A balancing act

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Interview with Prof. Annette Keilhauer about equality

Gender equality is a human right. Prof. Dr. Annette Keilhauer has become involved at various levels at FAU as a women’s representative for equal opportunities, striving to achieve a win-win situation in gender equality.

Let’s get straight to the crux of the matter: When will men and women finally be treated equally?

Looking back over the last 70 years, a lot has already been achieved. If we are to achieve this objective in education, in the world of work and in our private lives, then we must continue to take steps towards achieving legal equality, as manifested most recently in Germany in the General Equal Treatment Act of 2006. Over time, moves towards legal equality have led to women achieving independence in marriage and sexual harassment gaining significance as a legal issue.

There are of course some areas in which inequality is still clearly evident today, and where the situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Women in managerial positions is one case in point. A number of women have made it to a managerial position, and are impressive role models for young women today. Statistically, however, they are still very much in the minority. Research indicates that the more hierarchical a structure is, the more unlikely women are to reach the top. Flat hierarchies not only lead to better performance in the context of work, they also tend to encourage women more.

Another topic highlighting continued inequality is the gender pay gap, where women are paid less for doing the same work as men. A further aspect of this topic is the unfair burden of care placed on women at home and inequality experienced when choosing a profession. Due to their greater private commitments, women still often tend to choose jobs which are well suited to part-time working but where there are fewer opportunities for promotion. This means less pay and a lower pension.

You said that the legal basis has largely been established. Why has genuine equality still not been achieved?

Traditional role models from the 19th century have survived until the present day. For a long time, society was split into separate spheres. Women were seen to belong to the domestic sphere, focused on the family and bringing up children, with an emphasis on health and social competence. Men, on the other hand, belonged to the public sphere. They took an interest in engineering or science, were born leaders and assumed official roles in society. This is of course a very outdated outlook, but is unfortunately often passed on unconsciously even today. That is a fundamental problem, as these role clichés are reinforced again and again, even in the media.

The gender bias is a factor that is even more deeply embedded in our unconscious, in other words the biased perception of women and men. Traditional role models that are ingrained into our unconscious as the standard continue to apply, as they are still very widespread across society. Women’s achievements tend to receive less recognition, and their skills are often underestimated. In addition, the world of work is still not particularly family friendly, less so in Germany than in a number of other countries.

Porträt Annette Keilhauer
The professor has been a senior academic councillor at the Chair of Romance Studies, in particular Literature and Cultural Studies at FAU, and spokesperson for the Interdisciplinary Centre Gender – Difference – Diversity since 2015. She was also the University Women’s Representative from 2017 to 2021. Her research includes gender studies and literature and women’s rights in the 19th century. (Image: Studio Föhr, Fürth)

What can we do?

We must raise awareness of the fact that such unconscious biased preconceptions exist. They can trick us into accepting what first comes to mind as standard. Surveys have shown that simply raising awareness of the fact that this bias exists is all that is needed to combat it.

For human resources development at FAU, we have developed a course aimed at raising awareness of this topic. It is available via StudOn. In the course, we show with reference to scientific research that people have a tendency to think in a certain direction, albeit unconsciously. We have received a lot of positive feedback to date.

Where do you believe the challenges for achieving more equality in society lie?

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on the unresolved issues. For example, the problem of balancing work and family, which led to considerable strain and at times untenable pressure, particularly for women during closures of schools and nurseries.

The second challenge is the gender pay gap. The coronavirus pandemic made it very clear that professions predominantly pursued by women, in areas such as nursing, cleaning and retail, are vital to our society and yet are very poorly paid.

One final aspect which was exacerbated, particularly during lockdown, is violence against women. The situation made counselling difficult and violence flourished behind closed doors away from the public eye. Women’s refuges are full. This is one central aspect of equality which we much continue to address even more so than we have done to date.

How would you assess the topic of equality within the university culture?

When I first entered the Senate as the women’s representative, I was the only female member. Now we have a Senate led by a woman. That is a fitting symbol of the changes that have been made.

The number of female members in the Executive Board and other committees has also increased,  and we can see a very positive trend in doctoral degrees. In many subjects, the ratio is nearly equal, although some STEM subjects are lagging behind a little.

When it comes to professorships, the situation is still rather difficult. With just over 20 percent of professors being women, FAU is still below the German average. However, a lot has happened over the last few years. Many brilliant female academics have been appointed to our university. I also believe it is a step in the right direction that appointment procedures have become much more transparent.

However, academia is a special area within society that still has a very clear cut hierarchy. This often makes it harder for women to pursue a career in this field. Another reason is that the stereotypical image of a scientist is of a man. Typically, an academic is seen as someone who lives and breathes their subject and is able to dedicate themselves entirely to their work. Women who are considering starting a family cannot and do not want to commit to that – and more and more men are becoming unwilling to make that sort of commitment too. In addition, the fact that contracts are often temporary and the social uncertainty this entails make it hard to plan a family.

In your position as women’s representative, you are sure to have been the driving force behind a number of these developments. Until now, however, you have been very modest about your achievements.

(Laughs) That is so typical – and part of the problem. The gender bias then comes into play as well, and people wonder, what has she been doing for the last ten years?

First of all, I would like to mention our Ariadne mentoring programme, although I was not involved in setting it up. It is a successful mentoring programme at FAU that supports young female academics working for a doctoral degree or postdoctoral qualification (Habilitation), and has been in place for many years now.

One project I have been involved in is making appointment procedures more transparent. This includes, for example, making active recruitment a requirement for all appointment procedures, thereby giving more women suited to the position a better chance.

Another important step was to make the work of the women’s representatives more professional. For a few years now, all new women’s representatives have been given a training course. They learn about their role in the appointment committee, the different options open to them for intervening, and any problems which may arise.

One important point for me personally was the publication of the history covering 30 years of women’s representatives at FAU. It represents appreciation for the many women who have served in this office at FAU since 1989 and have made a significant contribution to encouraging equal opportunities for all.

In Germany, public discussion of the topic seems to be centred around one tiny word ending. Why does using gender-neutral language spark such extreme reactions?

Language is closely connected to symbolism. Different people also have different ideas about how language should develop. On the one hand, language as seen as an intrinsic value within a society that ought to be changed as little as possible, but on the other hand language is also a living organism that is constantly evolving. In addition, complacency has a role to play, and in some cases also a lack of appreciation of why change should be necessary at all.

Gender-neutral language is not new. It is been a topic of discussion for at least 20 years now. There are several studies that prove that using gender-neutral language changes our perception. For children and young people, for example, it makes a big difference whether names of jobs are also used in the feminine form. This is particularly significant when it comes to thinking about what to study or which career to pursue.

In spite of the ongoing debate, both genders have become much more open and relaxed when it comes to dealing with the topic of equal opportunities for all. I sincerely hope that we will at some point reach the stage where women’s representatives are superfluous – but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

About the author

Sandra Kurze is a PR woman and science communicator at FAU. She writes about spitting carp, zombie stars and other phenomena that move science.

FAU research magazine friedrich

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This article first appeared in our research magazine friedrich. You can order the print issue (only available in German) free of charge at presse@fau.de.

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