“Women Are Just As Gifted in Science as Men”

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In a SPIEGEL interview, Nobel Prize for medicine recipients Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and May-Britt Moser discuss the challenges women face in the male-dominated world of science and how they broke through the glass ceiling.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon mid-summer in Trondheim, Norway. May-Britt Moser, 52, and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, 72, have spent a day together at the Center for Neural Computation, Moser’s Institute. The two women didn’t know each other beforehand, but they both belong to an extremely elite club. They are two of the only 11 women who have been recipients of the Nobel Prize for medicine. A total of 196 men have been bestowed with the honor for their work.

Nüsslein-Volhard was awarded the prize in 1995 for her research on the genetic control of embryonic development. In 2014, Moser won the prize together with her husband Edvard and British neuroscientist John O’Keefe for their joint discovery of grid cells that make up the positioning system in the brain.

With the exception of the Nobel prizes, there’s a lot that divides the two women: a generation, the cultures of their countries of origin and their purpose in life. May-Britt Moser, who’s Norwegian, has two grown daughters and Nüsslein-Volhard, a German, is divorced and childless.

How do the two leading researchers view their careers, their successes and their private lives? After a visit to the laboratory (where the test rats can be petted and even have names), the two women, in the best of moods, sit down for an interview with SPIEGEL about their work as women in the sciences.

SPIEGEL: Professor Moser, daring the risk that this might seem strange, we would like to start with a rather unscientific question …

Moser: … I’m curious. What is it about?

SPIEGEL: Fashion, more or less.

Moser: Oh.

SPIEGEL: When you got the Nobel Prize last fall, you became famous overnight not only for receiving the prize — but also for wearing an extraordinary night-blue dress that showed a glittering neuron pattern. Were you nervous about jeopardizing your scientific credibility with that Academy Award-like appearance?

Moser: Absolutely not. My only challenge was that I love to wear dresses, but I’m not used to wearing long dresses. But I loved this dress because I love to show off for science. People couldn’t ignore it, it was shiny and wonderful and everybody started asking questions. That gave me the oportunity to talk about my science and what we do here in this institute.

Nüsslein-Volhard: Are you talking about the dress you wore to the Nobel Prize ceremony? I haven’t seen it.

Moser: Yes. And you know what happened? I wanted to wear one that I had used for other prizes. Then I got this email from London, a former tunnel engineer who had decided to be a designer wrote me that he’d made a dress for me. He sent it — and I liked it (She shows a picture of the dress on her smartphone).

Nüsslein-Volhard: Beautiful! Lovely! I wish someone had sent me a dress back when I attended my ceremony. Of course, I also wanted to look my best. But I think I’m also slightly different from May-Britt with regard to fashion. From early on when I was a child, even though I wanted to be seen, I was always trying to look modest and natural. I don’t like women who come into the lab and you see immediately that it took them two hours to dress in the morning. Time is so short and we have so little of it … (The group look over to May-Britt Moser, who is wearing make-up, high-heel shoes and a colorful dress. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard smiles.) May-Britt, I notice that you are wearing the same shoes and the same dress as yesterday, which is a good sign because it shows you don’t spend your mornings with this.

Moser: (also offering a smile): You are right! I dress time-efficiently.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it’s bad for a person’s reputation when a person is concerned about one’s looks?

Nüsslein-Volhard: Yes, in a way. It was very important for me to be taken seriously for my science and not for my looks or other personal accomplishments.

SPIEGEL: What advantages do women have in science?

Nüsslein-Volhard: I think women who are pretty certainly have an advantage. In any field, in any profession. When a girl is born people still say: Oh, I’m glad that she is pretty. They don’t look at whether she is intelligent. For women, beauty still is so much more important than for men. If you are good-looking and people like you, it can’t harm, of course.

Moser: You are saying something important here: We have to collaborate with people, and if we can’t get along on good terms with each other, then that’s bad.

Nüsslein-Volhard: I remember one lab where my boss was not only ugly but also horrible to interact with. It was his secretary who held the whole place together. But I also know labs where women refuse to make a coffee for others because they don’t want to be seen doing seemingly female things. I think this is stupid. Why not make a coffee, bring a cake? I do it.

Moser: As a good leader, you need to see how people are. You need to care.

SPIEGEL: In science, too, many women hit the glass ceiling on their way to the top. In Germany, 50 percent of doctoral theses are written by women, but only 27 percent ultimately get post-doc postitions. Is that not an incredible loss of talent?

Nüsslein-Volhard: Probably not. Actually, I think there are too many scientists in this world — the number of graduate students has doubled in the last 10 years. What should all these university graduates do?

Moser: Not all can be professors.

Nüsslein-Volhard: And not everybody is talented for doing research. I think many women prefer to look for an easier job after their dissertations because what we are doing is very demanding. You have to be mobile. You have to move to different places for your post-doc training. And if you aren’t successful, it isn’t a very pleasant job, either.

Moser: You are right, it is tough. But just as you compared our field to that in the creative industry — being a ballet dancer is tough, too. Your career is short and if you don’t go for it 200 percent, you can forget about it. But you dance because you love it and you do science because you love it.

Nüsslein-Volhard: And forget about doing it part-time, too.

SPIEGEL: Larry Summers once said that it was innate in women that they were less talented in the natural sciences. Do you think there is any truth in that?

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2 replies

  1. Women are as gifted in terms of their brain power as men. Gender differences exist but they do not mean that women cannot excel in science.
    The reason women have less nobel prizes is that there are a smaller number of women scientists in the world. The reason has nothing to do with capability. It has everything to do with less opportunity for women. Now when more and more women are getting higher education, we are already seeing higher number of women in higher positions. Men should get ready. They are about to be taken down as soon as the playing field becomes level.

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