Astrophysicist Kateřina Falk: Czech Science Could Do with More Openness and More Flexible Maternity Leave
Read the interview with a leading Czech scientist, Dr Kateřina Falk, who explores the bowels of giant planets in laboratory conditions.
Physics – a subject that she did not find very interesting at first because, as her teacher had told her, it was simply a boy subject. Today, similar stereotypes could be said to have been overcome by many: female scientists work in prestigious laboratories all over the world, publishing articles and making new discoveries. Just like Kateřina Falk, a physicist who has studied and worked abroad for 15 years and who is currently working at the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. From March 2018 onwards, she will lead a research team at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf focusing on laboratory astrophysics. She also successfully combines her demanding research activities with caring for her daughter.
However, these things certainly do not come free to her. How can science and motherhood be combined? And what is the Czech scientific environment like as such?
Physics is a men’s preserve: Unfortunately, it is true. Physics is not egalitarian; the approach is unfair. Back at school, the teacher told us that we girls would not be good at physics. So I made up my mind and passed the first tests at a 100% success rate. What is more, things are much worse in the Czech Republic than in the western countries. Here, women are told more often that they do not belong in technical fields.
Motherhood vs science: The problem is the way of thinking and stereotypes that limit us a lot. Czech culture is more burdened with them, mainly by what is and what is not appropriate for whom, and who can do what. This is despite the fact that no scientific evidence exists for these notions. Women in science cannot leave the field during motherhood as they would lose contacts, career continuity and technical knowledge. If you drop out, the consequences are fatal and you can never catch up with them again.
What Czech female scientists would need: Greater flexibility in terms of maternity leave so that partners can simply take turns in caring for the baby. This would be beneficial for all. However, the system or society do not allow this. This inhibits us a lot. Sometimes I even get the feeling we are going backwards. We have the longest maternity leave in the world, which is not a bad thing in itself, but the problem is that only women take it and there is no flexibility for mothers and fathers to take turns. Why cannot a woman take maternity leave one month and the man the month after that, and then the baby go to nursery school? This is quite common in the West, namely in the Nordic countries.
Science in the Czech Republic: It has a huge potential. We have several first-rate groups and facilities. Unfortunately, I would say that a major part of them remained frozen in a by-gone era, with rigid rules and structures in place that hinder further development. Compared to scientists abroad, we have few contacts; the young do not study abroad as often as they could… The good news is that things are looking up, although this could be happening at a faster pace.
What Czech science could do with: More openness towards the world as well as within its own system. More young talent that would have the opportunity to grow. More transparent assessment. A lot of decisions are made behind closed doors and you often have no chance of finding out how things went. We also need more opportunities for young talent.
Future plans: I am in the middle of a major change in my life. I am forming a new group as part of a prestigious grant in Germany. I am moving most of my work to a laser centre in Dresden, where I will be leading my own project, focusing mainly on laboratory astrophysics. On studying, for example, the diffusion or conductivity of various materials in extreme conditions in connection with, for example, the dynamos in giant planets. I will be studying, for example, how magnetic fields around Neptune come into existence. It is an ambitious project as well as a challenge. I myself have no idea where it will take us; it will probably not end with the dynamos and Neptune, but it will take us to regions beyond our thought.