Published online 6 August 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1009


German professor in sex discrimination battle

Row throws spotlight on dearth of top female academics in the country.

A local government investigation over the appointment of a German university’s director is highlighting women’s struggle to reach top academic positions in the country.

Philologist Elisabeth Cheauré, a professor at the University of Freiburg in the state of Baden-Württemberg, claims that she did not get the job of director at the university because she is a woman.

womanGermany has a relatively low number of women in top academic posts.Punchstock

In mid-July, a search committee comprising members of the university’s council and senate had whittled down a shortlist of applicants to just two candidates — including Cheauré — for the job. It was then up to the university’s council to select their preferred candidate. But the council instead added a third name to the candidate list — acting president Hans-Jochen Schiewer, who had applied for the permanent position but failed to make the final shortlist — and elected him on 21 July.

Cheauré believes that the decision contravenes German regulations, which require that females should be preferentially selected for leading positions if all candidates are of equal merit. Klemens Weingart, student representative on the search committee, says that both the candidates they selected were indeed equally matched. “If anything, Cheauré was thought by the search committee to be the better candidate,” he says.

The state’s ministry of science has confirmed that it is investigating the case, although the university still expects the ministry to issue Schiewer’s appointment certificate on 1 October, says spokesperson Eva Opitz.

New equality rules

“This low percentage of women [in professorships] is a scandal for German science, and at the same time it’s a waste of intellectual resources”

Matthias Kleiner
DFG president

Campaigners are now pointing to the Cheauré case as the latest example of Germany’s dismal record on women reaching the top in academia. In 2006 women occupied just 9% of the senior academic positions (known as C-4 professors), the lowest proportion in 12 major European countries, according to the Center of Excellence Women and Science in Bonn. Only 7 of 109 universities in Germany are led by women.

A concerted effort by all the major research organizations in Germany, such as the university grant-giving agency DFG and the Max Planck Society, which runs 80 institutes, are trying to change the situation. “This low percentage of women [in professorships] is a scandal for German science and at the same time it’s a waste of intellectual resources,” says DFG president Matthias Kleiner, who introduced new rules in July requiring grant committees to consider equality standards.

The Max Planck Society also passed a new equality regulation this summer to increase the proportion of women directors within the Max Planck Society, which currently stands at only 7%. An equal opportunity officer will be installed to ensure that appointment panels consider very seriously applications from women.

Brigitte Mühlenbruch, a pharmaceutical chemist and vice president of the Brussels-based European Platform of Women Scientists, says that gender balance within the top echelons of universities will not change unless the university committees change.

And, Mühlenbruch says, those committees will not change until women are appointed to them. She suggests that a temporary quota is needed to ensure that every university appointment council consists of no fewer than 40% men and 40% women. “I now believe this would be the only way,” she says. 

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