have already 'made it' in their career and have nothing to lose would follow this example. It is these small, everyday heroic gestures that will bring about change.”

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The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.