Germany moves to scrap committee gender parity quotas

Written by: David Matthews
Published on: 23 Jul 2020

Brassed off quotas raise concerns that senior women could be ‘overburdened’

Source: Getty

Brassed off quotas raise concerns that senior women could be ‘overburdened’

Germany is planning to scrap rigid gender quotas for university committees after a prominent research foundation concluded they burden female academics with too much administrative work, holding back their careers.

In a country where fewer than a quarter of professors are female, the German Research Foundation (DFG) thinks that targets of 40 to 50 per cent could be counterproductive.

“An ambitious goal that destroys the research capacity of your female professors is not a good goal,” said Roland Fischer, one of the DFG vice-presidents, who is closely involved in its gender-equality work.

“We have to think beyond this simplistic idea of just having a percentage,” he told Times Higher Education.

Instead, quotas will use a “cascade” model. For committees, this means the minimum proportion of women will be based on the current percentage of women eligible to sit on the committee.

The DFG’s recommendations are the latest sign of unease with committee quotas. Data from France, Italy and Spain have questioned their effectiveness when it comes to hiring more women. As far back as 2015, the European Molecular Biology Organization said that despite quotas becoming more widespread across Europe, it was “not clear” that they led to more hiring success for female academics and raised concerns that senior women could be “overburdened”.

The German plans are part of a series of recommendations released by the DFG after several years of consultations on how German academia could hire more women.

Other proposals include giving committee-burdened women reduced teaching loads and research-only semesters. The report also suggests allocating extra research funds or staff in compensation.

Universities also need to better reward committee work when hiring and promoting, it says. “We want to have a rising awareness that this is valuable work and you can’t expect people to do valuable work if people don’t get recognised,” said Professor Fischer.

More broadly, the DFG’s analysis also urges a “review and limitation of committee and meeting requirements in general”.

Professor Fischer said that the idea was to rethink the burgeoning administrative work that “presses” on the “shoulders” of academics, male and female. Universities could potentially survey all their academics and compensate those under heavy burdens, he said.

“We see an ever-increasing complexity in the [higher education] system and an increasing [administrative] load to support the system as a whole” for example, with quality assurance and research assessment obligations, he said.

“We are not just doing this for the sake of equal opportunities, but for the benefit of the whole scientific system,” he said.

To increase the number of female academics in general, the DFG wants universities to undertake “active recruitment”, which Professor Fischer described as “kind of a headhunting”.

The idea is to give promising female researchers a reliable career path so they do not drop out at the crucial early career stage.

But this is a challenge in German academia, where, as the DFG report admits, short-term contracts are rife even at the mid-career stage.

Some German universities have been changing their career structures to mirror international models, and giving tenure-track positions to younger academics. The Technical University of Munich, where Professor Fischer is based, has created about 100 such positions over the past decade, 40 per cent of which have gone to women.

“Certain structural changes are necessary, otherwise we will not be able to attract females,” he said.