Women in Academe
Woman in science or woman with children in science – a change of perspective
Sophie is Professor of International Planning Studies at the Faculty of Spatial Planning since October 2019. Together with her husband and two children she pursues a multilocal way of living in Dortmund and Darmstadt. She focuses on urban planning, housing and infrastructure provision in rapidly growing cities, global waste and recycling flows and spatial governance and infrastructure systems between self-organisation and state planning.
Lena: Hamburg, Nairobi, Darmstadt, Kassel, Utrecht and now Dortmund: Today we will talk about these different stations of your life and career and how they brought you here to Dortmund. What were the reasons? Why did you decide on a career in science? What are the factors that make working in science exceptionally enjoyable to you?
Sophie: I find it fascinating to have the opportunity to experience and study the development of different cities and spatial contexts on an international level. I already enjoyed that during my studies in Hamburg. Thus, I wanted to continue this kind of work, because it was the international aspect that fascinated me most, already during my studies. It was also the reason why I chose to do an internship in Nairobi. My intent was to continue working in this field subsequently but align it with having my centre of life in Germany or Europe. Thus, taking the academic path seemed like a good opportunity in order to integrate both these criteria that were important to me.
Lena: Were there any particular experiences or events along the way that made you realise that you wanted to continue working in science? Which alternatives did you consider?
Sophie: Becoming a professor was a conscious decision. Of course, the considerations about my further professional career path came up at certain points in my professional life, i.e. after I had finished my Master’s degree or after I had completed my dissertation. There were also other opportunities, such as changing to planning practice. However, I consider the freedom, development and personal growth opportunities but also the flexibility that working in an academic environment allows, as great advantages. Of course, this also applies to the previous question about what is special for me in academic work. Furthermore, this kind of work also represents a good opportunity for me to reconcile my professional and private interests. I was able to work from home with my babies when they were asleep for example. And they sleep a lot, almost 16 hours a day during the first months. Just not necessarily from nine to five. However, given the possibility of working from home and structuring my days flexibly, I was able to work and look after my child at the same time. This kind of compatibility of work and childcare would not necessarily have been given in a different working context. Put differently, the flexibility and autonomy with respect to the division and structure of work certainly represents a great advantage of working in academia from my perspective.
Another benefit of working within the academic sector is the transparency with regard to the accomplishments achieved in my opinion. Of course, informal networks also play a major role in academia. However, the clear sets of rules and regulations for obtaining doctorates or habilitations in combination with the number of research projects and publications represent a very transparent instrument for certifying performance, which I consider as positive. From my perspective, it set a clear path what I had to do in order to achieve my goals and enabling me to plan and structure and align my everyday life (even with a child) accordingly.
Lena: How were your experiences with the regulations of the Act on the Modification of Labour Law Provisions in the Science Sector (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz)?It is often observed, that the time limit of a maximum of six years for a doctorate and a total of twelve years for a habilitation is felt to be quite tight.
Sophie: That is true. Under certain circumstances, these regulations can be problematic. Especially the post-doc period is not that structured in Germany and the doctorate degree is often perceived as the last exit, so to speak, otherwise the professorship follows. Hence, generally speaking, a professorship is the only possibility to get a permanent contract in academia in Germany. I found a kind of personal workaround to this obstacle, by going to Utrecht after my post-doc period in Kassel. In the Netherlands, there is the position of assistant professor, which gives the prospect of getting a permanent contract with a doctorate degree after completing a two-year period in this position but without having to do a habilitation. In Germany, it can be difficult to structure the time between the completion of the doctorate degree and gambling for a full professorship position. Meaning between the ages 30 – 35 and 40 – 45 years of age, as you may find yourself in a phase of life with professional uncertainty, a family and at the same time facing mobility requirements. Thus, you might have to deal with this pressure for a long time.
Lena: Have there been situations in which you had to adapt your private life to professional opportunities or, conversely, turned down a professional offer for private reasons?
Sophie: Honestly, generally, I prioritize my professional life and organize my private life accordingly. At least concerning the mayor decisions, i.e. with regard to job opportunities and mobility. However, I have turned down offers as in Utrecht i.e. to increase my working hours from part time (80%) to full time (100%), because it is important to me to take out time for my family. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, I decided to live in Germany or Europe and did and do not want to commit to working environments that require long term internationally mobility. Nevertheless, I did adjust my private life to professional mobility requirements within Germany and the Netherlands and found appropriate solutions for my private life together with my family. I feel free to decide where I want to live, work, and align these decisions with my family life. Currently, my husband lives in Darmstadt and I and the children now live here in Dortmund during the week. While working in Kassel, I was commuting to Darmstadt and when I started my job in Utrecht, I moved there.
Lena: This point of yours relates to the very well known phrase, statement and originally, an essay title written by Carol Hanisch: “The Personal/Private is (always) Political”. The basic idea of the essay was to refute the idea that sex, appearance, abortion, childcare and the division of reproduction work are merely personal issues without political significance. What is your perspective on that? Did you experience certain expectations towards you as a woman with respect to your personal and private life?
Sophie: My personal experience is that things change, as soon as children are involved. Before becoming a mother, I perceived the equality of professional opportunities in my working environment differently. During my first years in academia, I actually never felt disadvantaged or discriminated against. Neither did I consciously experience that certain expectations had been placed on me because I was a woman. However, this changed all of a sudden when I was pregnant. This was right before I finished my dissertation. After completing my doctorate, I had a well, unofficial but I believed reliable agreement to start working on a research project. However, when I revealed my pregnancy, this agreement, which I had actually considered as dependable, quickly dissolved. At the same time, I heard statements such as “Well, you’ll be gone soon anyway”. This was certainly not my intention as I did not see pregnancy as an obstacle, but the research project then continued without our planned cooperation. Being perceived very differently all of a sudden was quite a formative experience to me. It made me feel like as if the image of family-friendly working conditions and equal opportunities in the workplace is often portrayed to the outside world, but in practice (at least in my case) things might look quite differently.
Lena: What did you do then?
Sophie: Well, I had to look for another job or other possibilities. That was also an exciting experience. I then went to a job interview when I was very pregnant and needed pants for that. When I told the salesperson that I wanted to buy them for a job interview, she said “Oh, you know, you can forget about that, a job interview with such a belly…” (laughs). Nevertheless, I went to Kassel and presented my project proposal for a Junior Research Group there. I, or rather my belly, were already quite striking, as I thought. When I presented the schedule and said, “…as you can see the reason for timing this and that as follows…” and pointed to my stomach it caused a bit of amusement. In this environment, my pregnancy had in fact not been perceived as an obstacle at all. I got the job. This in turn was a very positive experience, which I am grateful for.
Lena: What experiences have you had with regard to the expectations that had been placed on you as a woman and mother-to-be when taking such decisions?
Sophie: The move to Kassel and the decision to pursue professional goals during pregnancy and with a child required time and mobility, and this in turn required compatibility with the upcoming family life. When reflecting on this now, rather my private than my professional environment confronted me with normative expectations regarding my decisions and priorities as a future a mother pursuing her career. Well, except from the situation I had just described. I really cannot recall experiences of criticism or certain expectations to this regard from my professional environment, but I did experience that in my private environment. I do remember that some people at that time did not fully approve of my decisions and might not have considered them as the best ones.
Lena: Returning to work is frequently being described as a hurdle for women. How did you experience that?
Sophie: Well, as I already mentioned, also with respect to returning to work I perceived the formalised and transparent regulations of an academic career as beneficial. As babies sleep a lot, about 16 hours a day I, managed to use that time to sit down at the computer. Those were not necessarily classic working hours, but it actually worked quite well. I could also work while breastfeeding. Due to the transparency of the academic sector, I was able to show my work results of this phase, i.e. that I had published several publications during this time. Beside the transparency, the rules and regulations also represent a clear guideline on what the requirements are. I can adjust to that accordingly and it is clear how to achieve certain goals. This has helped me to adapt my work to our needs at the time of maternity leave and afterwards when returning to the job.
Lena: How did you experience the following time with work and family?
Sophie: Well, when I went to Utrecht in the Netherlands I had different experiences with childcare there. The offers there were much more diverse. Working women or parents who need eight hours a day of childcare every day for example and who make use of such all-day childcare facilities were not uncommon and I did not feel social pressure against such solutions. Not having the impression of being judged for that was felt positive, turning the necessity of mobility that was required for my job into a very good and enriching experience for me that persists also these days, as I am living in Germany again. I have to add though, that money immensely factors in when talking about childcare. It simply is very expensive and of course, you have to be able to afford it. With my current salary, this is doable, but with another income financing childcare might not be an option and might become a problem.
Lena: With work and family, time is becomes a scarce commodity. That is why I would also be interested in whether there are any hobbies for example, which you would like to have more time for?
Sophie: The hobby question! I was looking forward to it (laughs). Above all, I miss spending unstructured time. I can organise my everyday life quite freely, but in order to make sure that everything fits and works out, it goes without saying that there is a certain need for daily routines to be tightly structured. Sometimes I would like to live into the day, but with a job and children, these opportunities decrease. I miss that from time to time.
Lena: As resources for women in science or women with children in science, obviously there are also many networks and exchanges on these topics. Do you use any of these networks? Are there certain women who have supported you or who have been a role model to you?
Sophie: With respect to role models, well, I remember that during my studies there was a certain professor of architecture with children, who I really liked. We did not have a special personal relationship, but in retrospective, I guess simply her being there was important and sufficient. She had a very positive aura and I admired how she managed to reconcile work and family. This might have made her a kind of role model for me I guess. With respect to the network aspect of the question, I do not use formal networks really much. I did once take part in a mentoring programme. It was a good experience, but in retrospective, it was not particularly helpful for me in my position as a woman in science.
Lena: Do you have any advice from your current perspective, now that you are accompanying young scientists and students in their careers yourself?
Sophie: I am happy to pass on advice given to me by a good friend: don’t look right and don’t look left, just do your thing.