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Children and career? In dubio contra scientiam

by Karina Schneider-Wiejowski

Female researchers aiming for an academic career with children face numerous obstacles, and therefore often find the decision to have or forgo children very difficult. Thoughts from a research assistant asking herself this question.

Children and career? In dubio contra scientiam© luxuz::. - Photocase.comChildren and career - difficult to combine in academia
"Karina, I'm pregnant", a colleague recently told me, and judging by the look on her face she was thrilled, which surprised me a little. It wasn't because I don't like children that I was surprised, but because she is currently writing her Master's thesis and is determined to follow it with a doctorate. "I see", I said cautiously, and then couldn't stop myself from blurting out: "Did you want a baby, or was it an accident?" My colleague looked at me in surprise: "Of course I wanted it", she said. "After all, I've already been told that my contract, which runs out in September, will be extended for a year. But first I'm going to take parental leave for a year, and I'm sure I'll already have time to start researching for my dissertation then." I was happy for her, and we drank a toast to her pregnancy. But a couple of days later, we were actually supposed to be going shopping for baby clothes and pregnancy dresses, I found myself having to dry her tears because her contract had not been extended, for project-related reasons.

Of course my colleague is now free to go to court over her discontinued contract, but she won't, because she fears being labelled a troublemaker, which could close doors for her at this university in the future. And she's not alone with this problem. I know several colleagues in my working environment who are expecting a baby, and many of them, especially those who have already been employed as research assistants for some time and are working on their doctorate, have specifically chosen to become pregnant, seemingly according to the motto: and after my dissertation I'm having a baby. But after giving birth and taking a year's parental leave some of them will initially find themselves experiencing a career slump, which they are aware of because the projects they are currently working on will have been completed by the end of their parental year. Maybe they'll find something new, but maybe they won't. The fear remains, even if it is currently pushed aside by the joy of expecting a child.

Family-friendly university

And when I think about these colleagues, I ask myself how family-friendly our universities really are? In the international competition for qualified specialists, employers depend on making attractive offers, and making them specifically for women too. Many German universities proudly display their "Family Friendly University" certificates. "The University of Bielefeld defines the term 'family' as the social network. In addition to the core family, this also includes single mothers and fathers, non-marital and same-sex partnerships, patchwork and foster families. The term family comprises all forms of private cohabitation designed to be long-term. Family means a lifelong association between generations characterised by taking on responsibility for each other", says the homepage of the University of Bielefeld, the university where I studied and will also complete my doctorate.

And particularly the clause about the "lifelong association between generations characterised by taking on responsibility for each other" makes me thoughtful, as I'm lucky to have a very large family that lives in the same city as I do. As I'm married, there are also my in-laws, who also live in Bielefeld. Those should really be ideal conditions for starting my own family with children, as I would not lack for childcare options. But the reality is different, because like many female academics I'm employed on a fixed-term contract. And whether I stay in Bielefeld or the surrounding area after my contract ends will also depend on the opportunities that open up for me, and could also conflict with the requirements of the academic system, which demands mobility and values CVs that document a variety of stations.

Facing the decision

At the moment I still have enough time to concentrate on academia, but someday I will reach a point where I may have to decide for or against an academic career, like very many women I know. Some of them have not regretted abandoning their academic career, and when I visit them, we tumble through the garden with their children. And I believe these women when they say they are happy. On the other hand I often ask myself whether academia can be a substitute for children, because many female professors I know are childless; some of them commute weekly between their homes and husbands and their universities. From Monday to Thursday afternoon they work relentlessly at their academic locations, lectures, seminars, board meetings and consultation hours chasing each other; from Thursday evening to Sunday they are at home in order to advance their research work without the turbulent interruptions of day-to-day university life, or perhaps even to enjoy their personal lives. The commute alone would render raising children somewhat difficult for them. Asked whether she regretted not having children, one professor recently told me that she did, but that back then - and by back then she meant the time after her doctorate, when she was over the age of 30 - she wanted to keep up and therefore had to be mobile. But now she was too old for a child, she said, and could therefore concentrate fully on her research and on promoting young academics. Her doctoral candidates were after all somehow also her children, she said. That may be true, but I ask myself why it isn't possible to have it all: an academic career and one's own children as well.

Yes, of course it is, many equal opportunities officers would cry if they were sitting across from me; we have childcare facilities, coaching programmes, and telecommuting is also an option. True, I would answer were I asked, but I for example don't need childcare facilities because I have parents and grandparents and a husband, and nor do I need to telecommute. No, it's the non-family-friendly legal situation of fixed-term contracts and the only very limited chance of gaining a long-term or ideally permanent position at the university of one's choice that is causing many highly qualified women to decide "in dubio contra scientiam".

From DIE ZEIT :: 13.03.2012