Society management

Scientists question Max Planck Society’s treatment of female leaders

The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.Credit: Vladimir Bulgar/Alamy

A group of 145 leading women scientists from around the world have signed an open letter to Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPS), expressing concern over “high-profile dismissals, demotions and disputes involving female directors of the Max Planck Institutes”.

The MPS is Germany’s most powerful basic research organization, with 86 research institutes and facilities. Over the past three years, at least four of the institutes’ most senior researchers – called directors – have been accused of intimidation, including three women.

“Female leaders are judged more harshly, and allegations of poor leadership are more often made against female leaders than against male leaders,” the letter said. He asks the company to check its personnel statistics to determine whether women are overrepresented among those who left their positions before retirement or who were subject to sanctions or demotions.

An MPS spokesperson rejects accusations of gender bias in the letter and says its investigations into research misconduct “are generally conducted by neutral, objective and independent people”.

Demoted Archaeologist

The letter was sent to all members of the MPS Senate on November 18, a day before a Senate meeting was scheduled to consider the most recent case – the demotion of archaeologist Nicole Boivin from her position as director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Man. History in Jena, which she had held for five years.

“This case sparked our letter,” says physicist Ursula Keller of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) in Zurich, who was one of the instigators of the letter. “But we know the issue is much broader than Max Planck, and we want the issue to be discussed in the community.”

Similar cases involving women in senior academic positions at several other major European research institutions have also made headlines since 2018, “indicating that these issues involving older women extend far beyond the MPG” , reads the letter, using the German acronym for the company. He emphasizes that the signatories do not endorse the tolerance of bullying.

The fallout from the many cases could be severe, the letter said. “The high-profile failures of women in high-level positions in science could have a chilling effect on young women considering careers in science and engineering,” the report said.

Boivin has been accused of bullying young scientists and appropriating the scientific ideas of colleagues. The lengthy internal investigation began in October 2018, but was accelerated this fall. On October 22, Boivin was demoted from her position without notice. She remains responsible for a small research group.

Contested decision

Boivin denies all the charges and challenges the Max Planck decision in court. An injunction decision is expected on December 3, which would allow him to continue to lead until the court case is settled.

The case proved controversial. Many Max Planck scientists have also written to the company expressing concern over the procedure. This includes two letters from groups of postdocs and doctoral students at the Institut Boivin, expressing their support for him and challenging the fairness of the investigation.

Nobel laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, also wrote a letter asking the Senate to reverse the decision. Only 54 of the company’s 304 directors are women, and such cases will make it difficult to encourage more female scientists to join, she writes. “It must be concluded that there are still deep-rooted and unrecognized prejudices against women in leadership positions, that the leadership behavior of women directors is measured by different criteria, [harsher] standards than those of men,” she writes.

MPS spokeswoman Christina Beck said Nature that the confidential investigation was neutral and objective. In 2018, the company introduced leadership training for directors that includes unconscious bias training, she says.