REGENSBURG--Last week female scientists, politicians, and students met at the University of Regensburg to discuss the history and future prospects of women academics at German universities. They concluded that for the first time since women were admitted as students to German universities 100 years ago, they have a chance to achieve parity in one of the last bastions of male dominance: the university faculty.
Almost half of first-year graduate students in Germany are female. But their numbers drop rapidly as they move up the academic ladder: Less than 16% of postdocs who qualify as university lecturers are female, and only 5.5% of full-tenure positions in universities are held by women. In her talk, Ursula Männle, a professor of politics and sociology at the university of applied science in Munich, stated that career and family interests are often incompatible and women still have to fight old prejudices. The conflicts force many of them to leave university after the first degree.
Ulrike Gräßel agrees. "Because of their family duties and interests, women students do not have equal opportunities to attain top academic positions," says Gräßel, a professor of sociology at the university of applied science in Görlitz. According to official figures, women do more than double the amount of housework that men do. In her opinion, this is one of the main reasons for the small number of women in higher academics. "After a full-time job, women do not feel like working a second shift at home," Gräßel says.
The students and young scientists taking part in the discussion also pointed out that women often are at a disadvantage when mobility is required. For example, women with families cannot easily change to a research group overseas, even though a research stay abroad is expected in their curriculum vitae.
But help may be on the way. Gräßel points out that several aid programs are increasing opportunities for women academics. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany's main research funding agency, now offers part-time scholarships to female postdocs who have children and want to qualify for an appointment as professor. The European Union program "Improving the Human Research Potential and the Socio-Economic Knowledge Base" plans to grant at least 40% of its Marie Curie fellowships to women. Also, under the new federal framework law (Hochschulrahmengesetz), universities fostering women are to be financially rewarded by the state governments.
The programs seem to be working. "I believe that female students today have excellent career prospects," says historian Heidrun Baumann, who is responsible for women's issues at Regensburg. "In subjects with a low rate of female students such as physics, women who have qualified as a university lecturer have at least the same or even better chances to be appointed as their male colleagues." But she is less optimistic about the life sciences. "The opportunities are worse in subjects like biology with a high rate of female students, where women are competing for an appointment with other women," Baumann says. To improve their chances, she advises women to choose subjects with a promising future like information technology, media sciences, engineering, law, or business management.
But simply offering scholarships or encouraging female students to switch disciplines may not be enough to solve the problem. "Parallel to programs fostering women at universities, there has to be a change in the state of mind," says Petra Böhmer, a student of educational theory at Regensburg, who participated in the panel discussion as a student representative. "Men also might follow their female partners to another university. It has to become clear that women are, for example, by no means automatically in charge of child care."