Finding Equality Again


My story could be summarized with the following words: I came to the U.S. as a postdoctoral fellow unsure of my own abilities, became an empowered woman scientist, and stayed.

A proud recipient of the Feodor Lynen Research Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, I came to work with the world leaders in nuclear chemistry at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. I got the chance of a lifetime: to work with the team whose goal is and was to discover new elements and/or new isotopes. Taking part in this endeavor not only promised to boost my career; it was also enticing and challenging. This research, extremely basic and uncharted in its nature, meant I had to learn a lot. And I do like to learn! That's was keeps me motivated.

Great Science, But With a Broken Heart

Scientifically, I was in heaven. Humanly, however, I had a broken heart, for two reasons. The decision to go did not come easy to me, and my then-husband didn't help. In good old marital and German tradition, I had asked for his consent before applying for the fellowship. Naively, I had hoped he would support me, just as I had supported him. This hope was smashed the instant I came home beaming with joy with the great news that I had been awarded the fellowship. His words are burned in my mind: "Oh, I thought you belong to the 66% who don't get it."

Leaving my kids behind was not my intention. The circumstances made that happen, and I paid dearly; I was not yet self-confident enough to go against the current of traditional German family forces. The fellowship was generous compared to typical German entry salaries, but the living costs in Berkeley as well as my conformance to German cultural traditions made it impossible for me to move my children to the States.

Being separated from my kids was the hardest part in my life to date. Yet, I still had to produce cutting-edge science if I wanted to further my career, and feed and dress my kids. And I did; see for yourself: Science 281 (1998), page 1783. My past and this new situation made me grow up--further than my husband and parents would ever have imagined or liked. No, I did not and do not miss Germany, but I did miss my children (ages 6 and 11 back then).

I am formed by my past, which includes a happy childhood and a great education in East Germany. Today I can even say I am proud because many of the principles I was taught in the East German system I find realized here in the United States. Surprised? I was!

In East Germany, I grew up with near-perfect gender equality. I say "near-perfect," because I don't remember a woman as professor during my college time there. However, I grew up with both parents working, both scientists. Only one girl in my elementary school class had a mother who did not work. After the unification, a decline in equality was immediately imminent. It was all too visible in the West, where I followed my husband, who had found a graduate position in Marburg.

Not only was there no infrastructure to support working moms; there was also no acceptance of working moms. "How could you dare to do that to your child!" My then-husband, previously a reliable partner, suddenly wasn't able to do his share anymore, except for taking part in paying the bills. How did I still make it? I was fortunate! I found an American-educated professor who took me on as graduate student and allowed me all the flexibility I needed to succeed. Thanks, Professor R. Brandt! By the way: I was his only German-born female graduate.

More Support for and Acceptance of Working Parents

In the States--so different from my previous experiences and very much appreciated--if you are hired, no matter what gender, race, or age, there is no question that you are qualified to do the job. In the jobs I had and during the interviews I was invited to, I never got the impression that anyone doubted my qualifications. This was so new and so great; nobody made me feel like I only had a chance because of an imposed quota. I got hired for my qualifications! That's a great accomplishment on the route to gender equality. And it generates confidence.

Fascinating, to me, is the acceptance level within the U.S. society for parents having both children and careers. That having children is not considered a roadblock in a parent's career was just as new to me as the encouragement to have children. The Livermore Lab, for instance, has numerous support mechanisms for working parents, with flexible work time being the most important. Joining the Livermore Lab enabled me finally to move my children to the U.S., care for them, place them in excellent public schools, obtain green cards (sponsored by the lab), and pursue my scientific career as part of the Element 116 discovery team. By now I had built up my confidence to the point where I would master both family and scientific career. Now it's time to move on to the next stage. Thanks, LLNL!

One last aspect I would like to note here, again one I grew up with that got lost during the unification to West Germany: Here in the U.S., much is achieved because people voluntarily put themselves and their time behind the cause. This might be normal to you, but was and is incredible to me. Now, living, working, and researching for nearly 8 years in the States, I have not forgotten where I came from or where I live today. In my spare time I am focusing on two main projects. Remembering and honoring my heritage, I am vice president of the Northern California Chapter of the Alexander von Humboldt Association of America, where I help integrate new generations of Feodor Lynen Fellows. My other focus is the Skyline 50-kilometer Endurance Run, for which I am the race director. With those activities, I hope to contribute to both societies, American and German.

I am happy to have gone on the fellowship and to have made the decision to stay in the United States. I am aware that also in the U.S. "only water is used to cook" (a translated German saying; you figure it out!) and that not everything that shines is gold. Nevertheless, I think that the U.S. society (at least in California's Bay Area) comes much closer to gender equality than I have experienced in West Germany. Thanks to all who contributed to this progress, and let's keep moving. I'll help! May our kids have an even better world and society!

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