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Learning From Role Models and Different Traditional Roles


Editor's note: Florian Raible, 30, grew up in former West Germany, completed his PhD in developmental biology at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden and is now a postdoc in computational/developmental biology at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. Kristin Tessmar-Raible, 26, an evolutionary neurobiologist at the University of Marburg and EMBL, is presently writing up her PhD dissertation. They are both deeply committed to their present and future research careers and a shared life together. In this piece, which arose from an interview earlier this year, they contemplate a future in which having a family and advancing dual research careers are both possible.

Kristin: My best friend from school phoned me up a few weeks ago to tell me that she's pregnant. Another friend just had a child. Of course, that makes us wonder: Would it not be the best time for us as well to start a family?

Florian: Naturally, we have discussed this issue and there is certainly no general rule for these decisions. In our particular case, we are in a fortunate position: Kristin is younger than most Germans that have completed their PhD, so we think we can take the next career step before planning the family.

Kristin: At one point, I was given the following advice from a senior female scientist, who has managed to combine her and her partner's dual science careers, as well as having children: "It will never be easy to have a family and stay in science, and no one can guarantee that it will work out, but the earlier you reach a leading position, the easier it will be to continue as a scientist." Notably, this scientist was an American professor. It would be difficult to get the same advice in Germany, simply because there are very few scientist couples who have managed to have a family that could give firsthand experience and advice.

One reason for this lack of expertise might be that, particularly in Germany, a certain role model prevails that somehow puts parenting and work in opposition to each other. But our impression is that this issue is thought about very differently in the two regions of our country--that is, the former West Germany and East Germany.

Florian: In the former West Germany (Alte Länder), mothers usually take an extended leave of absence from work to spend a lot of time with their child(ren). My own mother is a good example. She is a teacher, and I was her second child. After my birth, she stopped working for several years to stay with us until my younger brother had reached school age. Luckily, in her profession, with a permanent contract, she could relatively easily re-enter work after this period.

Clearly, scientists face a different situation. With the ever-increasing speed of scientific progress, a longer break could be harmful to one's career. (Editor: This issue has been raised by several funding organisations and some people manage to re-enter successfully). From the strictly "scientific career" point of view, the safest way would be to return to work after only a short break. Still, at least in most of Germany, there is a widespread feeling that this is not how a mother "should" behave, and social pressure can be intense.

Kristin: I come from a very different family background. My mother had four children but she never really stopped working as a medical doctor. This did not have to do with her profession as such, but rather reflects the fundamental difference between two cultural systems. I grew up in the former German Democratic Republic, where the state philosophy endorsed a totally different role for mothers than in Western Germany. People used to have kids at a young age, mostly in their early 20s, and there was excellent support, in the form of day-care services, for mothers going back to work at any early stage.

Of course the whole political system was not economically sound but in general, I feel that people from the former East still have a much better appreciation of and a positive attitude towards "working mothers" than their West German counterparts. Following re-unification, traditions like the day-care system are now gradually falling victim to the economic realities of the former Eastern states. The combination of a falling birth rate, high unemployment, and low taxation means that the system can no longer be financed by many cities.

Florian: I witnessed this while I was finishing my PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics over the last 2 years in Dresden, Saxony. Colleagues with kids had severe problems finding a local kindergarten place for their children as the waiting lists were long. Eventually, our institute recognized this need, and they have just supported the foundation of an institute-associated kindergarten. But this is a rare event in Germany. And in the end, it is clear that this service will have its price. One is then forced to ask the question: Was the former East German system just a Utopian unaffordable luxury?

Kristin: I certainly don't think so. It is not purely a matter of the economical situation--other factors play an important role. Firstly, the common German societal attitude has a major influence on people--women in particular--to give up their job and stay at home with their child. It is considered to be the right thing to do. Those who don't may be thought of as "Rabenmütter".

Secondly, the general attitude of people towards working parents certainly depends on the availability and the awareness of successful role models. Many Germans invest in their careers, but Germany is one of the countries with the most unbalanced age distribution--there are more people over 65 than there are kids below 15 years of age. This is going to be a big problem for our society, because educated young people are the basis of the future well-being of a country. So, there is a big need for role models combining careers with parenthood, which should also be in the general interest of our society. Yet, there are very few examples of scientist couples in Germany that have a family.

In contrast, the stereotypical German professor is male, and if he has family, his wife usually stays at home with the kids. You do not have to go back to the Socialist times of Eastern Germany in order to find counter examples. In France, it is much more accepted that mothers work, and you will also find more examples in science. This might be a bit easier with the French academic system, where people get permanent contracts relatively early on in their careers. With this security starting a family is also less of a career risk in France.

Florian: For scientist couples, senior academics may not only fail to represent that much needed role model but they might even be unsupportive towards those couples that do want to combine a family and two careers. Of course, we have no experience of our own yet, but you hear of couples that have applied for joint positions, and then they are regularly turned down. In the student union, we had the opportunity to partake in some hiring committees for faculty positions. It is a standard procedure that people check the publication record and the age, but no one really cares about whether the applicant has a family or not. In fact, in a certain sense, we do not think that it is the female scientists who are discriminated against in the German system. Rather, it is the working parents.

Kristin: When I think of possible ways that working parents could be specifically supported, awareness is one thing that comes to mind. But the language that is most likely to be understood is money. For example, if universities set aside special funding for the support of couples, if grant-giving agencies introduce specific grants that support scientist couples and working parents, this would be a positive sign. Scientific research is a very demanding job, both in terms of workload and in terms of openness to mobility, so scientist-parents must face up to these pressures and find solutions if they do not want to drop out of the system.

Florian: During the Career Development session at the last ELSO meeting in Dresden, someone stood up and said that mobility is the biggest problem for parenting scientists. This person suggested that diplomats, who relocate frequently, are a good professional analogy. She went on to say that diplomats get special mobility bonuses, so why not introduce something similar for scientist couples? Even if politics and funding bodies still need some time to move, individual institutions can already start setting good examples. In fact, some institutions, like the ETH Zurich, have introduced support schemes for couple scientists. That sends an encouraging message.

Kristin: In my opinion, the assumption that this kind of support is charity is misguided. Also, I do not think anyone would suspect the Swiss to blindly invest in a socialistic Utopia--as many people think that former East Germany had done. I think that it is rather part of a strategy to make a working place attractive to good candidates. We are sure that these institutes will have their reward in the long run. (Editor: There also appears to be a growing trend in some U.S. universities to make extra efforts for the "trailing spouse" of a candidate). All parties will benefit from it, not only the parents and children. Hopefully, Germany is learning from those examples.