Raising Awareness


Imagine your partner getting her or his first appointment for a full staff position. You'd be really happy if only that position was located in the same area where you are currently working on your own research project. Instead, the new position is located at the other end of the country. So the question comes up: Should you stay or should you go with your partner? Do you have any alternatives to your current situation? Many scientist couples face this dilemma at some stage of their careers, making them the perfect role models for so-called (academic) dual-career couples. And the problem doesn't only occur at the professorial level; it can happen throughout your career, even at a very early stage.

Unlike in North America, where the dual-career couple "issue" has been on the agenda for more than 2 decades, the majority of Germany's scientific community officially ignored this topic until recently. Thus, the first meeting focusing on these couples, co-hosted by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft ( DFG; a sponsor of Next Wave Germany) and the German Donors' Association ( Stifterverband) in Bonn on 24 February, was welcomed by scientists. Nevertheless, the turnout suggested that the topic has yet to bubble toward the top of the agendas of university presidents, science policymakers, or administrators. Only about 70 people attended the meeting, which targeted all German universities and research centers.

Despite the lower-than-expected turnout, this meeting could mark the first step in addressing the future needs of Germany's dual-career couples. As such, it offered a general introduction to the issue of dual-career couples, as well as some facts about these couples in Germany today.

What Is a "Dual-Career Couple?"

Although many couples work, not all of them are "dual-career couples," according to the discussion among participants. In common usage, "dual-career couples" follow a career pattern (such as an academic career path) which is more restrictive in terms of geographical mobility. Another difference apparently exists between dual- career couples in academia and in industry: Whereas the placement of two employees within the same company is relatively easy (especially when the company is large enough to operate on a global scale), placing two partners with the same scientific background at the same university normally causes serious problems. In industry, some companies have already started support schemes such as partnerjob.com that enable spouses to find jobs in the same area to which the partner will transfer. For the academic sector, such schemes have yet to be established, at least in Germany.

Is There a Need to Address the Issue?

Although the exact number of dual-career couples in Germany is not known, some data suggest the dimension. According to the German Physical Society's committee on equity, 86% of female physicists in Germany are in a relationship with another physicist. According to DFG and the Stifterverband, the number is expected to be as high in other disciplines.

From the employers' perspective, the partner's career prospects may play a more important role in a person's career-related decisions than is generally perceived. Alessandra Rusconi, a Ph.D. student at the Berlin-based Max Planck Institute for Human Development, presented results from a survey on dual-career couples and existing hiring policies in Germany. According to the study's results, about 50% of the universities surveyed acknowledged that they had received refusals from short-listed candidates in the past based on the lack of career prospects for the candidate's partner.

Other figures also suggest that the scope of the problem is increasing. Against the background of the ongoing brain drain debate in Germany, Heide Radlanski of the Stifterverband showed the participants figures from the organization's " Brain Drain--Brain Gain" study. When asked about incentives to return to their home country, German scientists abroad ranked "career opportunities for the partner" in second place. With 72% of all interviewed scientists mentioning it, this issue seems to be a decisive factor for scientists contemplating a return to Germany.

Another factor might contribute to more awareness in the coming years: Should the junior professor scheme succeed, several thousand junior professors will be hired. According to DFG president Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, "the appointment procedure for a junior professor should be equal to that of a full professor." As a consequence, a high number of dual-career couples would have to be taken into consideration, especially if Germany wants to increase the number of junior professors from abroad. "We might have to consider new programmes or amending existing funding schemes like the Emmy Noether Programme if we want to address the issue of dual-career couples," Winnacker said. Although the first round of about 400 junior professors has been hired, there are no data about dual-career issues in that context. The president of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Hanns Seidler, told Next Wave that "we ran full appointment procedures for all junior-professor posts. In none of the negotiations [was] the issue of a dual-career partner ... brought up by the candidates, but I should also say that we didn't specifically ask such a question."

Recruiting Practices: The International Difference

"Unlike U.S. universities, German universities do not have a spousal hiring policy," Ulrich Schreiterer reported at the meeting. Schreiterer is in a good position to judge: His wife, a professor of history, is currently considering an offer from Yale University. Naturally, the university is also very supportive in assisting him in finding an adequate position on campus through its spousal-support program and dual-career center. "From the beginning on, we were addressed as a couple when communicating with the university," Schreiterer says. His experience quickly turns the attention to the bigger picture: Germany's old-fashioned tradition of hiring academic personnel. "The appointment process is not an active recruiting. We are not asking ourselves "Whom do we want as a colleague?" but we are happy when we receive 50 or 100 applications for an open professorship," Jürgen Mlynek, DFG vice president and president of Berlin's Humboldt University, summarized.

Besides necessary changes in the recruiting procedures, two other problems contribute to the difficulties when it comes to the hiring of dual-career couples. Besides the lack of financial resources to fund an additional position according to the partner's qualifications, the human factor plays a role. "What happens if the partner would have to be placed in a different faculty and they don't really want him?" several participants asked. Ideas on how to approach some of the questions were provided by Maresi Nerad of the University of Washington, Seattle. "It is important to be frank about the partner's qualifications," she said. Nerad, married to a scientist herself, has much experience in support mechanisms for dual-career couples from her work as the director of the National Center for Graduate Research. Many U.S. universities have developed various ways to solve the finance-related issues that were acknowledged by Manfred Erhardt, the Stifterverband's general secretary: "I could imagine us initiating a programme that would partly fund German universities' innovative approaches on this subject." Erhardt told Next Wave: "If we were able to stimulate a few path-breaking approaches, it would help to raise awareness about this issue."

Consequences for Scientists

Those people who currently have to deal with being a dual-career couple still have to face a number of obstacles. Besides the lack of active support measures by their host institutions, they also require prudent rules on how to handle the situation in negotiations with their university. Although the vast majority of universities surveyed by the Max Planck Institute stated that they would try to support dual-career scientists, the issue is still delicate: Many candidates apparently fear that if they mention their partners early on, their chances to make the final list of candidates will diminish. "Finding the best moment to talk about the partner's career is of importance," summarized Alessandra Rusconi. Nerad supported this view: "It really requires good negotiating skills to determine the best moment to talk about this," she said. "Therefore, it is an advantage if institutions have an official spousal hiring policy. This makes it easier for the scientist to evaluate the university's standpoint."

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