The uniqueness of the German academic system: my insider and outsider perspective, Part III — The Priesthood

Post in: German

On January 9, 2013, I gave the keynote talk at the “Meet the Female Faculty” Event at the Ruhr-University of Bochum. The Equal Opportunities Office and the Internal Continuing Education Office at Bochum team up to offer a special program for women scientists to meet each other and talk about their careers. I’ll present the talk here in several parts. This is part III.

There are three things about the German science system that I have observed in my 10 ½ years here which I can put into snappy, catchy phrases that you can take home with you and tell your friends and team at work tomorrow.  I will name them together, and then I will go into detail on each of them to explain what I mean, what I observed, and how and why it’s like that here, and how it is different in the USA.  Please keep in mind, not every person will have the same experience or have seen or witnessed these aspects.  But these things ring true for the system, sociologically speaking, which is why I mention them in particular.

They are: The Priesthood. The Apprenticeship. And The Feudal Serfdom.

The priesthood.

The first thing I noticed here in Germany that was peculiar about the system – besides graduate students having actual offices and getting paid vacation – was the desert wasteland of childlessness. It was abnormal to me. We were at one late November colloquium meeting in 2002, and the topic of the paper being presented was academics and childlessness. I asked the group, how many here are parents? Two hands went up – out of over 25 in a huge research institute and the associated huge department — one senior level man and the male professor.  It popped into my head like this: to do science in Germany is like needing to swear into a priesthood.  Priests swear poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Young scientists swear poverty, childlessness, and obedience.  The poverty of young social scientists is relatively self-explanatory worldwide.  And more on the obedience in a moment.  Let’s stay with the childlessness for now.

Why is this? My graduate student friends in the USA – we had a big group there, too, nearly all women – were either already mothers before entering graduate school or becoming mothers while getting their dissertations or shortly after.  In fact, out of the group of friends – nearly 15 of us – who all had the same dissertation advisor at the same time, 20% were parents already when coming into the graduate program, 20% became parents during their dissertation phase, and 30% became parents after.  The other 30% were either not in partnerships or were with partners who didn’t want children.

My American colleagues didn’t think for a second, “I have to choose between science or family.”  It would be like thinking, I have to choose between drinking coffee or tea in the morning or taking a shower. My goodness. You simply make room for both as part of your morning routine, right? And so it is in the American mentality, you simply make room for both, career and family. Not that it is easy to fit in a shower and coffee, especially in crunch times. But you do it.

Americans do it because no one tells them they cannot. It’s like the bumble bee that shouldn’t be able to fly based on the physics, but it does anyway.   Americans don’t wait for their institutions to give them child care places or worry about neighbors saying “Rabenmutter” (raven mother, an accusatory German term for a “bad mother”).  Americans don’t figure that it’s better not to be a mother at all than to be a mother who is away part of the day working for pay. Americans don’t tend to wait for tenure or a house purchase or financial security or proof that the relationship will last. Americans believe that after age 30, tons of health risks creep in to the reproductive picture, so if you want children, better have the first one before age 30.  Americans figure they will figure it out, improvise, and join the ranks of parents without thinking too hard about it. I generalize here, but it’s to draw a contrast to German thinking on the topic of becoming parents.

Americans also lack some of the forms of community and local ties that Germans have—we change friendships, residences, and jobs more often than Germans do – and therefore the family, meaning spouse and children, becomes the primary social organizing feature of the society. Not to have a spouse and children means not to belong to proper American society, to have something wrong with you, to some degree, a degree much larger than I experience in Germany.  Scientists are people too, clever people, and they figure it out. In the USA, that often means one of the two full-time salaries goes entirely to pay for childcare. But that makes sense to Americans, because health insurance, retirement, and a host of other financial and social benefits are attached to employment, even if none of the salary today is coming into the bank account because it’s all going to the child care provider.  There are reasons to work besides the income, including the chance to earn even more later, when the children are grown.

Americans get creative with their childcare, because they have to. There is no state-provided childcare, and none on the way.   You just deal with it.  You want kids, then the thinking is “it’s a personal choice and personal responsibility and therefore a personal situation to solve.” That’s the view. But “everyone” does it, so there are tons of models to follow. There is no nationally guaranteed paid maternity leave. As we studied the German leave policy, my grad student friends and I, we marveled that German women didn’t have more babies, since they had so much job security and paid leave.  Once I was here, I understood: get pregnant here = go home, stay home.   If a woman doesn’t want to stay home, she better not get pregnant.  The stigma extends to all women, even those who don’t have children: to be a woman in Germany in the workplace, between age 25 and 40, means to be a liability for the employer, because at any moment one can announce a pregnancy and be gone for a long time with a guarantee of being able to come back. That uncertainty is scary for employers.  Even if a mother comes right back, she is out for 3 months – an eternity in some jobs. Employers don’t like this, and hence part of the signaling in Germany is, “either or, career or family, but not both.” No coffee AND shower. Either or.

We could talk all night about the childlessness among academic women, but let’s discuss that later. It’s an issue I have researched and spoken on many times. I think for women in the university system, the situation in Germany is especially challenging for women and mothers due to two more aspects of the system, which I would like to talk about now.

(To be continued)

Leave a Reply