The number of female students at German universities is rising - but few embark on an academic career. Support programs aim to change that. And they've worked: the share of female professors has risen to 20 percent.
If you want a successful academic career, you need more than just focus, endurance and competence: you also have to show others what you can do. Women in particular seem to have a problem with that. Astrid Wallrabenstein, a professor of law, has witnessed this on several occasions in the course of her academic career. "In terms of confidence and demeanor, male and female students drift apart over the years of their studies," she says.
Wallrabenstein is a 42-year-old professor who has many years of experience holding seminars and lectures. She believes that at the beginning of their studies, there is no big difference between men and women. According to what she has observed, both sexes show the same willingness to participate in seminars and are equally good when it comes to presenting themselves and their skills. Wallrabenstein said, however, that this changes over time, with men consistently putting their knowledge and competence on display, while women often choose to take the back seat.
Picture-perfect career as professor
Astrid Wallrabenstein never hid her light under a bushel – and got a picture-perfect career in return. After her law studies, she went on to do her state examination and her PhD; she then became a research assistant and did her postdoctoral lecture qualification at Giessen University. She eventually attained her professorate at the Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main.
Throughout her academic career, Wallrabenstein has been supported by "ProProfessur," a program that helps female academics prepare for being a professor. The project helped her assess whether she was actually ready to manage all the tasks with which a professor is confronted, she said. "I had to think about how to present myself in the appeals proceedings, for instance." In professional training programs, she learnt how to be friendly, confident and convincing at the same time. Her manner in dealing with colleagues and her leadership qualities were also subjects of discussion in the "ProProfessur" program. "I know now how to cope with all the challenges that I'm faced with," Wallrabenstein says.
Academia loses too many women
The 42-year-old feels the benefits of the experiences gained through "ProProfessur" to this day. When she organizes conferences, she chooses to invite female experts rather than letting male experts take center-stage. "ProProfessur" works with women at all five universities in the German state of Hessia. Astrid Franzke is the head of the program at the Goethe University Frankfurt. She said women still need support to make it in the academic world in Germany: "Academia still loses too many highly skilled women on their way to top positions," she says.
Franzke says it is not just that women don't push their own careers enough. She sees at least part of the reason in the system itself. "It's a job where you have to be present 150 percent of the time; you have to be flexible and mobile in all different directions," Franzke says, adding that she finds it important for women to get support in networks. "Female academics still don't receive the same support in their careers as their male competitors," she notes.
Don't be intimidated by 'boys' networks'
That's why German universities have launched the support programs for women. The gender equality office at the Goethe University in Frankfurt has been calling for more female professors for a long time. "ProProfessur" is not the only project; other programs offer financial incentives to make the job more attractive for women. One of them is the "Female Professor Program" funded by the German Ministry of Education.
Since the project was launched in 2008, the German government has invested some 150 million euros and created 140 jobs for top female academics in an attempt to foster gender equality at universities. The program has helped raise the national share of female professors over the last twelve years from 10 to 20 percent, said project leader Christina Hadulla-Kuhlmann.
Astrid Wallrabenstein says she believes it's necessary and justified to have targeted projects to support women in the German world of academia. And she warns women who want to pursue an academic career against being intimidated by the so-called ‘boys' networks'. "Women have to found their own network and support each other," Wallrabenstein says.