A BMBF-funded research and practice project at the University of Duisburg-Essen issues: What is scientific excellence and how is it rendered visible?

Various studies provide evidence that women and men are perceived and evaluated differently in their academic performance.

In this context, white males appear to be advantaged over their female counterparts. Their actions and abilities, as well as their appearance, are often linked to a higher level of competence

Related to this so-called ‘drop-out’ is the observation that women as postdocs or assistant professors are often rarely (made) visible in public and within their disciplines, which is why they are less likely seen as innovators than their male colleagues. One key group that has received little attention in research and projects on gender equality to date, and that can support the process of rendering research talent visible, are actors in university communication. These are, first and foremost, employees in the press offices and communication departments of universities who operate at the interface between science and the public.

This male bias in the perception of performance and excellence is one of the reasons why many capable and talented female scientists leave the university system which materializes in the loss of potential in research and teaching


The EXENKO project, funded under umbrella of “Innovative Frauen im Fokus” (Innovative Women in Focus) of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), encourages on the one hand to challenge the prevailing understanding of excellence in scientific performance at universities and to develop alternative understandings. On the other hand, it aims to change the processes that are currently impeding to render women’s scientific achievements visible.

Together with the group of people from university communication identified as decision-makers in the context of the project, postdocs / assistant professors will reflect on and further develop approaches of increasing their visibility. Well-established female scientists with a full professorship accompany this process of dialogue as advisors. The participants will benefit from the experience they have gained in the course of their career.

Target groups

  • Actors of university communication
  • Postdocs / Assistant Professors
  • Established female scientists with a professorship for life

Key Issues

  • Who is ascribed outstanding abilities in research and innovation, and how?
  • How are scientific achievements promoted to the public and negotiated?
  • What is essential for women in science, research and innovation to do at an early stage of their career to become visible as scientists and innovators?
  • How can actors of university communication contribute to increase the visibility of female scientists?
  • What can postdocs themselves do to reach a higher degree of visibility?

Actors in university communication as central communicators should be encouraged to reflect on their own concept of performance and excellence with regard to the visibility of female scientists. Together with scientists they should formulate approaches on how visibility and acknowledgement of female scientists can be increased. At the same time, it is of utmost importance to encourage postdocs in making their own achievements more visible.

Based on an interview study, the perspectives of the three groups of actors on the concept of excellence, innovation and performance, on career and visibility strategies as well as science communication will be investigated. On the basis of these findings, dialogue events with the aforementioned groups are planned. The aim is to develop a participatory exchange of perspectives and expertise on career strategies and research communication. The results of the dialogue events will form the basis for conducting awareness trainings for female postdocs and actors in university communication.

Key linkage

EXENKO builds on the results of the project “Equality-based modes of action of professors in light of gender equality regulations”.

It was conducted from 2015 to 2018 and funded by the NRW Ministry of Science. With the participation of four universities in NRW, professors were interviewed on the question of what they know about the topic of gender equality and gender relations and what are the key factors they align their actions in the context of work.

A central finding is that, generally speaking, professors support the objective of gender equality. However, when it comes to the implementation of concrete policies, such as filling positions and questioning recruitment processes, interviewees often responded with resentment: Equality is good, but it should not replace the selection of the best. At the same time, the question of what constitutes the “best,” what “excellence” means, and according to which criteria a performance can be described as outstanding remained unanswered.

The study of the same name by Ute Klammer, Lara Altenstädter, Ralitsa Petrova-Stoyanov and Eva Wegrzyn was published as a book by Verlag Barbara Budrich in May 2020.

Gleichstellung an Hochschulen

Klammer, Ute; Altenstädter, Lara;
Petrova-Stoyanov, Ralitsa; Wegrzyn, Eva

Gleichstellungspolitik an Hochschulen

Verlag Barbara Budrich, Opladen, Berlin, Toronto (2020)

Project design

Exenko is composed of four modules:


Research | 2022

Sounding out of the three groups,
interview survey

Phase I: Research module

On the basis of an interview study, the perspectives of the three groups of actors (actors in university communication, postdocs/assistant professors and established female scientists with a full professorship) on the concept of excellence, innovation and performance, on career and visibility strategies as well as science communication will be explored along the following questions:

  • What do scientists, actors in university communication and well-established professors understand by “performance”, “selection of the best” and “excellence”?
  • How does excellent (scientific) performance come about from their point of view?
  •  Where and how can examples of high performance be identified?
  •  What role does the category of gender play?
  • How can performance be rendered visible?

Phase II: Dialogue module

Based on the findings from the research module, dialogue events will be held with the three target groups. These are actors in higher education communication, postdocs / assistant professors and established female academics with a full professorship.

The aim is to stimulate an exchange about new possibilities of promoting visibility and to jointly develop an expanded and innovative concept of excellence (“Future Studio”). In addition, it is important to strengthen the cooperation both between academics and university communication actors. The results of the dialogue events form the basis for awareness-raising training for female postdocs and actors in university communication.


Dialogue | 2023

Dialogue events for the three
target groups


Intervention | 2023/24

Development of two
training concepts

Phase III: Intervention module

As a basis for the subsequent intervention module, two concepts of awareness training will be developed.

The first training is aimed at female postdoc scientists/assistant professors with the aim of raising awareness regarding the bias in the understanding of excellence and encouraging them to promote their excellent performance and increase visibility.

The second training addresses actors in higher education communication. This group will also be sensitised to the consequences of the prevailing understanding of excellence and performance. Together, alternative ways of rendering women in science more visible will be developed and tested accordingly.

Phase IV: Multiplication module

The project will conclude with a workshop for multipliers from higher education and training, university didactics, equal opportunities commissioners and interested parties from the faculties / scientific communities.

In addition, comprehensive material on the project results will be made available to participants and other interested parties.


Multiplication | 2024

Project completion