2024 International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Celebrate with us the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th with an insightful interview featuring Prof. Dr. Susanne Schnell from the University of Greifswald, Germany. Explore the challenges she navigated as a woman in a male-dominated field and discover pivotal decisions that shaped her career. Gain insights into her experience with salary disparities and her advice on how to address this issue. Join us in recognizing the inspiring contribution of Prof. Schnell and many other female scientists on this global day dedicated to the celebration and empowerment of women and girls in science.
What is your professional background?
I studied electrical engineering majoring in biomedical engineering. I then did my Ph.D. in Computer Science, specifically on machine learning methods, which is very timely still nowadays.
What is your current position & role?
I am a full professor at the University of Greifswald, which is in northern Germany and I am chairing the Department of Medical Physics here. I arrived here in April 2020, so that was right at the beginning of COVID. Since then I successfully developed a new Master’s program in Medical Physics at my university. I am also currently the Vice president of the German Chapter of the ISMRM. My research focuses on the development of MR sequences and image processing methods for 4D flow MRI, specifically for intracranial applications.
Can you highlight a specific decision that significantly contributed to your current position?
The first decision was very early on in 2004 when I decided as a young engineer in research and development, which was my first industry job after the Master’s degree, to change career path and start a Ph.D. This decision was due to many problems that I encountered in finding a job that I liked as a woman or to be taken seriously as a young female engineer. For example, interesting positions posted by companies were given to my male colleagues while I continued applying and stayed longer without a job. I wanted to work in research and development, which in the early 2000s was male-dominated. A study colleague of mine told me very bluntly, that in his company, they only hire men. So, the job that I got, was not very interesting to me. In addition, I always felt tested, meaning in meetings, and I always came with a physics or engineering textbox to be able to prove that what I did was correct. My colleagues always asked me if what I did was physically sound. I did not see them doing this with my male colleagues. So I decided to go the path of a PhD in a university environment.
The second decision was really a series of decisions: to repeatedly go to foreign labs in Boston, Brisbane, and Chicago throughout my education and to choose labs that have a very good standing in the field. Especially, the decision to go to Northwestern University in Chicago as a post-doctoral researcher accelerated my career, which would not have been possible if I had stayed in Germany.
How much time did it take for you to reach your current position?
I did 4 years of post-doctoral research before I was promoted to junior faculty. It took 5 years to get promoted to associate professor. However, being a foreigner in the United States did not make this easier, because promotion is often tied to getting an NIH KL99, which is not a mechanism open to foreign scientists. My decision to then apply in Germany for a full professor position as well as successful NIH R01 and R21 funding made the promotion possible. However, just a year later I got the job as a full professor in Germany, which was amazing and a big reward for all the work.
Is this a standard length?
Other applicants with my record became promoted to Assistant professor after 2 years or less. From what I could observe in my environment mostly men were promoted.
Have you encountered any instances of salary disparities related to gender differences?
Yes, I experienced this throughout my career several times. I also talked to female colleagues at different locations, who also experienced lower salaries than male colleagues.
Do you have any advice for young and aspiring female scientists on how to enhance salary equality?
I think it is very impportant to go into the negotiations well informed. So, if you have the chance to find out what your colleagues in the same position earn, what salaries they have that would be very helpful for you to negotiate well. And of course, I hope that in the future there will be much more transparency about salaries at the different universities and positions.
When discussing the younger generation, do you believe they recognize gender differences among themselves?
I think that they do not. I think that a lot has changed in society and that the incoming generation of students does not care which gender or color of skin they have. Quite the opposite, I think they embrace diversity.
Do your students have a different perception of you as a female professor?
I do not think that I am perceived differently than my male colleagues. The students seem to go into the lectures without prejudices, which is really great and this makes teaching a lot of fun. I am one out of two female professors in a group of 12 and my only other female colleague will retire in two years, so after that, I will be alone. So, maybe the students even enjoy the different views and approaches the two of us teach and even find it refreshing. However, I hope that more women will enter the academic world, even though an academic career as a woman in academia. But I think it is hard to do this, if you want to have a family. I personally do not have family and this is partly due to all the moving to different countries, the 12 to 14-hour workdays, and all the volunteering work required in such a career like peer-reviewing, membership on scientific society boards or committees, organizing meetings and workshops, which you do in your free time. So, if you want to have a family and want to proceed with a career in academia as a woman then you need a partner who fully supports you, who follows you to these different countries and who takes care of the kids. So, either the work-life balance issue changes in academia or the partners are willing to take the role that in the past the women had.
Do you observe gender disparities across various scientific disciplines?
Yes, there are more women in other disciplines. There are even more female than male faculty in the humanities. In the natural sciences, I think that fields like psychology, and biology have more women. I have the feeling that also math and computer sciences have a few (not much) more female faculty. However, this shows that working in academia is not only an issue of work-life balance but also of which subjects are chosen by women. And it seems that many STEM subjects are still not interesting for women looking at the numbers of enrolling female students in these subjects. I think that this is an issue of upbringing and that the next generation will do a better job of not imprinting gender roles while raising their kids.