Effective solutions to make universities in Germany more family-friendly

Post in: German

The theme of family friendliness is hot. Somewhere along the line, western contemporary societies started recognizing the twin facts that (a) a lot of talent is in women, and (b) not every person lives within the constellation of a well-paid male breadwinner and stay-at-home female who cares for life’s details and next generation. In fact, some people are single, some are single parents, some have caregiving responsibilities for aging, ailing, ill, unable, or very young family and friends. These realizations have led workplaces to start recognizing that their former expectations of workers, to be always available with no outside commitments, don’t fit reality, at least not for the broader talent pool and not over the entirety of the life course.
Many solutions have come from the individual level: couples reduce the number of children they have, sometimes down to zero; women and some men reduce their labor market commitments, people live in messier houses, outsource more, and eat more convenience food.
Now organizations are also thinking about what they can do. In a special initiative, GESIS — Leibniz-Institut für Sozialwissenschaften, in combination with the Center of Excellence Women and Science, funded by the BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung) has initiated a program to increase family-friendliness at one kind of workplace, German universities. “Effektiv!” has the following goals:
• to establish a new focus on family-friendliness
• to evaluate the effectiveness of current programs
• to develop a multidimensional resource guide
• to create possibilities for an extensive exchange of ideas.
Universities are special workplaces in that all age groups are represented, the training is not only for within the organization but also outside of it, and millions of people are exposed to the ideas and organizational structures of universities as they make their way through the last stages of their formal education. In addition, if we include students, the bulk of the “workforce” of universities is in the prime childbearing ages. If we include students, the bulk of the “workforce” of universities is in the prime childbearing ages.
Of course the university culture and structures are heavily influenced by the national context, whether we realize it or not. To bring this context to light, I presented a Keynote at the opening conference of the “Effektiv!” project illustrating how American colleges and universities have been talking and researching about family friendliness in their system for the last 20 years. My presentation is available at the link below. The punchline: American universities are still struggling with the lack of paid leave around the childbirth transition, since this is not guaranteed at national or state levels. German universities swim in a context where the institutions are thinking and working beyond this issue, because they can. That’s a huge advantage for the German context, and I hope Germany recognizes and takes advantage of this advantage. American universities are still struggling with the lack of paid leave around the childbirth transition: German universities can and are thinking creatively beyond this boundary.
I acknowledge that this advantage also brings disadvantages. The “protection” of women during their convalescence means they are “vulnerable” to formal and informal exclusions in their work during their absences. The problem of statistical discrimination is high. Yet it’s good to reflect on, and build on, strengths. I wish the project “Effektiv!,” and all the organizations and lives that it touches, fantastic success!

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