Do What You Like

Prof. Rachel Amir’s message to women, “Go with your dreams, with what you think is right and according to your inner desires. Do not give up. Tell yourself that you are capable, even when you are told you are not.”

Prof. Rachel Amir’s inspiring story combines spirit and science and proves, that with iron willpower and motivation, almost any dream can come true. Prof. Amir is head of the Plant Metabolism Research group at MIGAL-Galilee Research Institute, in Israel, head of the master’s program in biotechnology and responsible for advanced degrees in science at Tel Hai College. She was born on Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in the southern part of Israel and came to the Galilee in the north in her late teens.

Prof. Amir’s plan of study included more than just a bachelor’s degree; however, she felt a slight discomfort, when telling family and friends of her plan. In those days, it was not acceptable for woman members of the kibbutz to learn more than one degree. Prof. Amir, for who the bachelor’s degree was not enough, was not willing to surrender to the dictates of the kibbutz or to give up on her desires and dreams. She left the kibbutz, even before beginning with her studies. “I am proud that I funded all of my studies without asking for help”, she told. “I worked hard before starting to study, and, as was common among many that grew up on kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz) then, I did not even have a high school diploma”. She did her bachelor’s degree in Plant Protection Science at Tel Hai College in a combined track with the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment of the Hebrew University. This was followed by a master’s degree in the Botanical Department in Tel Aviv University.

You can do it, even when they tell you “you can’t”.

When Prof. Amir says, “Don’t give in!” she knows very well what she is talking about. When she approached, Prof. Dan Levanon with the request to do a doctorate in MIGAL, he answered decisively, “It will not be!” In response, Prof. Amir said, “It will be, because I want it!” This argument was repeated a number of times, and in the end in 1988, Prof. Lebanon surrendered. From then until today, 42 years later, a special name is saved for Prof. Amir, as the first Ph.D. student in MIGAL-Galilee Research Institute. After her doctorate, Prof. Amir did her post-doctorate in Weizmann Institute in Israel. Her message to women: “Go with your dreams, with what you think is right and according to your inner desires. Do not give up. Tell yourself that you are capable, even when you are told you are not.”

Prof. Amir continues till this day to break conventions; she is often in a very male environment – in the Council for Higher Education, in an appointing committee at Tel Hai College, in MIGAL and in committees judging research proposals. “I have the energy to advance women in all these committees”, she explains.

A female mentor may have improved the balance between home and career.

Prof. Amir is married to Ofer, her partner since her last year in high school. The couple has three children, ages 28-35, and she admits that it was difficult to find the balance between work and home. “I spent more time working in MIGAL than at home.” In retrospect, if I had had a woman mentor, possibly the balance between home and career would have been different. Today, I am myself a mentor, and I recommend each female researcher to get advice from a female mentor that works in the field”.

Today, Prof. Amir is a leading world authority in the field of methionine, an essential building block of proteins, which animals and humans cannot produce in their bodies, and which has a low level in plants. When methionine is lacking in food, the motor and cognitive development of living creatures is arrested. Another research subject of hers is the regulation of active materials in pomegranates, which contain many constituents that slow down inflammation, atherosclerosis and signs of aging. A third project deals with the metabolic profile of parasitic plants (held by Prof. Amir in picture), which damage crops and cause a reduction in yield.

Don’t get upset from failures.

Yet, she does not get upset from failures, definitely not professional failures. “Failure is an inseparable part of success. I used to be sensitive to failures, but with time I understood that together with successes there are also failures, and today I know how to deal with them. In addition, I understand that I don’t understand, and in that manner, I reduce my level of frustration. Each time that I understand something, other unanswered questions arise. So, I feel comfortable in accepting this understanding, doing research and moving forward.” (Translated and partially summarized from an article in Hebrew, “Al Hazafon”, 16.6.2021.)

Gender Equality Success at a Cypriot Youth NGO

In the context of the second R&I Peers Multisectoral Conference, participants had the opportunity to receive first-hand feedback from external project stakeholders about their experience of implementing Gender Equality Plans. One panelist, Niki Karoulla, President of Active Zone Outdoor and Physical Education Teacher in Primary Education, shared her experience of a GEP implementation at Active Zone Outdoor, a non-profit organisation she runs in Cyprus.

As a first action in their GEP implementation, Karoulla says Active Zone Outdoor–which enjoys a membership of fifteen organisations and reaches 250 young people with sporting activities in Cyprus–focused on creating gender balance in two key areas: Within the AZO board of directors, and among participants in AZO external events that focus on outdoor sports activities for youth, ages 18 to 30.

In both cases, AZO reported successes. As of 2019, their 15-member board of directors enjoys involvement by seven women, with Karoulla herself as President. Karoulla also reports that “Click and Go, ” a project promoting non-traditional sports to women, succeeded at reaching equal gender engagement across trainers, leaders, and participants. Key to this success Karoulla says, was “promoting ‘atypical’ sports to women, like mountain climbing, and also by including women leaders in mountain climbing among their training team. This latter especially “challenged important gender stereotypes in this sport,” Karoulla said.

An additional success story Karoulla shared was a program called the Youth Policy Project, which aimed to “cultivate a culture of awareness for equal gender representation in Cyprus. In dialogue among policy-makers, youth, media, coaches, trainers and athletes, Karoulla says their event succeeded in having fifty-fifty participation across the board, a genuine accomplishment.

Karoulla says that key to these successes may be that Active Zone Outdoor is an organisation “made up of young people with an open mindset” which facilitates actions to support gender equality. “Maybe also because I am female,” she adds. Looking forward, Karoulla says she hopes the experience of implementing a gender equality plan at AZO can show that other NGOs can benefit from such strategies. Critical to this she says, is that “people in charge of the organisation have to treat gender issues as impacting both male and female. It is not just an issue for women,” Karoulla says. “It is an issue for all of us.”

The Challenges of Research During Covid-19 for Women

The past year has been special in many ways. The pandemic has exposed everything that was already weak and on shaky foundations, but which, in the heightened circumstances, has collapsed and crumbled: from health systems to democratic arrangements, which are under threat in many places… The pandemic, with its necessary reinforcements to contain its spread, such as quarantine and the shutdown of public life and the compulsion to work from home, has unfortunately dealt a particularly heavy blow to women. The burden of caring for the family, educating the children and carrying out daily household chores has fallen on them. This made the pursuit of research a major challenge. Here is a testimony form Slovenian female researchers.

Dr. Helena Seražin

Researcher at the France Stelet Institute of Art History, where she has been working for the last few years on the MoMoWo (Women’s Creativity since the Modern Movement) megaproject, which has included numerous exhibitions and events, and she was also co-editor of this year’s excellent monograph Into the Fore, which brings together 40 pioneering women in the field of architecture, design and construction in Slovenia.

Dr. Helena Seražin

“Although the virus closed us in between the four walls of our home in the spring, it did not stop me from carrying out my research and editorial work. Like most of my colleagues at the institute, I was not hindered by teaching or child protection at home and other related factors, but as a consequence, I shouldered some additional, unforeseen work in solidarity. It also took a great deal of the proverbially feminine ‘bravery’ to be able, with the help of my colleagues, to realise my commitments in these uncertain circumstances, particularly on one of the projects that ended this autumn; the most challenging of these was the organisation and execution of the international scientific conference at the end of August, which took place partly virtually and partly in situ in Nova Gorica. There was virtually no time for actual rest this summer, because in the break between the two quarantines, in addition to organising the aforementioned conference, I was in a hurry to gather material in archives and libraries for the possible autumn closure of institutions and homework, which did in fact happen. Of course, what we have collected will not be sufficient for writing scientific papers, so we have already established a kind of informal network with some of our colleagues, through which we exchange information or scans from books in our home libraries. I am now rushing off with my last commitments, including the preparation of a paper for an international zoom conference, which, at least in my experience so far, will not be able to replace the usual face-to-face meeting where scientists, especially in informal meetings, can exchange ideas very fruitfully and pave the way for further collaborations in the form of international projects.

Continue reading “The Challenges of Research During Covid-19 for Women”

Implementing Gender Equality Plans at the Tunisian Agency for Scientific Research Promotion

The National Agency for the Promotion of Scientific Research (ANPR) of Tunisia is a public agency under supervision of The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Its primary mission is providing services to professionalize the management of research activities in partnership with effective and equitable socio-economic operators. It plays a crucial role in interfacing with and supporting research organization in the valorization process of research results and technology transfer. As a Research Funding Organization (RFO), ANPR works in a national context, which recognizes the important historic place occupied by women in society in general, and in the field of science in particular.

IEEE: Female Researchers in the Maghreb

Tunisia has always been considered as one of the most advanced Arab countries in terms of women’s rights, thanks to a family code promulgated in 1956, followed by the amendment of the labor codes, the penal code and nationality. These legal regulations have strengthened the rights of women in Tunisia.

March 1, 2018 marked the formal adoption of the Gender Equality Plan (GEP) by ANPR, which represents a fundamental action of R&I PEERS project and a key tool for encouraging the improvement of gender balance in ANPR, in its capacity as a Tunisian piloting partner in the project.

The ANPR GEP covers the following six target areas:

  1. Mentoring
  2. Raising awareness of gender bias in decision-making bodies
  3. Raising awareness of importance of gender perspective in research content and curricula and promoting female academics ’research
  4. Improving gender-sensitive language in ANPR’s documents
  5. Work-life balance
  6. Raising awareness of gender equality

In the framework of the GEP implementation, ANPR has carried out awareness-raising actions by organizing workshops and training for the benefit of key actors, including mentors, decision-makers, et al. ANPR promotes awareness of the role of women in the R&I ecosystem and showcases achievements of female Tunisian researchers through participation in several national and international events. This latter includes hosting a desk for the RI-PEERS project as part of an exhibition on Horizon 2020 projects at the 9-10 September 2019 high-level conference on “Tunisian-European Science and Innovation Days” [TESI], jointly organized by the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MESRS), European Commission Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission (DG RTD), and the Delegation of the European Union (DUE) in Tunisia.

Who Are Women

ANPR also participated in the January 2020 international Information Day on Horizon 2020 Calls within the H2020 “Science With and For Society” (SWAFS) Work Programme, by providing testimony on the RI-PEERS project and underlining the importance of the gender dimension in research organizations. Leveraging modern communication tools, ANPR also moderates a dedicated Facebook Group promoting “Success Stories of Tunisian Females in Research and Innovation”.

A community for equal opportunity has also been established that provides a space for discussion and reflection around gender issues in the R&I ecosystem. Thanks to the period of general confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic, ANPR was able to experiment with remote work as an alternative favoring work-life balance, as provided for in the GEP, despite the legal limits of its adoption for public officials. The evaluation of this mode of work is in progress .

ANPR at Horizon 2020 SWaFS Information Day – January 2020

Other activities that are planned for implementation by the end of the R&I PEERS project include the following:

  • Regular training sessions for early career researchers;
  • Awarding of the Women in Science Excellence Prize; and
  • Establishing channels to report anonymously disrespectful behavior, abuse and sexual harassment.

The GEP is an innovation in the practices of Tunisian public administration in general, and in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research institutions in particular. Its implementation raises many challenges that can inspire other structures within the same ministry and far beyond!

MIGAL Program Promotes Women Researchers

Implementation of the R&I PEERS project at MIGAL, Galilee Research Institute Ltd., is designed to develop activities with a group of women researchers from various fields of knowledge and expertise. The idea was to lead research at the MIGAL Institute for scientific excellence and to encourage a research breakthrough.

In the context of the project, a training program was deployed that included a variety of workshops, lectures and meetings aimed at enriching the women’s toolkit, improve skills and create rich scientific and work-life balance. In addition, regional and national industries were engaged in order to contribute to future know-how development at Galilee by increasing involvement of women in the fields of agriculture, environment, biotechnology and food science. This training reached over twenty women researchers.

Text Box: Fig 1: Senior and junior researchers by gender at MIGAL
Fig 2: Senior and junior researchers by gender at MIGAL

The challenge addressed by the project is the existing inequality in senior research positions. A survey conducted at the beginning of the project indicated that, despite gender equity at pre-admission stage, the balance between women and men diverges considerably in among primary researchers.

The women’s training program in research that been carried out all year has been a huge success and we have a new plan for next year.

Mutual Learning Workshop in Ljubljana

On October 14, 2019, the second Mutual Learning workshop under the topic of “Towards the identification of measures and actions for successful Gender Equality Plans implementation within Research Performing Organisations (RPO)” took place in Ljubljana in collaboration between the Znanstvenoraziskovalni Center Slovenske Akademije Znanosti In Umetnosti (ZRC SAZU) and the Cyprus Neuroscience & Technology Institute (CNTI).

The workshop was executed following the principles of the methodology of the Structured Democratic Dialogue (SDD) and was attended by fifteen (15) participants holding either research or administrative positions in their institutions. The goal of the workshop was to identify measures/actions (administrative, organizational culture-related, financial, legal…) which could be taken to make Gender Equality Plan implementation beneficial for all employees in research organizations.

The main conclusions of the workshop were the following:

  • Organisational and political support on implementation of gender equality: Women’s gender representation principle should be applied when appointing work bodies and preparing legal acts and other strategic documents in order to assert the role of women and gender. These action plans should have an obligatory nature, be supported by policy and thus follow a top to bottom approach;
  • Awareness raising: Raising awareness of unpaid care work within academia and institutions is an important factor to ensure that all employees benefit from the implementation of GEPs;
  • Management support: The role of superiors in the implementation of GEPs is vital in a way that if they are careful and responsible about gender equality in their institutions, then it is expected that the whole institution will support the new ideas. It is easier to implement gender equality in the whole organization if there is support at a higher level;
  • Inter-institutional cooperation: All stakeholders involved in gender equality plans should be brought together and the knowledge already generated from their past experience to be collected and published at one place in order to benefit academia and other stakeholders interested in designing their GEPs.

Ana Rotter Shares Best Practices for Implementing Gender Equality Plans

Ana Rotter, a researcher at the National Institute of Biology at the Piran Marine Biological Station, shared with us her experiences in the work of promoting gender equality and implementing gender equality action plans. “It is somewhat unusual for the microbiologist and statistician,” she said, “to have an intense commitment to gender equality, traditionally dominated by humanists and humanists.” But that is why her experience is all the more valuable. We hosted Ana Rotter as an invited lecturer as part of an international meeting of R&I PEERS partners – Pilot Experience to Improve Gender Equality in Research Organizations .

Ana Rotter started addressing gender issues in 2011 when she received the L’Oreal and UNESCO National Program for Women in Science. It was then that she first became exposed to the media and began to notice differences between the treatment of women scientists, not only by gender, but also by geographical origin or whether they came from the so-called Eastern or Western Europe. On several occasions, she publicly spoke with her opinion and in response received that this kind of activity does not come from a scientist and is not compatible with scientific excellence. This has not stopped her, she has been involved in several different projects dealing with finding solutions to social inequalities. Rotter pointed out that the European Commission is currently supporting a number of related projects seeking a solution to gender inequality, such as Plotina, Change, Libra, Integer and Gender Time. She emphasized the need for mutual cooperation and knowledge sharing between projects, and shared her experience with the fundamental difficulties in implementing action plans and trying to solve them.

“The first problem may lie in the very design of the goals of the plan,” said Ana Rotter. If, on the one hand, we can have associates who want to finish the project as soon as possible in order to get back to the “right” scientific work, on the other, they are those who have too high and unrealistic goals. The solution is found in “soft”, smaller, even more easily practicable measures, which are therefore long-term measures and remain valid after the end of the project. It is also important to establish direct accountability for the implementation of the measures, and it is not irrelevant who cares about what. If tasks are assigned to the youngest in the group, the chances of derivation are less. Institutional change requires the search for people who have a high level of authority in the institution, but one should not forget the so-called “middle management”, which is often overlooked,

However, even if the design of the project is good, it can stop at implementation. First of all, due to lack of knowledge, which is present mainly in STEM, which traditionally does not address topics such as social equality. Knowledge is gained through continuous participation in workshops, networking and exchange, as well as through the diverse composition of research teams where one person can influence others. One-off measures that are not implemented after the formal expiry of the project should also be avoided. According to Ana Rotter, the action plan needs to be constantly adjusted and new measures added.

The third challenge lies in the so-called human factor, that is, the possible resistance of employees and management, to whom gender equality projects may seem insignificant, unrelated to their work, or conditioned by current “popularity”. Believing that they have not experienced something themselves, many women and men believe that there is no inequality in the scientific sphere. Such responses are important, Rotter points out, and especially communication with those who are most skeptical. According to Ana Rotter, the solution is not to pressure colleagues or big gripes, such as gender quotas, as they automatically provoke resistance. In her view, the conversation and emphasis is much more on the point that action plans are not about the formal introduction of new rules but only about guidelines and proposals, which will have a positive impact on the work atmosphere and relationships between the employees of the institution. Even small approaches such as flexible working hours or promoting achievements on a website can help you feel better. Again, it is important to include colleagues at all levels, both women and men, researchers and administration workers, techniques and PhDs that are often overlooked. The best motivation to talk, however, was the all-human common thing: food and drink. Rotter organized an informal meeting with beer and burgers at her institution, to which most technical, male staff came. The conversation began with an invitation to the participants to present their work and why they were indispensable at their institution; only after such an introduction, in which she emphasized the importance of each member for the institution,

The final challenge is the monitoring and evaluation of action plans – in the absence of these, there are no sustainable approaches. Given the time constraints of the projects, measuring the grip should start in the middle of the project and establish an opportunity for future continuation. Data is crucial as it can prove that the institution has inequality problems. For example, if within a project we can arrange for the annual report to collect data suggesting a link between pay, employment practices, promotion and gender, then data collection may continue beyond the end of the project, says Ana Rotter. International projects also need to pay attention to cross-cultural differences. For example, there are not many housewives in Eastern Europe, mainly because of the legacy of employment policies of the socialist regimes, paid maternity leave, and an extensive childcare network. That’s why with us, Unlike Portugal, Austria or Cyprus, there is no need to promote women’s employment and there are different approaches. In doing so, Ana Rotter reiterates the importance of soft approaches, as they affect not only those currently occupying leadership positions, but future leaders who, as she hopes, will have a different consciousness.

From Spolinznanost