Noted Sociologist Presents Her Research on Women in Science at UM College of Arts & Sciences During SEEDS Event

Zippel Discusses how International Research Collaborations Offer Women Both Opportunities and Challenges

As a math major at the University of Hamburg in her native Germany, Kathrin Zippel often found herself as the only woman in a lecture hall full of men. She looked around, and wondered how her male colleagues would feel in her place.

These questions – and her desire to transform the higher education system to better facilitate gender equality – inspired her to become a sociologist.

Now an associate professor of sociology at Northeastern University and a local affiliate at Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Zippel spoke at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences last week.

“We’ve been trying to fix women to help them fit better into academia – but we need to fix institutions to be more welcoming for women,” Zippel told a crowd of faculty, students and guests.

Her visit was sponsored by the SEEDS initiative, directed by Dr. Kathryn Tosney, a professor of biology in the College of Arts & Sciences, which aims to enhance diversity and success for students and faculty in the sciences and beyond.

SEEDS was recently institutionalized by the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. It was launched through funding from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program, which is aimed at increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.

Zippel was the Co-PI and Research Director of the ADVANCE-funded program at Northeastern. Her research focuses on international research collaborations, and how these partnerships offer women both opportunities and challenges.

“The U.S. is increasingly getting both competitors and collaborators from abroad. Academic researchers are increasingly expected to and need to collaborate internationally,” she said, adding that scientists in America have the lowest rates of international collaboration worldwide, about 20%.

Her study identifies obstacles to international collaboration for women – which she calls “glass fences” – and how women can overcome these barriers.

“Globalization provides a new frontier for women,” Zippel said.

Her research shows that American scientists who work abroad benefit from the “.edu bonus,” the widely held perception that researchers from the United States have high status in the world.

“When women are primarily viewed as ‘American scientists’, the .edu bonus counteracts stereotypes that portray women as less competent as men, especially in math and science,” Zippel said. “When U.S. science is used as the gold standard, American scientists are seen as being the best. Being a U.S. scientist is more salient than being a woman scientist.”

She believes that this increases confidence, and empowers women to climb the “glass fences” that exist both abroad and within their home institutions.

These barriers include: the fact that women are more likely to work in institutions or positions that are resource poor; the reality of family responsibilities for many women; and stereotypes, for example, that it is dangerous for women to travel.

Social and cultural “glass fences” emerge when women are excluded from after-hours activities at conferences and meetings, such as visits to karaoke bars and other activities involving drinking.

“These factors limit women’s access to international networks and opportunities,” Zippel said, adding that scientists who collaborate internationally are generally the leaders in their fields.

However, Zippel’s research has shown that international collaborations are generally not acknowledged by campus leadership in the same way as partnerships with other U.S. scientists.

“International collaborations are extra work, and extra effort, but are not as recognized as national collaborations,” she said, adding, “The currency on campuses is grants and publications, but there is less currency for building international collaborations or raising the institution’s profile abroad.

She calls for a re-examination of how international collaborations are evaluated. Zippel also supports programs, like ADVANCE, that foster equality in global science.

Zippel earned her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and did post-doctoral work at the European Union Center of New York at Columbia University. Her research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, an institution funded by the German government that promotes international academic cooperation between excellent scientists and scholars from Germany, and from abroad, also co-sponsored Zippel’s talk at UM.

Each year, the Foundation grants more than 700 competitive research fellowships and awards, allowing foreign academics to come to Germany to work on a research project. For more information on the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, please visit http://www.humboldt-foundation.de/web/home.html.

December 17, 2014