Uh, I have been really quiet for a while. Mostly because I was on conference/job hunt travel and before that it was the usual craziness to get your students on track and everything else more or less done before leaving.
Now I'm back, jetlag is pretty much conquered and I've already spend a decent amount of time in front of my office computer. The weeks away were full of different impressions, not only because I went to a really big conference so pretty much everybody was there and the whole socializing and catching up gives a colourful picture already. But the impression that stands out the most and makes me thinking a lot comes from the job-hunt part of the travel.
As the end of my fellowship slowly dawns I thought about my options afterwards, esp. the ones including getting closer to home again. One possibility to transfer back to my home country and continuing on the academic track would be if I'd applied for an early career research fellowship. The specific one is a pretty big thing and includes enough money to pay yourself, a Post-Doc and 1-2 PhD students for 4-5 years, plus money for equipment, travel and what else is needed for successful research. It's a personal award, but one needs a host professor, who'd be willing to have this person + project planted in his department. The likelihood that such a project gets funded increases if the reviewers have the impression that the hosts labs and experience fit very well to the proposed project. That's why I visited a few groups, who work in related fields, to talk to the professors, see their labs, get an impression what it would be like to work there, see if the personal chemistry fits and if they would be willing to host me. Overall, these trips were very positive and interesting for me and I see several options where to settle down with my next project (in case it gets funded).
But there is one thing I heard at each of these visits, that makes me thinking and that is the sentence: "You have a bonus when it comes to applying for this fellowship, because you are a woman." I'm sure everybody meant this in a very encouraging way: "You should apply, because you even have a bonus which increases your personal success probability." And in the beginning I thought that this is really great for me. But by now I'm wondering if it is actually true! And if it is not true, what does this sentence really mean? Everywhere you go you hear that women in STEM fields nowadays have higher chances, because universities get asked at every project renewal why there are not more women in leading positions. And men in my age feel threatened by that. So people seem to believe, that women have higher chances to succeed. Even though in the Schools in my home country I have worked in so far there is no sign of increasing numbers of women in the permanent staff ranks - just the temporary positions are given to women quite often.
In Australia there is a huge awareness for this topic as well, but looking at the success rates for grant applications, the women chart usually shows lower numbers. And while still a third of our students up to postgrad level are female (which is a lot for a science/engineering field) the number drops to 12% for the academic staff in our School (including both fixed term and permanents). The leaky pipeline...? No sign of "higher chances" just yet.
At the moment I think the sentence "women have higher chances" is just interpreted wrong by the people who don't make the decisions. It does not mean "women have higher chances compared to men", because it does not make sense to hire a woman just because of her gender, if there is a more qualified man available. It just means "women have higher chances compared to women 20 years ago", which maybe means that my application will not directly go in the bin but gets a decent amount of attention. And if I stick out enough it maybe even goes one the pile for the next round. But I don't think that any woman would be hired or get funded instead of a man if she is not obviously better than him - even though as a woman you get told otherwise and even though men freak out because they don't know how to compensate for the lack of "female bonus". This is all very disturbing and misleading - I hope we can settle for something a bit more honest and relaxed in the next 10 years. And if I'm wrong, I'd like to see the statistics!