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On the compatibility of children and careers

Von Eveliina und Henning Juntunen

Are children and careers compatible? Many female scientists find themselves faced with this question in the course of their academic careers. Is it possible to cope with the often massive difficulties that arise if one chooses both? The authors believe it is.

On the compatibility of children and careers© Miss X - Photocase.comAre children and careers compatible?
Over the course of their professional lives, many female scientists find themselves faced with the question of whether to pursue an academic career or have children. We would like to answer this question: it is possible to combine the two! Both female professors and young female researchers with children are employed at German universities. But these careers are not straightforward. The present article would like to highlight four aspects and argue for changes to the law and for greater family friendliness of university decision-makers.

In the discussion surrounding mothers in academia, fixed-term contracts are often considered the best contraceptive. The focus is however on their consequences, not on their causes. It is not the fixed-term contracts that are the actual problem; those are frequently also found in industry and service jobs. The problem is the ruthless two-tier society at universities, which differentiates between the research assistant in a permanent post, who has the legally protected option of extending her employment contract by maternity and parental leave, and a project staff member whose post is secured through third-party funding, who does not have this option and can only hope for a manager who is able to offer her a different project post when she returns. The extensive implications make it unlikely that this issue will be fully resolved in the foreseeable future; there are however two possible ways to alleviate this structural problem in academia: providers of third-party funding, who are generally state-financed, must face up to their responsibilities and be compelled to ring-fence additional funding to pay for family-related extension periods. That would constitute true promotion of families and women, and of a kind from which men would also benefit should they choose to take parental leave.

The other, merely second-best option would be to increase funding to promote equality and equal opportunities for women to an extent that would allow compensation to be paid for contract periods that were not worked. Many universities offer this option as a way of partly funding academic theses. But women who are financing additional qualifications through grants are also disadvantaged if they have children during this period or shortly after. It is an unfortunately little-known fact that doctoral and postdoctoral grants are not taken into account when parenting benefits are calculated. The stated reason for this refusal to pay parenting benefits is that grants are not taxable income. In response to a question on the subject, a member of the German parliament declared that these grants were basically comparable to funding provided in accordance with ALG II unemployment benefits or the Federal Education Assistance Act (BAföG).

This equation is however skewed, because there is a legal right to the latter if certain requirements are met, whereas a grant is an award. Changes are needed here! Not least, female researchers with children require reliable childcare options for the afternoons and during part of the 14 weeks of school holidays that also fall into term time. In our opinion it is of the greatest importance that the state provide demand-oriented childcare offerings. Currently, many childcare options are the result of initiatives set up by working parents. As long as it is necessary to register for places at crèches, daycare facilities or kindergartens years in advance, relocating with children will constitute an additional challenge.

By themselves, the suggested changes and measures cannot improve the compatibility of children and academia, which is ultimately subject to a significant extent to the attitudes of university stakeholders and women's partners. This issue has already been the focus of a study by the German Youth Institute in Munich ("Women's careers: couple dynamics and institutional contexts in the rush hours of life"), so we will move straight on to the importance and responsibility of potential employers. The structural problems of female academics with children are not specific to women; they affect mid-level academia as a whole. Women with children are only the worst affected. In addition, a look at day-to-day university life shows that for most of these women it is not the doctorate that represents the main hurdle, but the postdoc phase. This is where women would have to give their all in work, research and family life if they hoped to cope with the requirements of academia and motherhood simultaneously. Due to the Bologna reform and accreditations, the extent of and effort required for teaching and administration has grown significantly, particularly in mid-level academia. Expectations regarding academic work in the qualification phase have also increased.

In addition to a habilitation thesis and other academic publications, aspects such as the successful acquisition of third-party funding or organising one's own conferences and projects are becoming increasingly important. This is barely manageable during a regular working week. If academics additionally want to find time to spend with and on their children, this often has to be at the expense of something else - frequently their own research. How could the situation of female academics with children be improved in the near future without having to wait for the wheels of government to turn? First of all, mentalities must change at universities and research institutes; a change of thinking is required. Pregnancies must not be made into problems by managers.

At the same time, university members tasked with the university's self-administration must be appealed to when making appointments not to evaluate publication volumes, but instead review the quality of a limited number of papers and consider any 'gaps' in light of family responsibilities. Finally, it goes without saying that it is the responsibility of young female researchers to adapt flexibly to situations and deliver outstanding academic performance, albeit in lesser volume. With this in mind, we would like to encourage women in academia to have children even and especially in their qualification phases. Only when CVs including family-oriented choices become the norm when reviewing applications for professorships will equal opportunities for female academics be in sight!

From Forschung & Lehre :: October 2011