Daring to Increase Diversity

Jennifer Schevardo: "Starting from December 2019, HZB will be going through the Diversity Audit of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft. So, that makes us a true pioneer." © HZB/M. Setzpfandt

From 20 to 21 September 2019, the I,Scientist conference will take place at TU Berlin. The hosts declare, is a response to the public gender imbalance in science. Dr. Jennifer Schevardo is the Head of Strategic Personnel Development at HZB explains why HZB needs more diversity.

Why is HZB presenting itself at I,Scientist, a conference about working in science with a focus on diversity?

I,Scientist brings together young scientists from all over the world to discuss how people can work in science without discrimination and in an inspiring atmosphere. Like all other research institutions, HZB has to advertise itself as the right kind of employer for people who can contribute new ideas. It is true that the opportunities for earning in publicly funded research are not as great as those in business. But, applicants are starting to consider other factors as even more important. Questions they are asking may be, for example: what does the organisation do to ensure work–life balance? How does it fight discrimination? Or, how does it promote equal opportunity? At I,Scientist, we want to make it clear that HZB supports people in many ways – be it with a “Office for Work and Life”, career counselling, personal development opportunities, or assistance in the onboarding process for employees from abroad.

A focal topic at I,Scientist is diversity. Why does a research centre even have to think about that? It seems that the backgrounds of the people working here are already more diverse than anywhere else.

It’s true, diversity is nothing new to us. We have been tackling questions of internationality, equality of men and women, inclusion, and openness toward different life models for a long time now. But there is still a way to go: the proportion of women in leadership positions is far below 50 percent; people of non-German origin are underrepresented in administration and infrastructure; and gender identity is a purely private matter that has no bearing on work. There should be many employees in different areas of HZB working on the task of anchoring diversity more firmly into our daily lives.

Diversity can be an uncomfortable subject at first, and can lead to conflicts in teams. How do you ensure that your employees support it anyway?

The question doesn’t really apply like that because diversity is already a reality we live by here, and is a prerequisite for our success. But we are aware, of course, that heterogeneous teams are not immune to friction between the members. Causes are often members seeing only stereotypes and making assumptions that often have nothing to do with the targeted individual, but rather with the group they have categorised the individual into. These hidden thought patterns are often hard to recognise. So we must ensure that diversity is seen as the source of inspiration and creativity. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that we should be discouraging differences or be implying that no one is allowed to talk openly about things that bother them. Rather, we must open our eyes to the fact that nobody is just a woman, just a German, or just a physicist, and that every person has a right to be valued as an individual.

Will there be a diversity strategy at HZB, like there is at universities or international companies, for example?

Starting from December 2019, HZB will be going through the Diversity Audit of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft. The Stifterverband has been auditing universities in Germany for many years, and the idea of adapting it specifically to non-university research institutions came from HZB. We are now the first non-university research institution to go through the process. So, that makes us a true pioneer. The audit will continue for one year, and we will encourage employees in all work areas to become actively involved. In all likelihood, this will culminate in guidelines and, above all, practical measures for various fields of action, which will then be implemented while the audit is still ongoing.

Have you personally experienced that a diversity of backgrounds has benefitted a project?

Honestly, as a science manager, I have been working for several years in non-diverse environments – mostly with white German women in their late twenties to late fifties. Sometimes, I feel that might be a disadvantage, because I have the impression that my colleagues and I see things too alike. And it opens your eyes, for example, when you talk to postdocs from abroad about the German administration. Then you are suddenly aware of your own blind spots.

(Silvia Zerbe)