‘I always feel listened to’
SDU's first woman dean, Marianne Holmer, took office as dean at the Faculty of Science a year ago. She certainly feels different from her male colleagues but believes it’s as much due to her personality as her gender.
There are many men in your world – both in the world of research and among the managerial staff at SDU. Is it harder to be a woman in a ‘man’s world’, or is this an outdated mindset?
I do feel different from my male colleagues, but it's probably as much due to my personality as it’s about being a woman. I can see that I do things differently both when I became head of department and also now as a dean. I am very consensus-seeking and listen to people, and some of my male colleagues approach those matters differently.
I like to say that I’ve never played football and been part of a team in that way. There’s another fight where I don’t always understand what's going on. I sometimes find that some of my male colleagues tend to stand their ground without yielding, whereas I’m more consensus-seeking. I pick my fights carefully. But as I said, I don’t think my gender plays a part in that; it’s just who I am as a person.
I also think the differences between men and women in a management team are very much about age. In the past, as a researcher, where my male colleagues were 20-30 years older than me, it was a different matter. But now that we’re the same age, men don’t stay at work until 8 or 9 in the evening, either. They have to pick up their kids or coach a girls handball team and have also been on paternity leave. That didn’t use to be the case. In this way, the structures and gender equality present in most families today have had a positive impact on the differences between men and women in career contexts.
What do you regard as your own strengths as a leader?
I’m quick to make decisions and I’m not afraid to make a management decision. But it's about personal competencies. I find that other women tend to struggle more with these things. To dare to make a decision, even if one isn’t sure it’s tried and tested. In that regard, men are quicker on the trigger. Once the women are ready, things have already happened.
The fact that I propose a slightly different point of view makes people listen. I feel very listened to. A large fraction of our employees at SDU are women, so my views are listened to and taken seriously.
Where do you see the biggest challenges in relation to getting more women in leadership at SDU?
There is a desire for more equality at SDU and more women leaders. This is clearly something we are focusing on. But it's extremely difficult for me when it comes to hiring women leaders at the faculty, because women tend to drop out at various stages in the ‘food chain’, so there are simply fewer to choose from. This is something we are very conscious of at SDU. We haven’t got the final answer yet, but we’re working on it.
The problems at especially the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science arise already when we admit students in subject areas where there are few women. Here, too, they drop out when they have to apply for a PhD etc., for the pool of women gets smaller and smaller all the time.
Around the time you plan to have children, you find yourself having to pursue your career at full speed.
Around the time you plan to have children, you find yourself having to pursue your career at full speed. It’s difficult to lay the foundation stone in your career and go on a stay abroad for several years as a researcher while starting a family. As women start having children at an increasingly older age, these things coincide. Fortunately, there are several foundations that are trying to let you bring your family along when going abroad or allow you to split your stay into multiple shorter periods.
At the same time, women often have a hard time getting published as much as men, as they more often want to feel completely secure before publishing, and they have a harder time networking. There are many small things we need to work on, but it’s difficult. For some of the heads of research, focusing on this comes naturally, while others are struggling in that regard.
Why is it important to get more women into management at all levels?
There is a lot of focus on diversity, and there is a proven better bottom line in places where there is a better gender distribution, so the documentation is there. When you’re a leader, you are the leader of a certain number of people. For example, about a third of the researchers at NAT are women. I also think you feel more confident as a male leader when your leadership group includes women, because you simply get more competencies and more angles on the issues you are dealing with.
But it’s not just about gender, but about diversity in a broad sense, because diversity is important. Therefore, we need not only a better distribution between men and women, but also a broader composition in terms of age and cultures in order to better understand our employees. For example, we have a lot of international researchers at my faculty, but very few managers with a foreign background.
Quotas may be a solution, but for me, it’s the recruitment base that’s missing. At board level, it is easier to set quotas on what one wants. But in the field of science, you need to qualify for a career as a researcher and manager through a long career path, so things are different there.
Do you have any role models, both in terms of management and research? And how do you network?
I have many role models, and one of those I think does really well for themselves is Kathrine Richardson from the University of Copenhagen, who throughout her career has put a huge effort into disseminating her research and contributing expert knowledge to the public. Within research management, Bo Barker Jørgensen from the University of Aarhus in particular has inspired me from the early days of my career.
Unfortunately, the possibilities for networking during the corona situation are limited. We have a dean’s group at NAT/TEK, which I use a lot, and I’m part of an f5 group for Sustainable Leadership. Also, I meet with both the Executive Board and my management team once a week, and we are very close. In many other places, deans and heads of department meet less frequently, so I’m pleased that we prioritise staying in touch. I’m a team worker by nature. That’s what I get my energy from.
What are your ambitions as a manager?
I’ve only been a Dean for a year, so I have lots of ambitions for the faculty. We’ve recently laid down a new strategy for the faculty. It’s going to be implemented across the academic environments soon. I’m really looking forward to that. At the same time, I have joined a number of really exciting new boards, including Aage V. Jensen’s Nature Foundation, a large landowner in Denmark that distributes foundation grants for nature conservation.
I also dream of SDU succeeding with our entire SDG agenda, and that I can contribute positively to our research at NAT, allowing us to contribute to the challenges we’re facing in relation to e.g. health, climate and sustainability.
Meet the researcher
Marianne Holmer, firstname.lastname@example.org, is 55 years old. She is Dean of the Faculty of Science and Director of the Danish Institute of Advanced Study (D-IAS) at SDU. Marianne Holmer holds a PhD from the Department of Biology at the former Odense University, and she has worked in ecology in the coastal zone with a focus on man-made impacts on the marine environment.