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Germany: The Backbreaking Work of Scientist-Homemakers (Abstract)


Author(s) Peter Aldhous

Article that examines the societal pressure place on German women in the scientific workplace.

Author(s):  Peter Aldhous

The core of Germany's attitude towards working women, says cell biologist Mary Osborn, "can be summed up in three words of an old German slogan: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche (children, church, kitchen)."

German society is not structured to accommodate working women very well. A pervasive message from the media is that children in day care will suffer. As a result, day care is not widely available even for those with generous salaries. Stores are open only during the working day, making it nearly impossible for working women to shop. Most schools have only morning hours, again restricting the flexibility of families' schedules where both parents work. Women with scientific careers are further hampered by "an entrenched network of established male scientists who tend to hire other men."

As a result, the former West Germany's senior faculty for the five main science disciplines -- biology, physics, chemistry, math, and the geosciences -- contains a mere 2% women. The former East Germany had higher participation rates until the unification, and now western-style hours (9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or alter) cut into precious family time in the evening. Furthermore, as the East German academic system is restructured, newcomers to the fields of science and engineering are often male West Germans, and women are fighting harder to keep their jobs in the face of down-sizing.

The Double Bind

Aldhous writes that among more than twenty female researchers interviewed for this article, most agreed that the chief problem for women in science in Germany is the societal pressure on mothers to devote their time to caring for the children. This intense pressure is compounded because the male-dominated establishment is reluctant to make allowances for women with young children, making it difficult for them to keep up with the 12-hour days and weekend work that are the norm in many German labs. This puts women in a double bind, damned by society if they don't devote the majority of their time to their families, and penalized if they do -- because their resumes aren't as extensive as those of male colleagues.

One manifestation of the intense pressure that children place on a woman's career is reflected in the experience of a university professor who was advising biology graduate students. Some of these students were considering having abortions because of the five-year time limitation for their graduate study.

The educational timeline also works to women's disadvantage. Most students obtain their Ph.D.s after age 30, leaving women little time to establish their scientific career and begin raising a family. Women who cannot find day care may be fortunate in receiving support from family members who help to look after their children. Most research centers do not have day care centers, although a few women have invested huge amounts of time and energy to initiate day care centers at their labs.

There are very few women in the elite Max Planck Society (MPS). Aldhous informs us that among more than 200 researchers holding the position of Max Planck Director--a grade roughly equivalent to a university professor but carrying with it generous funding to run a research group--there are only two women." Some cite bias inherent in the Method of selection for new MPS Directors. No open application process is available. MPS Directors are appointed by a system in which current Directors suggest potential future Directors. MPS Directors almost always suggest other men.

Stopping the Female Exodus

Many women leave academia during doctoral programs or after receiving their Ph.D. to retrain for an industry job that may not involve such grueling hours. Some institutions are beginning to recognize the flood of female talent leaving academic research. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinshaft (DFG), Germany's main research council, now awards to part-time fellowship applicants with young children who are searching for post-Ph.D. qualification posts. The fellowship includes an allowance of up to DM500 (about $290) a month for child care. And in 1993, the MPS agreed to alter its process of selecting future Directors. The future process will include asking non-MPS scientists to suggest candidates, especially female candidates.

Easing the Way Back In

Germany is beginning some promising work towards the future. New women science ministers, responsible for overseeing university-based research and reserving the final say in faculty appointments, have been appointed in several states. In 1991, the federal government initiated the new HSPII program to tune up the German higher education system. Improving women's participation in science is one of HSPII's goals; with funds earmarked for fellowships with child-care allowances, as well as specific grants for women scientists who are interrupting their careers--including "contact stipends" to pay for journals and conference fees and "re-entry stipends" to lure women back to the lab.

Many women are encouraged by these developments but believe that "German labs will become a friendly environment for female researchers only when the current older generation of ultraconservative professors, who subscribe to the 'Kinder, Kirche, Kuche'" philosophy, are replaced by men who know professional women, and their needs, close-up.

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Cite this page: "Germany: The Backbreaking Work of Scientist-Homemakers (Abstract)" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 8/1/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, December 4, 2016 <>