Following your dream comes at a price

Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen is one of Health's 54 female professors. She is an epidemiologist, loves the competitive environment of the research world and is a keen advocate of gender equality. Because everyone with talent and ambition must have equal opportunities to reach the summit of academia – regardless of gender.

[Translate to English:] Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen lader ikke ubevidste kønsbias passere. Hun insisterer på, at alle skal behandles lige og på, at en ambitiøs forskerkarriere og et velfungerende familieliv ikke er et enten eller. Foto: Lars Kruse, AU Foto.
Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen does not allow unconscious gender bias to go unnoticed. She insists that everyone should be treated equally and that an ambitious research career and a well-functioning family life is not a case of either/or. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo. Graphics: Health Communication.

Four years ago, Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen's father was dying at a hospice. She was there with him, but in the back of her mind work and obligations still weighed on her. And after he passed away early one morning, she got in her car and drove directly to work. She had to be an assessor on a PhD dissertation a few hours later.

Others are welcome to learn from my mistakes

This is one of the few regrets Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen has over her journey up the career ladder. She should have given herself time to look after herself and her loved ones. Now, junior researchers at the Department of Public Health, where Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen is professor, section manager and a member of the department management team, instead learn from her mistake. She insists on being a good role model for junior researchers. One way of doing that is by showing them that it is both natural and perfectly okay to prioritise your family. Also when you are an ambitious aspiring researcher (male/female).

"Had it been one of the junior researchers in my group who was in the midst of a family crisis, I wouldn’t have hesitated to send them home after telling them to postpone the assessment of the dissertation," she says and continues:

"My work and my ambitions have, to some extent, ended up having an effect on my family life and social relations. I make no secret of that. For example, I haven’t eaten breakfast with my children on weekdays for many years, and much too often have arrived home too late, in a rush and drained for energy. I haven't been on weekend trips with my friends. But maybe it doesn't have to be that way? I don't think that postponing the PhD assessment would have made much difference."

But Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen is not complaining. She has worked extremely hard to get to where she is today. 51 years old, administrative manager with personnel responsibility for almost twenty assistant professors, associate professors and professors, research director for approx. 15 PhD students, Master's thesis students and postdocs, and the mother of three children. And even if she could, she would not swap breakfast and weekends with friends for a professorship.

I was always one step ahead

Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen was sold as soon as she arrived at Aarhus University to study on the supplementary course for the healthcare Master’s degree programme. She quickly began her own independent research project and became absorbed in the whole process: from puzzlement over investigation to communicating new results, as well as the freedom to determine her own focus, and to be able to think creatively.

So by the time she began writing her Master's thesis, she had already secured funding for the PhD she wanted to begin afterwards. And when the PhD dissertation was ready to be defended, she had already applied for and received funding for her postdoc appointment. And so on.

"I was happy when an associate professor position in epidemiology became vacant at the department, just as my postdoc ended because the money had run out. I was well aware that it was and still is difficult to pass through the eye of the needle and make your own career at the university," says Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen, who ended up being an associate professor for only 3.5 years before being appointed professor.

Exemplary career path from the very first day

Ask her how it could go so fast, and she is in no doubt.

"I’ve got a high personal drive, and when I decide to do something, I pursue that dream. I'm stubborn and I work hard. I’m extremely productive and have secured funding for my research, also while I was an associate professor. In addition, Berit Eika, the former vice-dean for education at Health and current pro-rector at AU, placed a lot of trust in me at an early stage by giving me responsibility for a major director of studies position and a chair of one of the faculty's largest board of studies. That quickly gave me some experience of management," she says and elaborates:

"I had achieved what I needed to in terms of getting a professorship. If I hear about something that you can achieve, regardless of whether it’s to do with competitions, grants, collaborations or something else entirely, then I just want to go for it. I keep at it have always worked a lot. Not because I must or have to, but because I can't help it."

Want to be both mother and professor

Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen wants to strike a blow for career and family life not being incompatible. She insists that you can both be a professor and a mother, if you are clear about what you are missing out on and reconcile yourself with the price that comes with it. Because this is where younger female researchers in particular find themselves in a tight spot. And it costs talents. Talents that the faculty and the university miss out on.

"Our career development programmes mustn’t give preferential treatment to anyone at the expense of others. We have to ensure that maternity or paternity leave is not an obstacle to either a mother or father in their fledgling research career," she says.

"I'm well aware that this is my hobbyhorse. But we’ve got to show in the most mundane way that we don't expect people to still be in the office until late in the afternoon or in the evening, for example. People should go home when the workday ends. That they sometimes have to resume work in the evening is another matter. But there must be time to be a mother or father, and that is typically important between 15:30-20:00 for families with young children," she says.

She managed to reconcile family life and a career as an elite researcher because her husband did the heavy lifting on the home front, while the children were small. He also took part of the paternity leave with their youngest son. But they have always shared dinner and putting the children to bed; two things that are sacred – also for a professor.

Not a competition to see who is busiest

"We should be prepared to clearly say that we want to have a normal family life alongside an ambitious research career. We shouldn’t book meetings late in the afternoon. That doesn’t work for either men or women, and it’s not particularly constructive either. I know there can be special considerations and exceptions, but it should never be the norm that we at AU hold meetings after normal working hours,” says Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen.

At one point, she talked to another female professor who openly told her that she was actually not all that busy. The conversation was a turning point for Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen, as she had until then felt that it was the norm to talk into the culture of being too busy that characterises society and the world of research. Now she cannot be bothered to contribute to the fruitless battle over who works the most and the hardest. Instead, she tries to signal that the proportions should be aligned.

"My own behaviour shows that I don’t expect very long working days from my employees. Everyone around me knows that I'm a big family person, and as a leader I make an effort to show that I fully understand that an employee sometimes must stay home with an ill child," she says.

Women loose out while their children are small

When it comes to her own career, Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen highlights two situations in which she felt that her male colleagues had an advantage – while being aware that she may be influenced by stereotypes.

"While my children were small, I found it difficult to be away. I spent eight months at UCLA and took my family with me, and we had a great time together. But I rarely participated in international conferences and symposia that meant long trips abroad. I didn’t think I could be away for so long at once and found it difficult to place so much of the shared work on my husband. Perhaps it’s different for a father than it is for a mother? I don't know. But I fairly quickly chose to de-emphasise that part of the international outreach," says Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen.

We keep our colleagues on maternity/paternity leave up to date

During her latest maternity leave, during which she actually worked a lot, she found that her prioritisation of family had a price in terms of her career.

"You fall out of the loop during maternity leave. Something happens here. It’s something structural that we need to deal with at management level. Research can really make a lot of progress in a short period of time, and as a new mother on maternity leave you can easily feel like you’ve missed the train. It really demands something of you as a woman to return to work and find your place and eligibility again," she says.

Because she herself has experienced that a maternity leave can obstruct – or at least delay – a career, she makes sure her colleagues who are on leave are kept up-to-date with publications, funding applications, new projects and collaborations, etc., if they so wish.

Only recently became aware of unconscious gender bias

Has Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen herself experienced positive or negative discrimination due to her gender? Her immediate answer is no, but after thinking about it a little longer, she modifies her answer.

"I’m being naïve if I imagine that I haven’t also been subjected to unconscious gender bias on one level or another. I think I have a fantastic job, good working relationships, fine grants, great awards and good publications. But have I missed out on an something important that would advance my career based solely on my gender? That’s a counterfactual question I can never get an answer to," she says.

After taking part in AU’s gender equality and diversity conference last month, Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen has reflected on the problem of unconscious gender bias, including on how men and women are assessed and referred to differently, and that resulted in a specific reaction.

"I received a grant application assessment for a consultation procedure, and there was a significant difference in how the male and female applicants were described. Since the difference couldn’t in my eyes be justified academically, I highlighted it in my consultation response and suggested that there might be unconscious gender bias involved. Doing that meant breaking with a taboo for me, but I think that if we all react when we encounter this kind of thing, then we can hopefully get it eliminated," she concludes.


Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen:

  • carries out research into the causes of reproductive health disorders with focus on the causes during the very first part of life, i.e. the prenatal stage. She investigates whether the things a foetus is exposed to (e.g. endocrine disrupting substances, the mother's lifestyle and health) can have an effect on the child's reproductive organs, puberty development, sperm count, hormones, fertility and infertility.

  • takes part in a podcast on gender equality and diversity in the world of research:
  • won the PhD Supervisor Prize (the JCD Award) in 2017. In the recommendation for the award, her PhD students wrote: "Cecilia-Ramlau-Hansen is a source of inspiration both in achieving academic goals and in relation to balancing a family life with a career in research. With her behaviour, she shows us how we can become good supervisors ourselves one day."
  • has Jørn Olsen, emeritus professor at the Department of Public Health, as her scientific role model: "He’s a brilliant epidemiologist who is known and respected all over the world. He is both talented and friendly and my mentor. He was an ingenious visionary, and I and my research group – as well as many other researchers in Denmark and abroad – continue to reap the benefits of his efforts," she says.
  • has had small children herself over a number of years. Her children are now 12, 20 and 25 years old respectively, and she knows all about the pressure of establishing a research career in parallel with starting a family.
  • is born in Sweden, grew up in Aalborg and now lives in Hobro.

Kønsfordeling på Health – opdelt på stillingskategorier og institutter pr. 31. marts 2021

Clinical medicine


Public Health

Dentistry and Oral Health

Forensic Medicine












Associate professors**











Assistant professors***











PhD students****











*Incl. professor MSO, clinical professor and state-appointed forensic pathologist, ** Incl. senior researcher, clinical associate professor and deputy state-appointed forensic pathologist, *** Incl. tenure track, **** Covers only salaried PhD students as of 31 March 2021. The number of enrolled PhD students may be higher. Source: Health HR.


Professor and Section Manager Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen
Aarhus University, Department of Public Health
Mobile: (+45) 26 29 57 15

Gender equality and diversity are again one of Health's most important focus areas this year. But despite management focus and many years of discussions, there are still only a few women in elite research, also at Health. Over the course of the spring and summer, a number of the faculty's female researchers will be talking about their career path and about obstacles and suggestions for improvements in the form of experience-based and specific initiatives