Prof. Dr. Eberhard Umbach, Würzburg
am 19. April 2007
Welcome Address of the President
of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft e.V.
on the Occasion of the Meeting of the IUPAP working group "Women in physics"
from 19th to 21st April 2007 at the Physikzentrum Bad Honnef
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the German Physical Society I cordially welcome you to this Meeting of the IUPAP working group “Women in physics”. It is our great pleasure to host you here in Bad Honnef in the Physics Center (“Physikzentrum”) of the German Physical Society, the DPG. We appreciate that you travelled from all over the world to this place and hope that you all had a pleasant journey. On our side, we tried to do our very best to make you feel well and to support your meeting; in particular we arranged some beautiful sunny days such that you also can enjoy the landscape with the famous river Rhine and can relax by walking through the garden of this nice old building.
Welcoming scientists from many different countries in the Physikzentrum is always a pleasure since it emphasizes the internationality of our science. Welcoming so many female physicists who are deeply committed to improving the role and acceptance of women in physics is a particular pleasure to me since I personally am convinced that female physicists should play a much more important role in science, especially here in Germany. It is not only me but the complete Executive Board of the German Physical Society that affirms its strong support for the interests of female physicists. Many gender inequalities in academics were abolished during the past century but some - you may argue too many - still remain.
To elucidate the changes in this regard in the scientific landscape of Germany, I want to start with a retrospect on the history of women in German Physics, especially in the DPG.
It is not too long ago that women had to fight vigorously for their rights to obtain access to universities and to get academic degrees. Nearly hundred years ago, in 1908, they received the right to enrol, first only at Prussian universities. It took another 15 years, until Margarete von Wrangell became the first female regular professor at a German university.
Also, it was not self-evident at all that women gained admittance to the learned societies, which comprised mainly of a rather small exquisite group of scientists in those days. In most cases, female scientists were not even allowed to visit conferences of these societies.
Therefore one may consider it advanced that the German Physical Society, which had been renamed from the Physical Society of Berlin on the first January of 1899, welcomed its first female member, Elsa Neumann, as early as on the 20th of January of the same year. Just one month later Elsa Neumann became the first female doctor of science in Berlin. She took her degrees in physics without ever having received a regular high school graduation. For this purpose she needed a special admission of the ministry of education. After her untimely death in 1902 the DPG temporarily became an exclusively male association again.
Despite the fact, that four years later once more two women became members of the DPG, female physicists in the society remained an exception for quite a long time. Only when the DPG, up to then having been focussed on Berlin, began in 1920 to establish so called “Gauvereine” (district associations), not only the total number of members but also the number of women jumped up. In 1926 the DPG after all had 58 female members corresponding to 4% of the total members. Being good in mental arithmetic you will surely have calculated already that the DPG in those days had approximately 1500 members.
The total number rose slowly during the next 60 years to 7000. But in the last 25 years, there has been a strong and steady increase of DPG members to now more than 53.000, making the DPG the largest physical society worldwide. The increase within the last few years is mainly due to the success of a school-leaver’s program initiated in 2000. But also the “World Year of Physics 2000” has certainly contributed.
The percentage of women decreased to about 3% at the beginning of the 80ies. But this percentage rose steadily during the following years, and in 2000 the “World Year of Physics” even caused another sudden growth. At the moment, about 6.800 of the more than 53.000 DPG members, a fraction of 12.5 %, are female. I hope that this positive trend will continue in the next years; we all are continuously working on this issue.
Now I like to take a short look at the roles and functions of female physicists in the DPG in the past and today. Is their membership just quietly tolerated or are they integrated to set the course of the DPG? Answering this question is very easy for present days. Looking at the decision boards of the DPG one learns that 10 out of the 31 elected members of our council, the Vorstandsrat – a kind of parliament -, are female, and women also fill two of the nine positions of the Executive Board. Moreover, we have a committee called AKC, Arbeitskreis Chancengleichheit, translated “Working group Equal Opportunity” which cares not only about the role of female physicists but also advises the DPG and its committees in this respect. These examples show, that female physicists are deeply involved in developing the future of the DPG and of physics in Germany. We are grateful for their dedication and support.
But what was the situation hundred years ago? Searching for the first female scientist in a board of the German Physical Society one finds a woman, who was a pioneer in physics in several aspects, namely Lise Meitner. She was the second female doctor in physics at the University of Vienna in Austria. In 1907, she moved to Berlin, where she became member of the DPG in December of the same year. Despite the fact that women were not allowed to study officially at Prussian Universities at that time, as mentioned before, she quickly managed to get into contact with the best and most important physicists and chemists. Her excellent connections, in addition to her outstanding skills, surely contributed to her election as the first woman in the Executive Board of the DPG. Together with Max Planck she acted as assessor in the district association of Berlin, and she was also the first woman to hold an office in the German Physical Society. By the way, at that time the DPG was already more than 60 years old, since it was founded in the year 1845 and hence is also the oldest physical society worldwide.
Although Lise Meitner’s scientific achievements did not earn her a Nobel Prize – as you may know, this was assigned to Otto Hahn exclusively – the DPG awarded one of its rare honorary memberships to her in 1948.
This short overview of the history of the DPG has shown that our association had opened its doors early to female physicists. But despite the positive trend of rising female membership figures in the DPG we have to face the problem that in Germany there are far too few female academics in physics. While the percentage of female students in the first semester is already rather small since it amounts to only 24% - and this number also contains the teacher trainees –, it becomes much worse if we consider later stages of the scientific career. Especially in professorships women are extremely underrepresented with only 4%. One reason surely is the problem to develop a career and to raise a family at the same time but there are many other reasons too. In the last years, many actions were started at universities and research centers to improve this situation by providing special services for women, child cares, dual career opportunities, financial support programs for female scientists who return after a “baby break”, etc. Perhaps also the current efforts of the Federal Government to generally improve and expand child care in Germany will help, but a lot remains to be done, in politics, in our institutions and in our minds. Although I notice a clear trend that more and more male colleagues understand that female scientists are equally good researchers or teachers and accept, for example, that publication or scientific production rates have to be normalized to the family role of a female colleague there is still quite some discrimination which must be overcome in the future.
What can we, especially you, do? Of course it is very important for female scientists to network and to call attention to the still existing gender inequalities in various professions and at numerous opportunities. We all have to remember every day and in all our activities, and we have to remind other people who may not be as well aware of the existing inequalities. It needs alertness for the daily problems and it needs patience since the boundary conditions AND the minds have to be changed, the latter taking decades rather than years. The DPG working group “Equal Opportunities” is doing a great job in this respect, and the same is true for you, the IUPAP working group, on the international level. I would like to thank you for this very important engagement which is important for our female colleagues, for the field of physics, and for our entire society.
Thus I hope you will have a very effective, productive, and successful meeting in a positive and stimulating atmosphere. I also hope that you will enjoy the inspiring breadth of this building, the beautiful landscape of Bad Honnef on the Rhine, and the mountains of the Siebengebirge, and finally I wish you a safe return after the meeting.