Seriously! Do I need to work?

Parenthood in science

We are women, the women of the future! In Germany we have been allowed to vote since 1919 and have not had to ask our husbands for a “work permit” since 1977 (wow this is not THAT long ago!!!). Most of us also have a free choice as to whether and what we want to study. The traditional female role between stove and nursing offspring is slowly dying out in our society and women are seen more and more in their independent roles. It is an exciting time for both sexes. Women are increasingly expected to return to the labour market after having children, while we demand greater participation of men in child rearing and household duties. Not everyone is happy with this profound change in our society. In Germany, one recognises two hardened fronts at the extremes of the spectrum: some see the role of the woman at home with family and household as her almost exclusive role (as was the only accepted life plan in West Germany until the 1960s). If she wants to do something outside of the household, she can, for example, work in a bakery for a few hours a week (on a tax-free “450 € basis”) or do something charitable. The other front in this debate wants to see the woman as fully independent: she should play an important, if not the primary role in the family income, pay taxes, and stand on her own feet. They see “housewives” as a waste of human talent. Hence, Germany is politically divided, which makes it difficult (if not impossible) for the women of today to please everyone. On a positive note, women can freely choose how they want to live. Whether they choose a career or housewife life: there are laws and measures that support both lifestyles. Having said that, the multitude of subsidies using the “watering-can principle” is expensive for the state and only partially helpful for families. Moreover, the subsidies do not address the problems of 1) extremely low birth rates in Germany or 2) stark gender disparities on the labour market.


The housewife option

Now to the point! Staying at home with children… Is that still possible? Yes, you can. There are many old laws that subsidise this life plan, especially the splitting taxation with your spouse (the IMF has warned that the few remaining countries should refrain from using such rules, as doing so will make
working unattractive for the second earner).
If you look only at the short-term income situation, the classic model of one partner (mostly the men) being the breadwinner is still the “easiest” and most profitable for many couples: a big tax break due to splitting taxation, you save all nursery fees and one partner can fully focus on the career.

But staying at home is not without any financial risk anymore (in contrast to the safety our mothers might have had). There was an important change in German divorce law in 2008. Since then, women are expected to stand on their own two feet in the event of divorce. The woman has no claim to property that the man possessed before marriage. She only gets financial support if she takes care of children under the age of three from this marriage. After this time, at least a part-time job is expected from her. In times when more than every third marriage is divorced over the years, the woman can no longer rely on her husband until the end of her life. If she neglects her career because she stayed home, she may never even come close to catching up with the salaries of her peers. In case of a divorce, she might even end up below poverty at retirement. The gender pension gap in Germany is highest in the entire European Union: at 45% a stunning reminder for families to re-think their family- and paid-work obligations.

“After the birth of my daughter, I realised quite clearly that spending a year at home in the big city is completely normal and even” almost expected “, but for more than a year it’s not so socially accepted anymore. When my daughter was about 10 months old, I was asked again and again if she already has a nursery place. After answering that I’m not in such a hurry yet, I got the critical question: ‘You do not want to work anymore?’”
“I took my 2-year-old son out of nursery as I was on parental leave anyway for our little daughter. I thought that was nice for him and for me. But it is quite difficult, because in our area there are no other children during the day with whom he could play on the playgrounds! Most children of his age are with the childminder or in a nursery.”

The career option

Career with a child, is that possible? Of course, it works! It does require great organisational skills and a lot of energy. However, the infrastructure for working mothers in Germany is quickly improving. There are now nursery places for children under the age of three and schools are increasingly offering afternoon care (or full-time schools). Some infrastructure is still hard to find. For children under one year, it is still a bit hard to find adequate nurseries. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult, especially for female scientists, to plan pregnancy, parental leave and return to work in a way that they are back before a fixed-term contract runs out. Since you can plan certain things in life such as pregnancy only to a limited extent, getting pregnant while being employed on a fixed-term contract (e.g. postdoc) can mean an unwanted career break. Unfortunately, re-entering is not always easy due to prejudices against working mothers and a difficult labour market for scientists. To prevent this from happening, you would have to keep your parental leave very short (and come back in time) or show a lot of creativity and willpower when you return to compete with your peers. It is helpful that even fathers now have the right to go on paid parental leave. So your partner could take over part of the childcare in the first year of your kid ́s life, and you can get back into your job early. If you have an affordable nursery place in the second year of your child, you get some time to work again.

The infrastructure that working mothers need is, by and large, there. So that’s no reason to stay home, right? But why is it so hard to progress professionally? Although the participation of German women in the labour market is quite high these days, it still does not often really work out with a child, climbing the career ladder and working more than a few hours per week. What is the reason for that? We get this question very often, unfortunately there is not really a clear answer to it. There is a whole range of initiatives to help women achieve their professional dreams. Quota regulations are discussed and partially implemented in many areas of working life. There are many mentoring and coaching programmes for women in the early stages of their career. Then there are certain funds that women or especially mothers are entitled to in science.

“I have a small child myself and am trying my luck in science – I would very much like to become a chemistry professor someday. It’s fair to say that the universities’ efforts to fight their gender gaps in leadership positions are really helping to climb the top of the ivory tower. There are a lot of ways to get support and third party funding. But it is exactly this support that makes it almost impossible to have a second child. Many scholarships and third-party funding for young group leaders have an age limit or must start no later than x years after your PhD. For me it would be athletic, if not impossible, to add a second child to this schedule. At least, some deadlines are extended for mothers.”

Flexible work forms, such as job-sharing or home office, which can benefit working mothers in particular, are increasingly accepted. But despite all initiatives, the proportion of women in top positions is low. Why? In all likelihood, a number of factors play a role here: on the one hand, there are external obstacles such as discrimination, social pressure and uncooperative partners or employers. On the other hand, there are a number of internal factors: exaggerated perfectionism,
feeling torn between work and family and sometimes an unwillingness to delegate.

“In the morning my partner will get the children ready for the day care and then brings them there on his way to work. At first, I exchanged their clothes when he was ready to go. Sometimes they were upside down, did not fit or were not completely clean. But I quickly found out: if I want to work myself, I should not get upset about such things, it only costs energy, which would be better invested in something else… like my career. Of course, it was also frustrating for my partner when “Mommy the Control Freak” reversed everything he had just done. And, for the main characters in this game, the kids, it does not matter if both socks are green or one green and the other blue. As long as they’re wearing socks…, but my partner has managed “socks” right from the start.”

“We often have babysitters in the house who take care of the kids in the afternoons or over the weekend. Of course, they are doing other things than I would do with them, but overall, I think they bring a lot of joy to our household. In recent years, we have had a number of different students, each with their own strengths. One was very creative in painting, while our current babysitter dances and sings a lot with the kids. I think mothers should rate such influences positively instead of bogging down on their shortcomings. They all contribute to children’s development and have strengths that the parents may not even have themselves.”

An inhibiting factor for the careers of mothers is unfortunately money. In many jobs for scientists, the salaries are not so high that it would be financially worthwhile for a young mother to work. To stay at home does not cause much financial loss for many mothers and might even be more
lucrative. But such calculations fall short. The question of whether you want to work or not should be answered not just by looking at your wallet, but with a look at what tasks you will fulfil now and in the future.

The part-time option

Many German mothers try to get the best out of the two worlds of “work” and “family”: with part-time work, which leaves enough time for the family. But do you really get the best of both worlds? In some cases, yes, in many others, unfortunately not. If you ́re in an interesting job at the time you go into parental leave, and then go back to work with a reduced number of hours in the same position, this part-time job can be very satisfying. Your opportunities to develop are somewhat lower than in a full-time job, but that heavily depends on the employer. However, if you have not yet established yourself professionally or look for a new position after parental leave, working part-time can be very unsatisfactory. The labour market for scientists is a relatively traditional one, so there are not many intellectually stimulating part-time jobs.

“If you want to work part-time but still want to be intellectually challenged, your chances at the universities are highest. I do not mean to say that an academic career is easy, it’s actually very stressful. But you have a good chance to work part-time for some time and still take some steps in your career. Of course, this is only possible if you get help, you already have a well-organised group or you will be paid a helping hand. If you can only work 20 hours a week for a long time, you will not be able to make it. But I also do not think it’s absolutely necessary to work 60 hours a week all your life to be a successful scientist. The flexibility to do many things from home is almost an automatic part of academic work and not so common with other employers. I can spend a few hours in the afternoon with my daughter and open my laptop in the evening.”

Text has been translated and adapted from our Karriereführer für Naturwissenschaftlerinnen written by Karin Bodewits, Andrea Hauk and Philipp Gramlich.

We offer Women & career workshops for natural- and life scientists. 

Scroll to Top