Globetrotter with a social vision: Sisi Sung teaches and conducts research at the University of Erfurt

A traffic-calmed city center, people sitting in the sun and reading, no rushing crowds. Erfurt is a contrast for Sisi Sung. The Chinese economist grew up in Hong Kong and lived for ten years in big cities like Beijing and Seattle. She came to the Thuringian capital for the first time on a business trip. And as soon as she stepped out of the train station, she knew, „This is where I want to stay for a while.“ Today, she lives and works in Erfurt: at the university’s Max Weber College, she is researching career obstacles for women in large companies as part of her dissertation. She also teaches at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy and supports the university’s internationalization through committee work. „WortMelder“ spoke with her about her research and life in Erfurt.

Ms. Sung, Erfurt is so very different from the cities you’ve lived in so far….

After traveling to and studying in more than 30 countries, I felt the charm of Erfurt being old in pace, modern in facilities. I was more astonished by the many bookstores in the city and people reading books in open spaces. I knew I wanted to live and work on my doctoral project here, so I did not make any second choice. When navigating my way to Erfurt, I was fascinated by the University of Erfurt’s history as the oldest university in Germany, and I wondered how study life would be in the university.

And then you must have quickly come across the Max Weber College?

As an economist, Max-Weber-Kolleg is a perfect accommodation for my doctoral project. Its international and interdisciplinary structure is very innovative. It is a unique platform to gain global experience and intellectual inspirations from interactions with a wide variety of renowned social scientists and outstanding young researchers. With my goal of promoting diversity and equality through cross-cultural and intersectional collaboration, Max-Weber-Kolleg is a perfect fit.

So you do research on diversity and equality. What exactly are you investigating?

I am always interested in fostering diversity and equality. Having men and women working together in parity can have many benefits, especially economically. For example, with both men and women working, the economy grows in size, and each individual’s income in society can improve. At a company level, more women on the board or in the executive team can generate a better profit. Ultimately, they help to achieve economic growth. So my research basically aims to locate the drivers for diversity and equality and navigate a path to economic development.

Working on the topic can be difficult. Although the economic benefits, it remains a fact that more efforts are required to achieve diversity and equality. Given the challenge to attain diversity and equality, studying them can be a demanding task. Besides, the issues can be so prevalent and complicated that it can be hard to thoroughly examine with the scope of my doctoral project.

How did you get involved in this topic?

I came from a typical Chinese family. I am thankful that they often emphasize the importance of social responsibility. They sent me to the oldest girls‘ school in Hong Kong. The school was created to offer girls equal education opportunities as boys because before that, girls had no access to education in Hong Kong. Reflecting back on the six years, it was a life-changing experience and perhaps the earliest motivation that has shaped my determination to strive for diversity and equality in the global community.

As an economist, I attended many international conferences, and for most of the time I found that the guest panels were mostly men. When I saw some discussions had no female speakers, the diversity issue was very trivial and striking. After visiting some of the world’s largest Chinese companies, such as Alibaba and Tencent, I observed that male senior managers often dominated the meetings. I became more curious about where the women were. When I sat in a guest lecture by Christine Lagarde, she mentioned that „if Lehman Brothers was Lehman Brothers and Sister, things would be different.“. It immediately brought me back to the exact date in 2008 when I was sitting in a classroom surrounded by male students. My undergraduate alma mater, Tsinghua University, has been one of the most prestigious science and engineering universities in China, so it seemed not surprising to be one of the fewer female students. Her words reminded me of the experiences, and I immediately knew that I wanted to explore more about diversity and equality.

What contribution do you want your study to make to society?

One primary motivation, which is also my ambition, is to connect academic research with practice. My interest in the topic stemmed from past experiences, so I hope that my academic work can be applied to solve real-life problems. Therefore, I am eager to share my experiences and contribute my expertise to the development of our community. After completing my doctoral project, I would like to provide the findings and help leaders overcome inequality and achieve diversity. I would like to push for collaboration among scholars, organizational leaders, and policymakers to cultivate a path towards diversity and equality in the global community. I believe that diversity and equality can make policy and decisions more effective, less biased, and making people live better.

Now, you had high expectations for your time studying in Erfurt and at MWK. Have they been fulfilled?

Living and studying in Erfurt has been amazing. After two years of intellectual discussions with colleagues, lecturing at Willy Brandt School, and representing all Ph.D. students at University of Erfurt and Max-Weber-Kolleg, I definitely gained experience I could not have attained anywhere else. Max-Weber-Kolleg has provided ample formal and informal exchange opportunities, with a nice balance of academic and social events. The best part has always been the personal connections and conversations with prominent scientists and my fellow researchers from different backgrounds.

… Just like your students at the Brandt School. You just mentioned the lectures you give there. How does teaching enrich your research work?

I realize I haven’t stopped teaching since 2010. I have taught at Tsinghua University in China, the University of Washington in the U.S., and now at Willy Brandt School. Each has been an invaluable experience. I am lucky to have met so many intelligent students and benefited from the interactions. At Willy Brandt School, I teach two courses that involve cross-cultural collaboration and strategic management of public leadership. I am always inspired by the unique perspectives of my students. Discussions with them not only enrich the understanding of my own research work but also provide useful suggestions to improve my research.

For a year now, the pandemic has already overshadowed us. How are you coping with it far from home?

University and Max-Weber-Kolleg always offer the most they can in supporting my study and living in Erfurt. Especially during the pandemic, the directors and staff at Max-Weber-Kolleg have expressed their availability for assistance. My fellow colleagues and I also regularly organize a walk in the city to tackle the challenging lockdown. These supports are very helpful during the pandemic because you know there is always someone you can reach out to, even when you are 9,000 km away from home. During the pandemic, I will spend an hour or two on workout every day, which helps me stay to my work routine. I would say Erfurt is such a nice place for outdoor workout.

Simone Wagner gives a working paper on ‚The provost / abbot as father, the abbess as mother – punishment and gender‘

One chapter of my dissertation deals with gender-specific discourses shaping the authority of superiors in collegiate churches. In this paper I’ve focused on the discourse of motherly love and lenity in punishment. After summing up the current state of research the paper traces the discourse a) in statutes of the collegiate churches (i.e. internal normative documents) and b) in conflicts with civic authorities (the mayor and city council). The last section analyses how abbesses dealed with gendered expectations and if they could subvert them.

Lenity and severity were not gendered binarily. Male superiors also were supposed to be clement. Nevertheless, they could defy expectations of lenity more easily than abbesses. Only the authority of abbesses was attacked fundamentally by accusing them that they punished too severely. Civic authorities did attack abbesses comparatively harshly by applying gendered discourses. However, citizens weren’t necessarily more misogynist than other medieval actors. Urbanity did influence the abbesses’ authority indirectly. It increased contact between the members of collegiate churches, citizens as well as serfs of the collegiate church and thus opportunities to control abbesses.