Postdoc and motherhood in Austria or Germany: is it good or not good?

Everyone agrees that postgraduate, postdoctoral and other early career researchers struggle with reconciling the geographical demands of their careers with personal and family life. A lot has been said (informally over a drink or during conference coffee breaks) and written (on blogs and in academic journals) about the fact that the current academic system is unkind and detrimental to researchers’ families, relationships, childbearing decisions, parenting, other care responsibilities, and mental health. Everyone (including myself) has a bunch of criticisms and reasons why the institutional conditions in academic employment are not optimal. But in terms of what these optimal institutional conditions are, can, or ought to be, there is no agreement! I find it fascinating how much opinions on this can differ. Here are two articles I read recently. I struggle to disagree with both. And yet, they have opposite arguments. The first one argues that in Germany mothers are pushed out of the labour market because of societal expectations to be “perfect mothers”, and in comparison, in France mothers are far more relaxed, they trust the state childcare services more, and return to work much earlier instead of “devoting themselves wholly to their offspring”.  The article is not specifically about academia, but I have heard similar sentiments expressed by some of my interviewees in Germany who, for example, felt excluded and unrespected by their colleagues after one or two maternity leaves. The second article praises Austria’s system (which is similar to the German one) and says that it enabled the author to combine work and family life.

Article 1 (in German):“Es wird ein Mutterkult betrieben”

Article 2: A European postdoc for the family, by Michelle Gabriele Sandrian

I guess all should be read in context. The second article (the one which praises Austria’s Mutterschutz law) is written by an American researcher who has been exposed to a much less kind system (to me it sounds unthinkable that in the US there is NO paid leave for new mothers AT ALL). However, it is very important to notice also the hidden injuries of the more protective German (and Austrian) system, pointed out in the first article by an author who has experienced motherhood and work in both Germany and France.

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A few related articles about Germany:

Gender Inequality in British and German Universities, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, Volume 37, Issue 5, 2007

Academic career structure in Germany (online resource)

Gender Inequality in German Academia and Strategies for Change, 2001 (free PDF)

FRAUEN IN DER WISSENSCHAFT: Wo sind sie bloß?, Die Zeit, 13/2014

Attitudes to gender equality issues in British and German academia (in English, free PDF)

Paths to Career and Success for Women in Science, 2014 (Google book)

Kind da, job weg
Warum die Babypause zum Karrierekiller wird
Aussortiert und abgelegt

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Why aren’t graduates called Spinsters of Arts/Sciences?

Reading a book* about higher education. Found an interesting quote in the historical background section. So this is why university graduates today are called BA/BSc (Bachelors of Arts/Sciences). Duh!

“…Next came the bachelors, who were advanced students and were allowed to lecture and dispute under supervision. They corresponded to and derived their names from the journeymen or bachelors, who worked for a daily wage and had not sufficient maturity to establish themselves in the trade. (Hence they were still unmarried). At the top of the profession was the master, a rank common to both universities and guilds. He was a man who had demonstrated both his skill and maturity to the satisfaction of his fellow masters. Entrance to this stage was gained after elaborate examinations, exercises in the techniques of teaching, and ceremonial investiture. Admission fell exclusively under the jurisdiction of the other full members of the university…. The three titles, master, doctor, professor, were in the Middle Ages absolutely synonymous.”

I am not the kind of feminist who would nitpick about terminology. I’m quite happy to keep words along with their historical baggage even if it’s a history of unequality (what history ISN’T a history of inequality?), as long as we are aware of what the baggage means. Much better than opening future gates to new inequalities by erasing all trace of nasty legacies today … So, I feel even better informed about the patriarchal basis of my education (and that of my ‘research subjects’. the mathematicians) now!

Burton R. Clark 1983, The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in Cross-national Perspective, P.47 citing Baldwin and Goldwaite, eds, Universities in Politics, pp.8, 19

 

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A Mathematician Discovers Ethnography

At the Sociological Imagination, we recently blogged about an interesting article written by a mathematics professor and I wanted to share it here, too. Robert Harington writes about a study he recently had to do, as Head of the publishing division of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in order to find out how mathematicians use online resources and use that knowledge to inform AMA’s future publishing strategy.

Harington explains pretty well what ethnographic research is:

“…What do we mean by ethnographic research? In essence we are talking about a rich, multi-factorial descriptive approach. While quantitative research uses pre-existing categories in its analysis, qualitative research is open to new ways of categorizing data – in this case, mathematicians’ behavior in using information. The idea is that one observes the subject (“key informant” in technical jargon) in their natural habitat. Imagine you are David Attenborough, exploring an “absolutely marvelous” new species – the mathematician – as they operate in the field. The concept is really quite simple. You just want to understand what your key informants are doing, and preferably why they are doing it. One has to do it in a setting that allows for them to behave naturally – this really requires an interview with one person not a group (because group members may influence each other’s actions).

Perhaps the hardest part is the interview itself. If you are anything like me, you will go charging in saying something along the lines of “look at these great things we are doing. What do you think? Great right?” Well, of course this is plain wrong. While you have a goal going in, perhaps to see how an individual is behaving with respect to a specific product, your questions need to be agnostic in flavor. The idea is to have the key informant do what they normally do, not just say what they think they do – the two things may be quite different. The questions need to be carefully crafted so as not to lead, but to enable gentle probing and discussion as the interview progresses. It is a good idea to record the interview – both in audio form, and ideally with screen capture technology such as Camtasia. When I was involved with this I went out and bought a good, but inexpensive audio recorder. […]

With some 62 interviews under our belt, we are beginning to see patterns emerge in the ways that mathematicians behave online. “

As an ethnographic researcher, I would say that his definition is a bit narrow: ethnography is capable of so much more than just helping you assess user experience. Also I think that he is talking about a simpler and quicker variety of qualitative research (e.g. an open ended questionnaire) rather than full-on ethnography (the second comment under the article, by David Wojick, is spot on: Wojick calls the study described in the article “issue analysis” and points out that an in-depth ethnography is a far bigger “beast”). Nevertheless, it’s great to see ethnography used by mathematicians to study their own online behaviour in order to plan the strategy of an academic journal. Action research done by a community for its own benefit! And this article is an awesome explanation of ethnography by a scientist, for a scientific audience. Having read this will certainly help me next time I have to explain to a mathematician what my research is about and what my method is [and that I’m not simply having fun hanging out in their common room on workdays]!

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How much own money do scientists spend on research?

Dr. Edward Hind (independent researcher) and Dr. Brett Favaro (Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s NL) are conducting a survey to examine how much of their own personal money scientists spend on their research programs, and to compare these values across stage of career.

If you would also like to know how much of their own money scientists spend on research, spread the word. And if you are a scientist yourself (in any field or career stage, provided you have worked in the past 12 months), please contribute your experiences. Here is a link to the survey which will be open until 31 May, 2015:

Informed consent – #Scispends survey

Sorry for the long hiatus

Sorry to anyone who checked this blog out in the past three months and didn’t find anything. I had some time from heaven and hell (mainly hell) but I think I’ve sorted my tetris cubes now and will hopefully be writing more here from now on.

Seen on the door of a mathematician at the TU-Berlin.

Seen on the door of a mathematician at the TU-Berlin.

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Math awareness month

Mathematics Awareness Month (in the USA) is held each year in April, ever since 1986. Here is more:

http://www.mathaware.org/about.mam.html

What should we teach to liberal arts students who will take only one math course?

Interesting discussion about what and how much mathematics university students on liberal arts courses in the US should know on mathoverflow – here

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,200 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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