This month EPWS gives the floor to Professor Gabriele Abels. She is professor for comparative politics and European integration at the Institute of Political Science of the Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, Germany. She holds a Jean Monnet Chair since 2011. She was president of the German Political Science Association DVPW from 2012-2015 and Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence PRRIDE from 2015-2018.
EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
I have humble origins. Going to university and entering academia was therefore anything but a natural option for a girl like me. I got interested in politics in school and had friends who were passionate about politics. I then decided that I wanted to find out more about how politics really works and opted for studying political science. Without the German student loan system (BaFöG) I could never have done it. At university I was very involved in feminist politics, thus I got interested in gender studies and started to apply it to the EU. A friend of mine became my role model, when she opted for doing a doctoral thesis and after that was right on track for a professorship.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
During my career I have worked on a number of topics. I am very much interested in European integration and democratization of the EU system. This includes a gender perspective, because any full-blown democracy needs equal participation for both women and men. I am currently very interested in studying the new EU Commission under its first female president Ursula van der Leyen. Does that make a difference? Yes, it does. She has declared a “Union of Equality” as one of her key policy goal and published a Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 last March. Fighting violence against women – in fact, the most wide-spread human rights violation in the world and in the EU – is one of the top priorities. This is a most important but also very ambitious agenda. I am studying opportunities for achieving this goal – and the tremendous barriers of various kinds which are still existing. The societal implications of my research are obviously very important.
EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?
Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
Being awarded a Jean Monnet chair ad personam was certainly a very big success. It is a privilege to belong to the global community of Jean Monnet Chairs. I am also very proud of some of my book publications which have made an impact on the field of EU gender studies and moved them forward. It gives me great satisfaction that I am still good friends with my co-editors, because co-editing and working on a major book project for two, three years can be a very difficult experience. Research is a collective endeavor and it is more fun and more productive to do it with people you hold in high esteem – as a co-worker and as a person.
What makes me proud as a teacher is if you see that you can inspire students and you see the igniting spark for academic work. For example, in 2018 I taught a course on the centennial of women’s suffrage in Germany and we organized films, an exhibition, talks in addition to the “normal” seminar. That was a lot of fun and students loved it.
EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?
I have spent most of my academic career at different research institutions and universities in Germany. But I have also done teaching and research in the US, UK and in Russia.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
I am about to finalize the work on a major handbook on gender and EU politics. Together with my co-editors we want to celebrate this milestone – and advertise the book, present it at conferences etc. We want to have it discussed also in mainstream academic journals in the field of EU studies. It is still hard work to get gender work recognized. Other than that I am happy to be on sabbatical in the winter and to work on my project on gender equality in the EU.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
A number of barriers – as a working class girl and as a woman. Besides money, the hardest part is to have trust in yourself that you can do it. Role models were certainly important throughout my career: people who were one or two steps ahead of me and who believed in me and supported my career. I had fantastic colleagues and academic mentors when I was working at different institutions. I got a lot of support from previous superiors, professors I worked with.
What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
In Germany in general and in political science in particular women scientists are still underrepresented. The higher the rank, the lower the share of women. The usual picture. I have served in various positions in the German political science association (also as its president from 2012-2015) and I have been involved in activities to promote women in the field via a range of instruments. I have also served as equal opportunity officer at various universities and I have acted as member on many search committees: I have seen a lot of sex discrimination. But I have also experienced that equality provisions (such as codes, legal rules etc.) have an impact and make it more difficult to discriminate against women. Success is still slow, but during my career in the last three decades the number of female students, doctoral students and professors (today about 25%) in political science is rising. Strict rules and their monitoring are important. And it still requires dedicated feminists – female and male.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
Networking is key. I have a strong network via the journal Femina Politica (a feminist political science in German language) which I have established together with a group of colleagues in the mid-1990s. In those days all of us were still doctoral students, some were post-docs. Today, many of us are professors. There are also women and gender networks in the academic associations I am involved in. And I have expanded my network over the years to include European and international colleagues. We meet biannually at international conferences. They are very important for exchange of ideas, setting up projects and publications, and for having fun with colleagues who sometimes become friends as time goes by.
Previously I have also worked on gender and science and research policy in the EU. Women scientist are still discriminated again in manifold, often subtle ways. It is important to lobby for their interests and to support them. Therefore, I joined the EPWS several years ago.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
Absolutely. I love being a researcher and a teacher. It gives me a lot of satisfaction. The degree of self-determination in terms of issues you want to engage with is fabulous. Every day you learn new things.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
Choose a topic you are passionate about, build up a network by going to conferences, and co-author with more experienced colleagues. Develop ideas for projects. Don’t be humble, it doesn’t get you anywhere. But be a good colleague; find your role-model – and try to be one yourself for the next generation.