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Helping Scientists Juggle Kids and Career

Women scientists in Germany achieve less success than in most other EU countries. A groundbreaking charitable foundation sheds light on the plight of female researchers and academics.


Biologist Nüsslein-Volhard: "A good researcher cannot be replaced"

Nobel Prize-winning biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard caused a stir last year when she set up a foundation to fund women scientists. She decided to give money to dedicated researchers who were also young mothers, and who were having trouble managing career and family.

From a pool of 99 applications, the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation selcted five women: three physicists, an astronomer, and a biologist. All of them have at least one child between the ages of five months and four years.

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Lab animals can't always wait

Starting in September, each of the selected scientists will get 400 euros ($500) a month for a year. The stipend is renewable for up to three years. The funds are not meant to be used for supplies or materials, but rather for babysitting, domestic help -- even a washing machine. Anything goes, as long as it can help women devote more time to scientific research.

Different problems

Of course, it's not only women scientists who dream of being freed from household duties to get ahead in their careers. But women scientists who also raise children "have different problems than someone in, say, law or marketing," said Sabine List, the Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation’s public relations manager.

"If you are a biologist and you set up cell cultures, they don’t wait for you. Just because your child’s daycare closes at 4:00 doesn’t mean the culture will be ready at 3:30. They might not be ready until 5, so that's when you have to be at the lab," List said.

Many researchers are on small stipends and can’t afford to pay for additional childcare outside daytime hours or for a babysitter so they can present a paper at a conference -- another must for success in the scientific world. "We’re just trying to help them be more flexible," List said.

The idea for the foundation came about after Nüsslein-Volhard, who heads the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, noticed her gifted research assistants tended to drop out of science once they had children. Nüsslein-Volhard felt that simply replacing one researcher with another wouldn't be a satisfactory solution.

Individuality at a premium

This is due to the individual nature of the work, Nüsslein-Volhard told "Spiegel Online" in August. "It's not a normal, routine job, like teacher or doctor. A good researcher simply cannot be replaced by someone else, because each scientist creates her own work, asks her own set of questions. Setting one's own goals is the hallmark of scientific research."

Vaterschaftstest im Genlabor

Work in a genetics lab

Women scientists in Germany face a lot of hurdles; statistics show they have less success in terms of career advancement than in most other European countries.

According to European Union data from 2003, 30 percent of German college and university students enrolled in the natural sciences were women -- one of the lowest rates in all Europe. At the same time, only 6 percent of full professorships in Germany were held by women. Full professorships are often used as a benchmark of success in scientific academia, and are useful since they are statistically tracked.

Leaky pipeline

Inken Lind, a researcher at the Center of Excellence Women in Science (CEWS) in Bonn, confirmed that there is a "noticeable imbalance" between the achievements of women and men in science. What's more, as the jobs get more important and better paid, that gap increases -- a phenomenon referred to as the "leaky pipeline."

"Concretely, this means in Germany -- much more than in other countries -- women with the same qualifications have a much lower chance of having a scientific career than men," Lind said.

DNA Analyse im Labor

Biologist at work

Often, the pipeline begins to leak most when women become mothers. Nüsslein-Volhard, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1995, blames this phenomenon on the country’s conservative attitudes -- and policies -- surrounding child-rearing.

"In Germany, there is simply a societal problem. Women who have children and work full days are considered strange, and they have trouble finding full-time care," she told the newspaper die tageszeitung.

Political issues

Indeed, politicians have spent the past few years grappling with issues such as all-day schools and expanded daycare for small children. Compared with most other European countries, Germany is considered unfriendly toward working mothers on these topics.

Over the past decade, the scientific community has worked hard to address the imbalances. Mentoring programs have mushroomed, while federal and local monies have been directed into programs aimed at helping women in the field.

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German science can't afford losing talented women

These measures have met with some success. The numbers of female science professors have been growing over the last decade, and there are now more women professors than at any time in the country's history. So far, though, the Nüsslein-Vollhard Foundation has been the first to try to achieve parity by financing household appliances.

Lost opportunity

CEWS' Lind says it's important to realize promoting women's role in science is a question of equal opportunity, but also much more than that.

"There are profound reasons to continue increasing the number of women professors," Lind said. "On the one hand, greater input from women ... would give a different perspective to science," she said, noting recent acknowledgement of a longstanding 'male bias’ in pharmaceutical and medical research.

Financial resources are also at stake. Many women study for years at publicly funded German universities, then step off the career ladder because their country is not family-friendly. For Germany, "the loss of highly qualified scientists leads to a shrinking pool of human resources that German science can’t afford in the long run. Not if it wants to stay internationally competitive."

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