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Professional Curiosity and Maternal Instinct

By Ute Zauft

They send their children to the company kindergarten, work from home for a while or temporarily cut back their hours: family and career are not mutually exclusive - at least that's the expectation of many young female researchers working in the private sector. And companies have meanwhile begun to adopt more family-friendly policies to attract young scientists - including young fathers.

In theory, Elisabeth Weiland could drop in to see her two children during her lunch break. "No", says the postgraduate physicist in surprise, "after all, people don't do that at other crèches either." Elisabeth Weiland works in medical engineering at Siemens, developing algorithms for analysing ultrasound images; meanwhile, her children play at the company's daycare facility.

When Elisabeth Weiland had her first child, she returned to her job with a 50 percent workload immediately after her maternity leave. Her husband also cut back his working hours to 50 percent during the parental leave period, allowing both parents to take turns looking after their new baby at home. "Luckily, we live so close to my workplace that I was able to take quick breaks to go home and feed the baby", recounts Weiland. From the age of one, her child could then attend the Siemens crèche.

Flexible working time models help

She did initially sense a certain scepticism on the part of her managers, says the 39-year-old. "I think they were worried whether I would really be able to return to work so quickly." But she proved these worries unfounded, and when she had her second child, she and her husband repeated their working time model. Meanwhile, they both work 30 hours. "We share the work-life balance", says Elisabeth Weiland proudly. At the same time, she knows that with this model she is still part of a very small minority. In 2006, only 8.8 percent of men worked part-time, whereas among women it was 46 percent. "I am definitely in competition with men who live the traditional family model: the husband takes care of his career and the wife takes care of the family."

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Professional Curiosity and Maternal Instinct Professional Curiosity and Maternal Instinct Professional Curiosity and Maternal Instinct
There are now more women than men studying at German universities, and they are increasingly studying natural sciences. But so far, only a small number of these highly qualified women find their way into the research and development departments of German businesses: only 12.2 percent of scientists conducting research in the private sector are women; their share is lowest in mechanical engineering at 7.6 percent (as of 2007). Looming skills shortages are causing businesses to start taking an interest in this untapped potential. For example, the "Career and Family" certificate - a kind of quality seal for family-friendly employment policies - was launched in 1998; a noteworthy twelve percent of all large businesses with over 3,000 employees have since successfully applied for this certificate.

Organisational talent for management roles

When Friederike Lindner had her first child 14 years ago, things like company daycare facilities were practically unheard of. Almost simultaneously with the birth of her son, the postgraduate chemist was promoted to project manager in the Research and Development division at Bosch. She and her colleagues were developing a new diesel injection technology at the time. This was her first management role at the technology company, but more were to follow. "When you have a small child, it's not always easy to balance family and career development. It requires a lot of creativity in building a network." Her solution back then: a childminder and parents-in-law who were happy to help.

"My son still visits his childminder although he's already 14 now!" Friederike Lindner knows that this may sound unusual to some people. But in her opinion the only thing that is actually unusual is that her son otherwise has to take care of himself after school. "A place at a half-day childcare facility is rarely much use to parents who work full-time", Lindner points out, addressing an issue many parents are familiar with. Elisabeth Weiland is also hoping that her children will get places at the Siemens after-school club when they are old enough to go to school, but demand for these places is very high.

Early arrangements with managers

Today Friederike Lindner is the first and so far only woman to manage a research department at Bosch, and is therefore on the other side of the table when expecting mothers and fathers come to her. "When I went to speak to my boss back then, I had thought very carefully about when I wanted to come back to work, and communicated this very early on." She advises her employees to decide together with their partners who will be staying at home for how long, and then discuss this with their managers as specifically as possible. She is also open to part-time models: what counts for her, she says, is work per time unit, and adds: "People whose time is limited increase their efficiency enormously" - she speaks, she says, from personal experience.

When Alexander Krah comes home in the evening, the first thing on the agenda is playtime: his little daughter is seven months old, and it's his job to put her to bed in the evening. In the coming months, the postgraduate biochemist will also be handling the day shift: Alexander Krah is taking four months' parental leave while his wife returns to work. "My boss's first question was: 'How long will you be staying at home?' He was admittedly a bit surprised that it's more than two months." He is, after all, the second father in his department at pharmaceuticals company Merck to take parental leave.

Clearer prospects with the company

Alexander Krah is a laboratory supervisor at Merck; he and the five members of his staff develop methods for quality testing medicines. The 36-year-old wrote his doctoral thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Berlin. "I was actually also quite interested in an academic career", he says. But the conditions of employment in academia put him off: "My supervisor back then had to keep acquiring the funds for his projects himself." His thesis advisor already had a family, and it was obvious that he was under a lot of pressure. Indirectly this experience almost certainly influenced his decision to go into the private sector, says Alexander Krah.

There is a relatively short period in which the time to embark on a career and the time to start a family coincide for young researchers. Juggling the limited time available for work and family has to be well organised. Liliana Parra is a mother with all her heart, but equally dedicated to her work as a researcher. The 39-year-old studied chemistry in Spain, wrote her doctoral thesis in Switzerland and then worked at the Max Planck Institute in Mühlheim. Her CV includes 13 publications in respected chemistry periodicals; since she became laboratory team manager at chemical company BASF, more than 30 patents in plant protection have followed.

Quick return to avoid losing touch

When her first daughter was six months old she returned to her job at BASF with a 100 percent workload. "I really missed my job!", she says with a lot of enthusiasm in her voice. A little more quietly she adds: "Of course I was also worried that if I stayed at home longer, I wouldn't be able to catch up." Friederike Lindner also returned to her job at Bosch as quickly as possible after the birth of her son 14 years ago. "In order to keep on top of things", she says. But today she thinks it's not just the length of time that is decisive, but also the determination to get started again and the possibility of keeping in touch with the workplace during parental leave.

Liliana Parra is currently expecting her second child. She again plans to stay at home for half a year, and then return with an 80 percent workload. After a few months she intends to work full time again. She says the most important thing to have is a talent for organisation. Spontaneous business dinners in the evening simply aren't possible, she explains, but if one knows what's going on well in advance, all sorts of things can be organised. Liliana Parra has set herself some very high expectations: "I need my work, but I don't want my personal life to suffer." By the time her daughter starts going to school however, all-day options for pupils in Germany will have to improve, she adds.