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Diversity and inclusion

Max Planck Society responds to gender discrimination allegations

03 Dec 2021
Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Hitting back: Germany's Max Planck Society has defended itself against sexism claims that were raised following the recent demotion of archaeologist Nicole Boivin in October as a director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena (Courtesy: luchschenF/Shutterstock)

The Max Planck Society (MPG) – a network of leading German research centres – has defended itself against allegations that it discriminates against female researchers. The claims were contained in an open letter signed by 145 female scientists worldwide, who expressed concern over “the highly publicized dismissals, demotions, and conflicts” that have recently involved female directors at MPG institutes.

The letter, which was co-led by Ursula Keller, a physicist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, was triggered by the demotion of archaeologist Nicole Boivin in October as a director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. Boivin was alleged to have bullied junior scientists and appropriated scientific ideas from colleagues, charges that prompted an internal investigation in late 2018.

Boivin, who is currently leading a smaller research group at the institute, denies all charges and filed a lawsuit challenging the demotion. Her current MPG website page states that she “seeks to build an equitable, diverse, and open research environment in the Department of Archaeology, and to support progressive, transparent, and non-discriminatory policies in the Max Planck Society”.

The open letter, which was sent to all members of the MPG’s senate on 18 November, states that the signatories are concerned that highly publicized failures of women at top-level positions in science could have a “chilling effect on young women considering careers in science and engineering”. It claims that female leaders at MPG institutes “are judged more harshly”, and that allegations of leadership shortcomings are “far more often made against female leaders than male ones”.

The MPG must investigate indications of misconduct by its directors in all directions and respond appropriately when violations are found

Christina Beck, MPG spokesperson

The letter adds that that the MPG “has a duty” to ensure that women and foreign researchers who are recruited as MPI directors do not face discriminatory conditions and that the society should “proactively identify and address any issues that might contribute to future failures, including bullying, harassment and mobbing of female leaders themselves”.

Keller says that the goal of the letter is to change the culture at MPG institutes through better governance. “The current culture with informal, mostly male-dominated networks with gender bias, limited accountability and transparency in decisions and resource distribution, negatively affects women in leadership positions, and discourages the next generation to step up into leadership positions,” she adds.

Taking measures

MPG spokesperson Christina Beck, however, disagrees with the contents of the letter. “In the past 10 years, two directors – one man and one woman – have been relieved of their management duties due to misconduct,” Beck told Physics World. “Another female director gave up their management function on her own accord, while another male director did likewise temporarily for several years.”

Beck adds that the MPG is “naturally concerned” to protect directors from unjustified accusations. “In the same way, it must also be a concern of the MPG to protect junior scientists from abuse of power by the leadership,” she adds. “The MPG must investigate indications of misconduct by its directors in all directions and respond appropriately when violations are found. This is not a gender issue. We have a duty of care to all employees, and we naturally fulfill this duty.”

Beck says that MPG has already taken steps to make improvements after a comprehensive employee survey on work culture and work atmosphere published in 2019. Those moves include changing internal reporting channels. “In response to the employee survey, numerous measures were already taken and we are working intensively to implement them comprehensively,” she says.

We definitely see a gender bias in the number of conflicts doctoral researchers experience and report.

Max Planck PhDnet statement

Yet according to a statement issued yesterday by the Max Planck PhDnet – a network representing the 5000 doctoral researchers at MPG – Boivin’s case “makes her the fourth publicized female MPG director facing power abuse accusations in the last years”. The PhDnet statement, co-authored by PhDnet spokesperson and physicist Lea Heckmann, and based on a survey taken in 2020, says that “conflicts with female directors are either more likely to be reported or more likely to be perceived as severe enough to be reported.” It adds that more established directors are less likely to be reported and they are more likely to be male.

“We definitely see a gender bias in the number of conflicts doctoral researchers experience and report,” the statement says. They note that official reporting channels and consequences for those who violate process “are essential” to drive cultural change within academia and protect early career researchers against power abuse. “In doing so we make sure that all leaders regardless of their gender and level of experience justly face the consequences of their behaviour,” the statement adds.

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