Equal opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic

Prof. Dr. Annette Keilhauer
Prof. Dr. Annette Keilhauer University Women’s Representative (Image: Stöhr/Kaplan)

An article by University Women’s Representative Prof. Dr. Annette Keilhauer

After initially being ignored by the German media, the fact that women are generally more severely affected by the restrictions of the corona pandemic than men is now being given extensive coverage by the media. This is caused by a traditionally significantly higher proportion of women being responsible for caring for children and relatives, something that has increased further during the crisis and has been confirmed by studies carried out for the whole of Germany.

Balancing work and family life at university has significantly improved during the last ten years due to a number of measures, and FAU is championing the cause by being a family-friendly university. From an external point of view, one could say that the coronavirus pandemic has had less of an impact on the University than on other areas thanks to the lecture-free period and the much-vaunted high levels of freedom in organization, particularly as far as research is concerned. After all, researchers are not at risk of losing their jobs and can split their working time to fit around lectures and seminars relatively flexibly. So is it just a matter of being well organized?

Work-life balance in a crisis?

The reality is quite different. The complete closure of childcare facilities and schools has generated an entirely new set of problems for single parents, young mothers and families, even at FAU, that are very difficult to resolve and are continuing to cause difficulties, despite the fact that schools and childcare facilities are gradually reopening. In Bavaria, scientific research was not and still is not categorised as a ‘key area’, which means emergency childcare could not be set up for a long time, unlike in other states such as Berlin.

If the lives of families with both parents working was a delicate balancing act with a calendar full of appointments before the crisis, parents were left completely alone when the crisis began. The decision to switch the entire summer semester over to online teaching across Germany did not necessarily make the situation any easier due to the fact that new teaching formats had to be developed and tested, which involved a considerable amount of additional work. The situation also affects students with children, who experience great difficulties in organising their studies between virtual seminars and learning platforms. There are only 24 hours in a day and several trade offs were and continue to be necessary, especially in terms of researchers’ own health, but also in terms of day-to-day operations in research, research administration, teaching and academic qualification and further development – the latter was and still often is the first thing to fall by the wayside.

The first issue involves the completion of academic theses, which will, at best, be delayed or maybe put on hold or even called into question entirely. This situation makes balancing family and research almost impossible and thus some young female students or doctoral candidates and mothers will now be asking themselves if the conditions in research can ever be compatible with starting a family. Although the fact that temporary contracts in Germany can now be extended by one semester in accordance with the Fixed-Term Research Contracts Act (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz) is some consolation, it could, however, provide an additional competitive advantage to researchers without family commitments when competing for future resources. In addition, extending contracts in this way is not always that simple, for example, if they are financed using funds from development planning, state tuition funding or third-party projects that are due to expire. Researchers who work in a clinical setting and have families have to cope with a tremendous double burden even under normal circumstances, but now they are in an even worse situation – so much so, that increasing numbers of them are considering reducing their contracts, which is a fateful signal for all female researchers currently considering starting a family.

Similar tendencies can be seen in the case of publications. Several studies have already confirmed that there has been a steep increase in the number of articles submitted for publication in specialist journals during the pandemic – many researchers have now finally found the time to finish articles they set aside as business trips and conferences have been cancelled. However, the number of female authors and contributors has decreased sharply, something that is also likely to happen with research proposals. Precise gender monitoring in these areas is urgently required for the next few years that not only highlights those who have lost out due to the pandemic, but also includes those who have gained a competitive advantage from it.

Looking to the future: What happens next?

The coronavirus pandemic is a stress test for balancing family and research, one that we must pass if we do not want to lose excellent young researchers – both male and female – from our system.

Awareness must be raised at FAU for the special burden placed on single parents, young mothers and families, and not only that, young researchers who are responsible for caring for relatives must receive active support for this continuing burden by means of fair rules for working time and workload, solidarity in the restructuring of work and with prospects for the future that demonstrate that having a family and working in research are not mutually exclusive.

In addition, we also require medium-term and long-term monitoring of the consequences of this crisis for equal opportunities. Furthermore, clear rules must be defined for measures to compensate for disadvantages in terms of completing academic theses, and for research evaluations for example during tenure track procedures and finally for making personnel decisions for positions for researchers working towards qualifications and professorships.

Otherwise, we run the risk of further increasing the divide between genders in research. While 2020 will be a very successful year in research for some with a high output of publications and successful research proposals, if we are not careful, for others this year will be a period with low academic output and at worst trigger a crisis in their careers or it might even force them to turn their backs on research altogether. We must work together to prevent this from happening.


Prof. Dr. Annette Keilhauer
University Women’s Representative