Being a female scientist: professor in Marine Meteorology Katja Matthes

Baltic Gender is a EU-funded project that works on reducing gender inequalities in Marine Science and Technology. We have created this blog series with the aim of highlighting the successful and diverse career paths of some women, who are at different stages of their academic career.

This week, a post will be published each day from a female marine scientist, who is participating in our project. In these posts, which are in question and answer format, the participants reflect not only on their careers as scientists, but also on their experiences as persons active in the implementation of gender equality strategies at their respective institutions. We hope these stories will be inspiring for both marine scientists and those who are working on gender mainstreaming in academia.

Prof. Katja Matthes. Photo: Evelyn Renz-Kiefel

Prof. Katja Matthes. Photo: Evelyn Renz-Kiefel


Prof. Katja Matthes is the coordinator of Baltic Gender and a  at the Kiel University and GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany. She is the founder and head of the GEOMAR Women’s Executive Board (WEB) and she is a member of the AcademiaNet, a German online platform to enhance the visibility of excellent women in science.

What are the main things you enjoy about being a marine scientist?

I love the freedom to do research, teach students, interact with my working group, travel to conferences and workshops, interact with many international colleagues worldwide and decide on my own working schedule.

Did you have any role models that led you to this career? How did they influence you?

My PhD supervisor, she was the only female professor at the time in Germany and always attracted a number of female scientists. She inspired me and supported my participation at international conferences early on and was always there to provide career guidance. During my Postdoc time I attended two mentoring programs for women, which helped me to go in with my career. I had two (male) mentors that I am still in contact with today.

What are your main professional achievements? Any/what obstacles?

I remember my Postdoc time as a young mother as a very hard time. I had to publish, build up my own working group and I also wanted to spent time with my kids. If my husband would not have supported me so much, I would be not where I am now. He stepped back and stayed at home for a couple of years and now still works with a 50% part-time position.

Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? If yes, how did you handle them?

I do think that women have to work more and harder in order to be recognized. Also, women have to struggle more with combining work with a family, as they are the ones that give birth. One thing that I do remember is that I kept my first pregnancy secret until my contract was signed and it took much more time than expected. I was at the time almost 8 month pregnant and it was getting difficult to hide. I was afraid that the contract could fail due to my pregnancy. It was a very hard time not being able to show openly that I was pregnant and how happy I was. I still believe that this was the right decision. I also realized a big difference for women in science in Germany and the US. While my German Postdoc host was critical about my pregnancy, my US hosts welcomed me and helped me a lot to get everything I needed to start a new position and getting a first baby. The openness of my US hosts inspired and helped me a lot. Our second child was born 22 months afterwards – I am still convinced that in Germany I would not have had a second child that fast after the first one. The experience with my third pregnancy was even better, at the time I was in the application process for a full professorship in Germany and openly communicated that I would come half a year later than anticipated because of the birth of our third child and the related parental leave. This was completely supported by my employer and finally a big relief for me that combining kids and career was possible.

How can we overcome the issues driving women out of careers in marine science and technology?

By having long-term perspective in science especially during the Postdoc (= family founding) phase, special support for women such as mentoring programs, role models and of course structural changes in the institutions itself.

I do think that mentoring programs for women are one of the things that helped me enormously to succeed. I therefore try to convince every woman who wants to stay in science to join such a mentoring program. It helps a lot to realize that there are other women with exactly the same problems and feelings.

What actions are foreseen to reduce gender inequalities in your institution?

We have several measures and people involved to ensure gender equality at GEOMAR: gender equality officer, gender equality plan (GEP), gender strategy at the office of general affairs, the Women’s Executive Board, and of course the Baltic Gender project. We have a round table to discuss progress of the GEP and to implement the cascade model.

In addition, we have improved transparency of recruitment of (permanent) scientist and professorship positions. Both have a respective committee.

What is the most effective way for you to maintain balance of your professional and personal life?

Haven’t found it yet, I am eager to learn how others are doing it. I try not to work on the weekends and respect the vacation time with my family. I avoid working during vacation time and time that I’ve said I would spend with my family. When I was still in a non-permanent position I used to work also during my vacation time. Of course there are always exceptions but in particular the long summer break is free of (scientific) work.

What advice would you give any women considering science as a career path?

You have to be intrinsically motivated, have a long breath, and a supportive partner, a good network and a mentor!