CliSAP successfully finished in 2018. Climate research continues in the Cluster of Excellence "CLICCS".

Equal opportunities: The percentage of women at the top has doubled – but structural hurdles remain


Under the leadership of Sociology Professor Anita Engels, researchers in Hamburg recently explored how equal opportunity of employment between women and men has changed in the wake of the federal Excellence Initiative. One positive finding: Nearly all Graduate Schools and Clusters of Excellence consider ensuring equal opportunities to be their own responsibility. Further findings of the project “Women in Top Research Positions – On the Relation Between Sexual Inequality and Excellence” were recently presented at their closing conference.

In the study, male and female employees from a total of 36 Clusters of Excellence, Graduate Schools and Future Concepts were asked about various aspects of equal opportunity of employment. The results reflect the current palette of equal-opportunity measures: The Excellence institutes actively recruit women, offer them support with reconciling family and career, and work to create new structures that promote equal opportunities. Further, mentoring, workshops and networks that focus on strengthening the position of women are now in place.

Equal opportunities as a criterion of Excellence 
The German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)) established equal opportunities as a prerequisite for a successful application to its Excellence Initiative. “Taking this step significantly enhanced and reinforced the idea of equal opportunities,” claims Engels. This not only means that all applicants now have to address the topic; earmarked funds have also been provided.

More women now hold top positions
Upon this backdrop, between 2006 and 2011 the number of women holding top positions in Excellence projects nearly doubled, from 11 to 21 percent. To be precise, this refers to the lead positions in research projects, referred to as “Principal Investigators.” Moreover, creating equal-opportunity conditions has increasingly come to be seen as a clear leadership responsibility.

Unfortunately, according to Engels this positive development is balanced by long-standing structures that continue to disadvantage women. Early in their academic careers, men are more likely to hold full-time positions than are women. Female doctoral candidates more often have to finance their PhDs with scholarships or grants, whereas their male counterparts are more likely to be employed at research institutes. When it comes to postdoctoral researchers, more men are awarded permanent contracts. At the professorial level, these differences disappear; nonetheless, female professors often have to contend with more difficult everyday conditions – for one thing, they are more likely to commute between cities for work.


Prof. Anita Engels is a Co-Speaker of the CliSAP Cluster of Excellence. As such, in the interest of objectivity CliSAP was not part of the study.

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