Women in Research: Jana Abíková on Humanitarian Logistics and Disaster Research

Researcher Jana Abíková from the University of Economics found her passion in a somewhat unconventional topic – humanitarian disasters and the associated logistics. However, over time, the researched topic also takes on a different dimension in relation to how Dr. Abíková’s path and approach to her own research work and career evolve. How does Dr. Abíková perceive the position of women in research and the approach of her colleagues to female researchers? And what new topics and perspectives does she want to bring into her research? All this is summarized in the interview, where you will also learn what to expect in a research career and why it is most important to love the topic you want to explore.

How did you actually come to the research topic of disasters? What interested you about that topic?

I make research in disaster management and humanitarian logistics. I always say that disasters chose me, not the other way around.

In 2004, when I was eleven, the most devastating tsunami wave struck all the states around the Indian Ocean. Every evening, I sat by the news and watched how the rescue operations continued. It was one of those disasters that get broadcasted all over the world.

Shortly after, Nova began broadcasting documentaries about disasters, where I sat glued every weekend. And when I started choosing a university, I came across a report about Doctors Without Borders, and it all came together – “I will study logistics and one day I will work for them.”

Just that already in my bachelor´s studies, I became enthusiastic about research and teaching, so I consider it somewhat the beginning of my research career. I also saw that these topics were not much in the spotlight in the Czech Republic, so I wanted to bring some change.

What has your research career been like so far?

During my doctoral studies, I completed a six-month research internship at Hanken School of Economics and the HUMLOG Institute, and when I finished my studies in 2020, they offered me a postdoctoral position. That was during COVID, and I watched the situation at home and couldn’t reconcile myself with how the crisis response looked.That’s why I decided to return to Prague.

I was extremely lucky because I joined the Department of Management, where I currently work, and simultaneously worked for Hanken. This gave me the opportunity to try out more teams and see how things work in academia in another country.

What do you consider a turning point in your career, if you perceive one? Alternatively, if you feel you haven’t reached it yet, how do you imagine it in the future?

I think I haven’t reached it yet, and at the same time, I would say that I’ve already had a few. Joining the Department of Management was definitely one of them, as I found an incredibly supportive workplace that I am delighted to be a part of. Last year, the publisher Sage recognized a case study I wrote about refugee camps, which also won the rector’s and dean’s award. I consider that another significant point because it brought the topic of life in refugee camps to the attention of more students and academics.

I am also grateful for the opportunity to open my own elective course focused on disaster management. Launching it was a dream come true for my younger self, who at the beginning of doctoral studies wouldn’t believe that something like this would be possible.

Teaching is associated with another turning point, as this year I was recognized as one of the best instructors at our faculty. This award means a lot to me because I look forward to my time with students and strive to make it as beneficial for them as possible. At the same time, I see it as a significant commitment for the future.

Since last year, I have also been involved in school projects on sustainability. The negative impacts of society on the environment is a topic close to my heart, so the opportunity to contribute to their reduction through the school is an opportunity I’ve long dreamed of.

I must not omit the first time my article was rejected; that was definitely also a turning point, albeit a less pleasant one. And how do I imagine another one? Honestly, the ideal would be that someone like me wouldn’t be needed – that we wouldn’t have millions of people affected by disasters of various origins every year. But I probably won’t live to see that.

What are you currently working on? What are your plans?

Last year, after six years, I started looking at disasters from a slightly different angle. Along with leaving Hanken, I began to move away from the logistical side of humanitarian operations and also finished all the articles and projects I had started.

This has freed up my time a bit, giving me the chance to sit down and think about what I might be interested in pursuing next. I couldn’t have imagined such a change before. If you had told me two years ago that I would be researching something different, I would have dismissed it with a comment that humanitarian logistics is everything.

Today, however, this change excites me. It’s important to me that my work has meaning, so if I’m heading in this direction, I’m not missing anything. I also like to choose slightly underground topics – those that are important, have value and impact, but are somewhat overlooked by the scientific community.

What obstacles have you had to overcome in your career?

Disaster management and humanitarian logistics are subjects that no one else at the University of Economics focuses on, so my studies were somewhat a lonely journey. Additionally, I used to devote all my time to work and did not know how to rest. I only watched documentaries about disasters and read thematic academic books. I don’t do that anymore.

Even though I can’t imagine being as passionate about any other research area, it’s full of sadness. One day on my way home from work, I realized that I could no longer match the information from survivors to specific disasters, as they had all blended together. That was a bit of a wake-up call that maybe I was too immersed.

Another challenge that I somewhat struggle with is influencing the direction of research. My field, of course, reflects what is happening in the world, and unfortunately, not all disasters are equal. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, many researchers began to publish on this topic – some wrote very valuable articles, while I was surprised that some pieces were even published. I remember one that described preventive measures against the spread of COVID in refugee camps, stating that people should wash their hands and maintain distances. Interestingly, there are camps in the world where 200 to 300 people share one toilet, and some live in holes they dug in the ground and covered with a tarp. So, it’s unrealistic to assume they can adhere to such measures.

Many journals, however, jumped on the bandwagon to publish about COVID and sidelined other, equally important topics. I fundamentally believe that all lives are equal, and it’s not fair to say that some disasters do not deserve attention or are not relevant, which an editor of an unnamed journal once told me. Therefore, choosing the focus of my research often becomes an ethical dilemma, even though some might say that I create this obstacle myself.

How do you perceive the position of women in research and academia?

I’ll start with what my high school teacher said when she found out I was accepted for a PhD program – just make sure you settle down. She continued with information on how it’s harder to get pregnant at an older age.

This was wrong for many reasons. Even worse for me was a comment from one professor I met during my doctoral studies. He told me that if I smiled nicely at the respondents, I would get the data for my article.

I was very proud of the methods I used for data processing at that time, and this was a degradation of all my work. I also remember a speech by another doctoral graduate at the graduation ceremony. She thanked our families for putting up with us and promised that now we would be back home as mothers and wives. I don’t remember her exact words, just that I sat there thinking that this was not why I went through a PhD program.

I think these experiences quite accurately reflect the reality of women, not just in research. However, I also think it’s necessary to distinguish between what are systemic issues and what are the failings of individuals. I see these particular cases as the latter. Although I started off quite negatively, I must say that I never felt that the department or faculty leadership treated me differently just because I am a woman.

When you go through the data we have available, do you perceive the situation the same way?

Actually, yes. After all, the data shows that we have fewer female associate professors and professors than male ones. I would also be interested in the success rates of women and men in doctoral studies, because many female students take maternity leave during their studies, and it’s a question of how many return and how they manage to balance it all.

I also think it’s important to specifically look at the numbers of women and men and the obstacles they then face. One thing is to have “enough” women, another is whether they are satisfied and have the same conditions. But that’s my general approach to the issue.

What do you think is important to work on within the University of Economics, but also generally in the academic environment here, to improve the position of women in research?

I think it is important to support everyone in the academic environment (including female and male students) to feel free to talk about their experiences. To achieve this, it should be clearly shown what is acceptable and what is not. Unfortunately, even today, there are people who do not see comments about getting data in exchange for smiles as a problem.

Something that already exists at the University of Economics is support for part-time contracts. I think that, along with relatively flexible working hours, is something that needs to be maintained and nurtured. This is also remembered in the Equal Opportunities Plan, so in this respect, I maintain optimism. I am glad that we have something similar, but I also see the existence of this Plan as a big commitment. It’s not enough to have some document; we must work on its implementation.

What tips and recommendations would you give to beginning researchers?

I would start with a small reality check: the academic environment is just like any other. You will encounter people whose opinions you may not agree with, and their views (not only) about women in research might surprise you.

Before I joined the Department of Management, I didn’t realize how much difference it makes to be part of a workplace that I love. I adore our department and am very lucky to be part of it. Therefore, I would also advise beginning colleagues to carefully choose the team they join, if they have the option.

Don’t be discouraged. There are things that are objectively wrong – for example, if you are misinterpreting data. Some things, however, are quite relative, such as the value of research. What some may not see, others might find valuable. Seek advice, consider the opinions of others, but also trust in yourself, your own opinion, and the research you have conducted.

Choose a topic that you love. Research is wonderful but also demanding because you have to manage many things at once – conducting research, teaching, and handling administration. What helped me was my love for the topic. Therefore, choose not only with your mind but also with your heart.

Ing. Jana Abíková, Ph.D. 

Assistant Professor, Department of Management, Faculty of Business Administration 

“I study disasters, focusing primarily on large-scale ones caused by human actions, involuntary migration, and sustainability in humanitarian aid. I believe that research should be helpful and that everyone deserves assistance. Therefore, it is important to me that my work benefits society.”