The Wrangell Fellowship: Interview with Dr. Dagmar Höppel
How we create fair opportunities for excellent women scientists
Only 5.5 percent. That was the proportion of female professors at universities in Baden-Württemberg in 1997, and 7.8 percent in higher education overall. Despite the number of female students rising to about 50 percent, the representation of women decreased with each qualification level, and there was a huge gap among female professors. This phenomenon is described in English studies as the “leaky pipeline” or “glass ceiling.”
Was Margarete von Wrangell just an exception?
Why have so few female scientists succeeded in reaching the highest academic position since her professorship? This question was asked, among others, by the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. “We know that scientific achievements of women and men are evaluated differently. There is a ‘gender bias’ in favor of men in science,” explains Dr. Dagmar Höppel, Head of the Federal Conference of Equal Opportunities Officers (LaKoG) at the University of Stuttgart. “A man has much higher chances of becoming a professor.” The Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) also concluded at that time: “Not lack of intelligence or will, but structural barriers are the decisive factors for the exclusion and loss of female scientists.”
Therefore, the state government decided to take action and, in the name of Germany’s first female full professor, Margarete von Wrangell, launched the Margarete von Wrangell Habilitation Program in 1997 using state funds. The idea was to prepare qualified female scientists for a professorship through a 5-year program and open the door to this career level for them.
„Not lack of intelligence or will, but structural barriers are the decisive factors for the exclusion and loss of female scientists.“
Dr. Dagmar Höppel
A disproved prejudice and an unexpected success
Dr. Dagmar Höppel is bothered by a widespread prejudice: “Scientific excellence prevails. We don’t need women’s advancement programs.” She has often heard this, not only from men but also from female scientists themselves. Her response has always been the same: “The appointment of previous professors was practically equivalent to a male quota. Scientific proposals from women were evaluated worse, they faced more criticism in appointment procedures, and they had fewer chances to publish. Many studies show this.”
As soon as the first round of applications for the Wrangell Program opened, something unexpected happened. A total of 104 applications were received. “The research departments were overwhelmed by this large number of excellent proposals. No one had expected that,” says Dr. Dagmar Höppel. The response also refuted another prejudice, namely that women do not want leadership positions. Because of the high demand, the second application round followed in the same year. In the first two rounds, 39 out of 209 applicants were accepted into the Wrangell Program. For those who did not make it to the final round, the application still had another positive side effect. “We experienced that female scientists were actively supported by professors because they became visible,” says Dr. Dagmar Höppel.
They were encouraged to apply for other programs or German Research Foundation (DFG) scholarships and internal positions. “We felt like gold diggers bringing hidden treasures to light.” A changed focus can make a big difference.
„Often, we felt like gold diggers, bringing hidden treasures to light.“
Dr. Dagmar Höppel
From sponsorship to fellowship
Although the Margarete von Wrangell Habilitation Program was initially referred to as a scholarship here and there, it was always a position program. “If you only have a scholarship, you will be unemployed after the project ends,” explains Dr. Dagmar Höppel. This is different with a fellowship. While scholarships only offer performance-oriented funding, fellowships secure a position at a university. In the case of the Wrangell Fellowship, it was for five years. Highly talented female scientists had security for an extended period and could use the Wrangell Program as a temporary civil service appointment in some cases. At the same time, they were financially and socially protected during this time.
A significant incentive. The first three years were financed by the Ministry of Science, and the remaining two by the university of the respective Wrangell Fellow. To qualify as a Fellow, the participants had to submit two assessments, a qualification concept, and the university’s agreement for financing. Two additional external assessments and a subsequent ranking by a core assessor commission were also required.
Although the Wrangell Fellowship ran successfully for many years, there were gaps in its announcement from time to time. Until December 31, 2006, when the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science (MWK) succeeded in securing additional funding for the Wrangell Fellowship through funds from the European Social Fund in addition to the partial financing by the universities. Since then, the fellowship has been advertised annually until 2020, with ten fellows per year being awarded.
Network meeting of Margarete von Wrangell Fellows with Dr. Dagmar Höppel (l.)
What we did to overcome the “Gender Bias”
Were the sponsorships deserved? Or did they benefit female scientists who did not count among the top representatives of their research field? Dr. Dagmar Höppel firmly rejects this notion. “The competition in science was not fair. For years, it was judged according to criteria set by men, which still exist in part today. Rather feminine qualities were not adequately valued.” Studies show that even in school, boys who answered in class were preferred. And this “gender bias” continues.
As head of the Office of Gender Equality, Dr. Dagmar Höppel has experienced much. Also regarding the compatibility of career and family. “For many professors, it was difficult to comprehend that a female scientist could still deliver excellent research despite having children and a reduced time budget. Children were long seen as a disqualification criterion.” This was also the case for an internationally renowned scientist who aspired to an academic career. After her fourth desired child was born, her qualification path at the university ended abruptly. “She no longer received any further support and had to abandon her dream of becoming a professor. Because there are still prejudices in many minds,” Dr. Dagmar Höppel is sure. Not only from men but also from women.
But the issue of children was not the only hurdle. “Evaluations depend very much on the person. One assessor considers a topic Nobel Prize-worthy, while someone else comes to the conclusion that the topic has no future,” explains Dr. Dagmar Höppel. “Assessments are not only purely factual; there can also be a considerable luck factor in who sits on the committee and advocates for which topic.” Interdisciplinary and innovative topics, in particular, have a hard time.
Therefore, LaKoG suggested the international double-blind review process for the evaluation of submitted proposals, supplemented by a selection committee from Baden-Württemberg and supported by LaKoG and representatives of the MWK. “The excellence of the proposals was crucial. New criteria, such as social competence and commitment, were additionally taken into account because they are decisive, especially in the medical field,” says Dr. Dagmar Höppel.
Why it requires more to reach the top than research performance
Anyone who wants to become a professor must not only conduct excellent research but also lead teams, give lectures, and organize their own department. However, few have learned this in their scientific career. Therefore, the Equal Opportunities Officers decided to establish the “MuT-Mentoring and Training” program to support the path to professorship through additional qualifications.
The idea of the successful MuT program bore fruit. As demand for additional qualifications was high among doctoral students, the University Teaching Certificate (HDZ) was established based on the MuT model. It was open to doctoral students and researchers from the postdoc phase. Applicants from Baden-Württemberg gained an important advantage in their CVs when applying for positions.
But the program was much more than just a qualification. “Research cooperations also developed through the MuT network,” says Dr. Dagmar Höppel. “We also encouraged female researchers to apply for grants and awards, which they did with remarkable success.” A little push for more visibility and securing own third-party funding.
Are Wrangell Fellows also mothers?
The answer is easily given: yes. About half (47 percent) of the Wrangell Fellows are mothers. Dr. Dagmar Höppel also attributes this to the financial security of a five-year-funded position: “In the mainstream, female scientists with children had fewer chances of receiving funding. As Fellows, they could choose to have a child without fearing job loss.”
Nevertheless, hardly any Wrangell Fellow emphasizes being a mother. They do not want to be favored because of having a family. But they also do not want to justify the existence of their children. “Many mothers value the confidence in their performance that allows them flexibility. Improved childcare offerings, also for school-age children, should be added,” says Dr. Dagmar Höppel. The understanding of roles has changed. “All parents should have the right and freedom to pursue a career and utilize their professional talents. But without the appropriate conditions, it is very difficult.” There are many examples of how it could work.
For instance, in the Netherlands, parents working at university hospitals know that their children are adequately cared for and can even drop off their laundry to be washed in the morning. There are many ideas for new paths.
„There are things that aren’t done out of malice, but have always been handled individually. Like taking breaks during parental leave. However, this means that those affected always have to play the role of supplicants and depend on the goodwill of others.“
Dr. Dagmar Höppel
Was the Wrangell Program successful?
The numbers speak for themselves. From 1997 to 2021, the proportion of female university professors in Baden-Württemberg increased from 5.5 to 24.1 percent. That’s a success. The Wrangell Fellowship has significantly contributed to this. “Our success rate for a professorship is 60 percent – that is impressive. No other program can match that,” says Dr. Dagmar Höppel. All initial resistance showed that it was the right path. Especially because the program also provided opportunities for women who were re-entering academia or had a migration background. “We focused on excellent women who had previously flown under the radar and whom many professors had not given a chance,” says Dr. Dagmar Höppel.
So, are we at our goal? Prof. Dr. Stephan Dabbert, Rector of the University of Hohenheim, had a clear answer in his speech on the 100th anniversary of Margarete von Wrangell’s professorship in March 2023: “The proportion of female professors at the University of Hohenheim in 2021 was 27.8 percent, even higher than the state average. But we cannot be satisfied with that.”
Dr. Dagmar Höppel still considers it important to support female scientists. And during the selection process for scholarships, positions, or awards, she also considers the zipper principle conceivable, where the best-qualified male and female scientists are alternately considered.
Despite all the progress, Science Minister Petra Olschowski still sees a lot of need for action: “A century after Germany’s first full professor, we are still far from gender parity in academia and our universities in terms of professorships – successful gender equality must be our goal at all qualification levels.” Other countries show that even in engineering, a 50 percent female share is possible. There is still much to do!
„Our Wrangell Fellows have raised around 4 million in third-party funds annually, bringing a lot of money to the universities in Baden-Württemberg.“
Dr. Dagmar Höppel
What’s next? A new direction
Overall, the ministry of science announced the Margarete von Wrangell Fellowship 18 times from 1997 to 2020, supporting women during their habilitation phase. Since 2023, it will continue in a modified form: the ministry will focus on postdoctoral researchers with excellent doctoral degrees and fund them full-time for three years. At the same time, this funding will also benefit junior professors within their tenure track, because a junior professorship position is not necessarily staffed with academic personnel. Through the new fellowship, junior professors can apply for a corresponding position for a postdoctoral researcher.
Not only Dr. Dagmar Höppel, but many professors also see this critically. Dr. Dagmar Höppel concludes: “The real benefit of the Wrangell Fellowship was that we could support previously undiscovered female scientists. With the realignment, this will probably happen less often. A dependency is created. It remains to be seen whether the postdoctoral researcher can develop their own profile and what happens after the three years.” Above all, she finds the required support for the junior professorship problematic.
It remains to be seen how the realignment will prove itself and how the number of female professors in Baden-Württemberg will develop in the next 25 years.
The Wrangell Fellowship in brief
Announced by the federal state of Baden-Württemberg from 1997 to 2022
Objective: qualify excellent female scientists for appointment as a professor
Special regulations applied to female medical scientists
Funding period: up to five years (three years financed by the Ministry of Science, Research, and Art and the European Social Fund, and two years by the respective university)
Not a scholarship, but funding through positions (TV-L EG 13) at universities, pedagogical universities, and music and art universities
Number of funded female scientists: 222
Funding volume: 33 million euros (as of 2018)
Amount of third-party funding raised by the Fellows: an average of 4 million euros per year
Success rate for a professorship: 60 percent
Dr. Dagmar Höppel – Enabler of the Wrangell Fellowship
Head of the Equal Opportunities Office at the University of Hohenheim
Establishment and management of the LaKoG office
Initiator of the MuT-Mentoring and Training program
Co-founder of the Forum Mentoring and Eument-net, a Europe-wide mentoring initiative; Vice President since its foundation in 2008
Commitment against sexual discrimination and violence at universities
Member of the BuKoF commission 'Sexualised Discrimination and Violence'
Head of the BuKoF commission 'Equal Opportunity Programs and Initiatives'
Chairwoman of the Baden-Württemberg Association of Female Scientists
Dr. Dagmar Höppel
Introduction of protection periods for pregnant students in the State Higher Education Act (LHG)
Initiator of the 1st Margarete von Wrangell exhibition at Hohenheim
Interview with Dr. Dagmar Höppel
Brochure “Women – Research – Future” Innovative Programs in Baden-Württemberg, Interim Report Autumn 2008, LaKOG