There is a culture of discrimination against pregnancy and parenthood inside the Max Planck Society

There is a culture of discrimination against pregnancy and parenthood inside the Max Planck Society

Summary and context

Yet again, one Max Planck female director – this time from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI-CBS) – was presented as an isolated case of bullying in academia. The story illustrates pregnancy discrimination. The press office of the Max Planck Society (MPG) stated that this an isolated case that is internally solved and it doesn’t reflect what the other more than 700 group leaders and directors do. However, years of PhDnet surveys show otherwise. Later – after a social media comment about putting the case within a larger contextBuzzFeed and Spiegel Online covered the case within the context of MPG’s building principle. A few days later, PhDnet launched their position paper on  abuse of power and conflict resolution in the MPG in an interview given by the PhDnet spokesperson, Jana Lasser in Science magazine. The position paper was extensively discussed by Forschung & Lehre. The bullying at MPI-CBS was also reported by the Daily Mail, Washington Post, LA Times, the online magazines of New York Times and Atlantic, among many others. One coverage has a unique take on bullying as an ubiquitous phenomenon. Similarly, there is an ubiquitous phenomenon of discrimination against pregnancy and parenthood inside the MPG, in academia and society.

Doctoral researchers don’t get children though they want them

The National Report on Junior Scholars published by the German ministry of education and research (BMBF) in 2017 shows that only 13-30% of the junior scholars have children. Furthermore, 49% of female academic assistants and 42% of their male counterparts at universities ultimately remain childless. The high numbers of childless academics are exceptional when compared with university graduates in the same age group: Only 25% of university graduates are childless. But even 25% of university graduates remaining childless is a problem; more and more Germans choose not to have children leading to a low birth rate in an aging German population. Only recently, the tendency of more and more women remaining childless has stagnated and even slightly improved.

However, when we look at the PhD candidates inside the MPG, PhDnet surveys show that nothing improved over almost a decade: in a 2009 survey, 7.6% out of more than 2000 respondents were parents, while in 2012 this number was 7% and in 2017 only 8% of survey participants were parents. Similar numbers were reported by a 2017 survey by Helmholtz Juniors. Furthermore, the 2009 PhDnet survey compares the 7.6% of doctoral candidates being parents with their non-academic counterparts and concludes that PhD candidates in the MPG are somewhat less likely to have children than their peers of a similar age or educational background. A 2008 survey of women aged 25 – 29 living in Germany found that 15.0 % of those with a university or technical school degree were mothers, as were 30.7 % of all women in this age group.

According to the 2017 PhDnet survey, half of doctoral researchers without children report wanting children but choose not to get them. When asked for the reasons behind their choice, the doctoral candidates reported not having enough money (66%), working conditions not being family friendly (52%) and not wanting to jeopardize their career (51%). When it comes to working conditions not being family friendly, those who are already parents agree: Half of parents answering the survey report working at an institute that offers insufficient support (financial or otherwise) to doctoral researchers with children.

But 2017 was not the first time junior researchers in the MPG complained about lack of support for parents. In fact,  the 2013 HIS study commissioned by the MPG on the career paths of alumni and senior doctoral candidates cited difficulties in reconciling sciences with family or personal life as one of the top three reasons junior researchers leave academia. Moreover, a comment in this survey reads: ( The survey was summarized by the same person arguing that MPI-CBS is an isolated case inside the MPG.)

“I am, together with the other PhD students, still shocked about the opinion of the Vice president about working conditions. The last two times he came to our MPI he told us, that we should not complain about incongruity of family and work. He said, that it is our own fault (!!!), when we decide to get children. We should decide between family and career. Furthermore, he said we should not complain about too high workload and extremely long working times (e.g. at the weekend, until the evening) and the compared very low salery, because we should be willing to
work in order to learn and get educated instead of earning money. Sorry, but somehow we also just have to survive and especially stipend holders are very disadvantaged!!
A colleague of mine said:” We all start with a PhD, because we want to stay in science. But when we get to know how the conditions are, we just want to leave science!” That’s true! I know that this is a general problem in science and not a MPG problem, but the Vice president goes over the top.

Hence, the press office knows for years that they are facing a culture of discrimination against parents in the MPG and has no reason to officially call the MPI-CBS case an isolated one. Furthermore, the 2012 PhDnet survey showed that 35% of mothers and 10% of fathers felt discriminated due to parenthood. Moreover, 57% of parents thought that parenthood had a negative impact on their scientific career (75% of mothers).

Is parenthood affecting the work output of doctoral researchers?

Why do the majority of parents, especially mothers, think that parenthood has a negative impact on their scientific career? One answer could be the expectations directors and research group leaders have about the working times. The fact that the former vice-president dismissed the complaints about high workload created a culture leading to an overwhelming majority (90%) of researchers reporting in the 2017 PhDnet survey having worked on weekends or during public holidays. While the high workload is normalized in academia by a vast majority, 14% of survey respondents report that they work during statutory free days because of pressure from their supervisors. Similarly, 20% of survey respondents did not feel free to take their vacation days. (The vacation days for MPG doctoral candidates are limited for MPG to the legal minimum amount of 20 days/year.) The doctoral researchers who do not feel free to take their vacation days cited the high workload or pressure from supervisors as main reasons for their limited vacations.

The culture of high workload and diminished work-life balance affects the parental leave as well. Among the survey respondents who are parents or want children, 63% would not take full parental leave. Workload (45%) and pressure from the supervisors (7%) are among cited reasons for limited parental leave.

The survey doesn’t cover the pressure from group leaders and directors about the days taken off for taking care of sick children. Within the German law, priority is given to taking care of children. To this effect, a TVöD contract – a collective bargaining agreement in the public sector – ensures five days/year paid by the employer for taking care of sick children, unless there is a specific exclusion in the contract. Moreover, the state covers 70% payment (Krankengeld) for 10 days/year for each child; single parents get double. However, some group leaders and directors pressurize staff in limiting the days for taking care of sick children. In one case, the amount of sick days was used to evaluate whether a mother’s contract should be extended. In another case, a single mother had to use her vacation days to take care of her sick children without being offered the Krankengeld alternative.

Other reports speak about directors bringing abortion into discussion at the news of a pregnancy. A recent pregnancy in the MPG’s headquarters reportedly made the MPG’s president unhappy and led to changes in MPG’s management. For the cases in which expecting parents don’t feel comfortable approaching the pregnancy topic in front of their bosses, the law protects them from having to disclose their pregnancy status. In fact, employers are prevented from asking their employees and prospective employees about pregnancies and desire to have children. Furthermore, since 2018 the law (MuSchArbV) gives expecting mothers more rights by letting them decide over the limitations of their work while the employer has to provide expecting mothers with an appropriate working place such that pregnant women can work as much as they decide. This is extremely important in academia when a lot of the work is in laboratories with ubiquitous teratogenic substances.

Despite all these legal rights, the culture of discrimination against pregnancies trickles down to junior researchers who comment or gossip about technical and administrative personnel taking parental leave. Similarly, many junior scientists comment on the fact that non-academic personnel leaves at 15:00-16:00 without acknowledging that the same people were at the institute at 6:30-7:30 and that the normal working day is 8 hours. By normalizing the notion that good science can be achieved only by long working hours, the MPG directors got a generation of people who both self impose and enforce onto others the culture of high workload.

Therefore, the MPI-CBS director is not the only director who adopted the culture of discrimination against parents who might be slackers. This culture trickled from MPG’s management down to the directors and junior researchers.

However, parents are no slackers; the 2017 PhDnet survey shows no significant difference between the working times between parents and non-parents; both categories work on average ~9.5 hours/day (considering five working days in a week).

Parental leave and gender roles

When discussing parental leave, beside covering its limitations by workload, culture or supervisors, one should inquire whether there are gender differences, as the 2012 presidential report to the Joint Works Council states:

Das traditionell und kulturell gewachsene Rollenverständnis, dass der Mann Kar-
riere macht und im Zweifel die Frau zuhause bleibt, kann die Max-Planck-Gesellschaft als Arbeitgeber kaum verändern. Sie muss sich allerdings überlegen, wie sie Brücken bauen oder Ausgleiche herstellen kann, um den Wissenschaftlerinnen in der Phase der Familiengründung, die mit den entscheidendsten Jahren einer wissenschaftlichen Karriere zusammenfällt, zu helfen, ihre wissenschaftliche Karriere nicht beenden oder sich “unter Wert verdingen” zu müssen, nicht zuletzt auch, um im eigenen Arbeitgeberinteresse
weibliche Talente im System zu halten.

The above mindset that blames culture for the failure to offer appropriate support for parents survives to this day on the MPG’s webpage:

Operational measures which relieve the pressure of childcare on young scientists and non-scientific employees and facilitate their individual career planning, cannot replace the change of social mindset required; nevertheless, they make an important contribution towards equal opportunity

Moreover, the former president’s belief that parenthood is gendered trickled down to the presidential commission tasked with formulating guidelines for junior researchers’ training. Both in 2013 and in 2014, during the dinners held with the commission, the directors I sat next to brought up this topic. The male directors argued during these dinners that women don’t reach high positions in science because they choose to stay home with children.

During one of the presidential commission dinners, one of the directors sitting next to me even shared with us how he interviewed an expecting mother with another child at home for a prospective doctoral project. Apparently, he asked her about how she would manage a PhD thesis with two kids. Next day, during our presentation, we used this story, without naming the director, as an example of gender forewarning. Gender forewarning was one of the main reasons a longitudinal study cited as reason for women leaving academia. Another reason cited by the study was the incompatibility between science and family. As a consequence, we asked that the MPG makes it clear that it is normal to combine family with an academic career.

In the coffee break after our presentation, the director called out on his bigotry told us that he eventually hired the interviewed candidate and supported her parenthood. (This was subsequently confirmed by a member of his department.) The director was asked whether he would have acted the same with an expecting father. The reply was that mothers are biologically more caring than fathers. This was very surprising to hear from a biomedical section director when an immense body of evidence shows that similar to mothers, elevated prolactin levels in new fathers most probably contribute to child-caring behavior and facilitate behavioral and emotional states attributed to child care.

However, this is not the only time when directors impose their preconceived notions on women and parents in spite of abundant evidence showing the contrary. Parental leave is no longer a gendered issue as only 10% of men and 3% of women intend not taking any parental leave if they have kids, according to the 2017 PhDnet survey. This shows that those cultural norms the MPG talks about are, in fact, imposed by MPG officials.

However, despite our request in 2013 that the MPG makes it clear that it is normal to combine family and a scientific career, the current MPG webpage still mentions forewarning discouraging parenthood in academia. Moreover, though parenthood in academia seemed to be the most important topic of conversation during the presidential commission’s dinners, the final guidelines for doctoral training do not mention compatibility between family and science.

What are the measures for parents in the MPG and who enjoys them?

One might argue that the reason why the presidential commission did not officially concern themselves with parenthood is because the general administration (GA) of the MPG developed measures supporting parents that led to a positive certification of the MPG from berufundfamilie. (The National Report on Junior Scholars recommends such certifications as a solution to the parenthood problem in academia. The berufundfamillie audit happens every three years. The new audit for the MPG is due in 2018.)

Over the years, there were many measures that the MPG’s general administration developed such that they get and maintain the berufundfamilie certification. In 2014, the GA asked each MPI to self-report the measures locally adopted; these self-evaluations were never made open inside the MPG for proper discussion. This is why, at the same time – while I was the spokesperson of the PhDnet – we attempted to survey how many of the support measures are enjoyed by the doctoral candidates who are parents. However, the survey was stopped by the current general secretary of the MPG. Even when the survey was repeated by the PhDnet in 2015, according to the technical specifications desired by the MPG’s management, the results were not published. However, the survey results were leaked to me.

Both the 2014 (76 parents; 7% of respondents) and the 2015 (111 parents; 7% of respondents) surveys showed that the parents among the PhD candidates in the MPG enjoy few of the measures developed by the GA. Furthermore, quite a few parents showed anger that they were not informed about these measurements. Among parents, 13% said that they use the institute’s kindergarten in 2015 (20% in 2014). Moreover, 6 parents said that they used the Besser Betreut services in the 2015 survey (the same as in 2014). One of the comments reported that the service is useless because it is very expensive. Another measure adopted by the MPG gave employees the right to additional childcare compensation: Financial contribution of up to 36€/day can be paid to employees for a specific care service if employees must attend on-site meetings (e.g. in the evening or at the weekend) (circular 70/2009). Only one parent in the 2014 survey and six parents in the 2015 survey reported enjoying this measure.

The parents among MPG stipend holders received additional benefits such as a child allowance of 400 EUR/month and a family element: a up to one year extension or money for childcare instead of extension (circular 74/2011). Although these measures needed to be given to all MPG stipend holders with children, only 27 out of 49 MPG stipend holders with children reported receiving a child allowance in 2015 (21 out of 32 in 2014). One reason brought up repeatedly was the limitation of the measures in circular 74/2011 to those who started their PhD after July 2011. However, for those before that date, a marriage subsidy was in place. Only three parents out of those surveyed in 2014 reported receiving such a subsidy. Another disappointment was related to the family element: Only two parents in 2014 and one parent in 2015 reported enjoying this mandatory measure.

The biggest problem with the family element was the fact that a majority of administrators and staff did not properly understand how to implement the measure. In an online Q&A on maxNet – the internal platform for the MPG staff and alumni – on 15th of January 2014, the question of how to implement the family element was left unanswered by GA officials. In April 2014, I followed up with the GA for an answer. I argued that having a measure that pays childcare conditioned to not applying for extensions does not make sense when a vast majority of non-parents need extensions too. The only way this measure would make sense would be if it would be used as parental leave or home office due to the limitations due to pregnancy. (The MPG states that it offers the possibility to telecommute.) My contact in the GA – now responsible for gender and diversity issues – was outraged at such a proposal since stipend holders are entitled to parental leave (Elterngeld) financed by the state. I replied that the MPG cannot expect a mother to support herself and her child with 300 EUR/month just because she was paid through a stipend. The conversation was abruptly stopped from the side of the GA. A few months later, they came up with a flyer explaining the concept of scholarship suspension for those who opt for parental leave:

The scholarship payments are stopped. An entitlement to parenting benefit pursuant to the BEEG may exist during parental leave. This is a state benefit.

This made the position of the MPG clear: If you opt for parental leave, you should get the 300 EUR/month from the state. The MPG did not see themselves responsible for parents ending up in poverty due to the fact that the MPG mostly awarded stipends. Hence, the MPG did not do its best for supporting parenthood. In fact, according to the GEW – German research and education trade union – flyer, it is up to the organization awarding the stipend whether they stop the payment of the stipend, continue as before pregnancy or they subtract the state benefits from the awarded stipend. The MPG chose to stop the stipend payments entirely.

Despite this culture imposed by the MPG’s headquarters, some directors chose to switch expecting parents from stipends to contracts as soon as they heard the news of a pregnancy. The idea was that parents can have one year of contract and then receive the statutory parental leave. But this was done by far too few people: three parents reported this switch in 2015 (two in 2014). However, GA’s disregard for pregnant women on stipends gave other directors a carte blanche to discontinue the stipend to expecting mothers or force them on part-time stipends since the scientific purpose of their stipend couldn’t be achieved any longer. When one of these cases was brought up to the vice-president mentioned above, he said that the situation is immoral but not illegal.

Luckily, due to the work of generations of PhDnet that culminated during my time as a spokesperson, the stipend system was abolished in the MPG as of July 2015. Currently, a few hundred stipend holders, who started before July 2015, are still registered in the most recent personnel statistics. With a contract, doctoral candidates enjoy more legal protections and fewer chances to end up in poverty if they choose parenthood.

Doctoral candidates who are parents don’t have enough money to raise their child

Even the parents who were not forced into poverty due to their taking parental leave while receiving a stipend report not having enough money to raise their child. The 2017 PhDnet survey shows that 41% of researchers with children report not having enough money to raise their child. In general, 19% of doctoral researchers received additional financial support (17% from partners, family or others) or have taken out a loan (2%) to support themselves during their research. Those who receive financial support are more likely to have a low income and be parents and/or stipend holders. These results were recently covered by Dr. Wiebke Esdar (SPD) in the Bundestag.

Additionally, according to the 2017 PhDnet survey, parents get fewer extensions or shorter ones. However, the 2012 PhDnet survey showed that parents wish they had more time to finish their PhD. Getting fewer extensions as a parent stands against a measure taken by the MPG in 2013. Circular 68/2013 recommends contract extensions for parents. However, the 2014 survey results show that only five parents enjoy the measures established by this circular (two parents in 2015). Moreover, a comment in the 2014 survey reads:

i did not receive any support by having a child. my contract was extended due to the time of parental leave, but because of the parental leave a had to finish later and did not get any extension as my colleagues started with me, but finished earlier

But what happens to those parents who do not receive an extension but need it, as many other doctoral candidates do? The 2014 and 2015 surveys show that 3% of doctoral candidates report working unpaid at some point during their PhD thesis. These numbers are confirmed by the 2017 PhDnet survey. Moreover, both the 2014 and the 2015 surveys show that parents are three times as likely as non-parents to end up working unpaid for the MPG during their thesis.

When filtering the 2015 survey results for the MPI-CBS, there are 73 survey respondents. Out of these 73 doctoral candidates, five – all women, one mother – worked unpaid for a period of time during their doctoral research. This is exceptional in two ways. First, 7% of respondents working unpaid is above the MPG average. Second, there is no overall clear gender bias among the other MPG doctoral candidates working unpaid. However, this institute stands out in positive ways as well: 14% of survey respondents were parents, double as much as in the rest of the MPG. In addition, recently, a mother of two from the Social Neuroscience department was awarded the Otto-Hahn group, a distinction given each year to only three doctoral candidates in the whole MPG.

What happened at MPI-CBS is important for the equal opportunity measures within the MPG as a whole. Angela Friederici – the managing director at MPI-CBS until 2014 – leads the “Opportunities” commission. In addition, as the humanities section vice-president, Angela Friederici leads the scientific advisory boards evaluating the MPIs in the humanities section every three years. One can only wonder how somebody who turned a blind eye to the known bullying happening at her institute can reform the culture of discrimination against women, including pregnant women.

Reform is urgently needed since even the most recent measure to support parents by supplementing their income towards childcare is limited to a few applicants and only to children under the age of three. (In 2013, in the presidential commission, PhDnet specifically asked for help for parents with older children.) Moreover, the expenses entailed by a child are far beyond childcare: Children need food, clothes, toys, school supplies etc. Furthermore, older children will need their own room, hence the parents will need to rent or buy a larger house. All in all, a 50% subsidy given to some parents towards childcare is insufficient to make-up for the fact that junior researchers earn too little to afford a family.

Good practice examples of Max Planck Institutes who support parenthood

Good practice examples from MPIs are useful tools in two ways.

First, good practice examples normalize certain counter-cultures, e.g., the notion that it is possible to have a scientific career and children. Hence, in 2014, the PhDnet steering group launched a campaign of good practice examples of PhD candidates with kids. This idea was built on the previous work in collecting good practice examples by PhDnet in 2011.

Second, good practice examples from other institutes are bargaining tools with the management of MPIs because institutes are in competition with each other. Every three years, each MPI is evaluated scientifically and in terms of support measures for staff by a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). Among the evaluation criteria, the SAB must check equal opportunities and specifically the measures to reconcile the demands of family and career. As the managing director of an MPI wrote to the entire staff before the SAB in December 2015:

This visit is indeed an important event for the institute, since we will not only be evaluated as an individual institute (every department, every Research Group, structure and how we deal with students and postdocs, etc.) but we will also be compared to other MPIs such as Dresden, Berlin, Tübingen, etc. The “verdict” of the SAB can influence our funding as well as our standing within the range of MPIs and thus, we should present ourselves in the best possible way.

As a consequence, the SAB evaluation, with its financial incentives, is the right tool junior researchers can use to negotiate better conditions for parents (and not only). (Having a managing director tell people to present themselves in the best possible way is counter-productive for the purpose of the SAB. But this is a story for another time.)

Another good practice example is Marina Rodnina at MPI for biophysical chemistry (MPI-bpc). At the same institute, after a presentation including the good practice examples gathered by the PhDnet in 2011, in 2013 we got a children room (Kinderzimmer) appropriate for breastfeeding and expressing milk in privacy. This was possible with the support of the head of administration. In 2015, after a survey conducted by a postdoc (AD) together with the equal opportunity officer, the children room was expanded. Furthermore, to facilitate the compatibility of career and children, AD negotiated that all official seminars and lectures at the MPI-bpc start no later than 2 p.m. while the institute’s kindergarten accepts kids as young as three months to support parents who want to return to work from a shorter parental leave.

Moreover, over time, some institutes only improved their support for parents: While in 2011, the MPI for Colloids and Interfaces was named in PhDnet’s Offspring magazine among the best practice examples, in the 2014 survey, a comment from this MPI reads:

I feel like everything is done at our department of Biomaterials to make life for parents easier. This is not only limited to the institute kindergarden and the possibility of “besser betreut” (which is available but we never had to use it). Our director and also the group leaders always were very understanding if issues concerning kids came up. For our department retreat it was possible to take along the kids and if necessary on site childcare was organized.

A personal view on the pressure to stay childless in the Max Planck Society

I avoid talking about my own story of workplace bullying from my time in the MPG because, despite making it clear that I criticize the MPG because its best version is yet to come, my admission of having been bullied during my doctoral time might be perceived as a reason for my criticism. But there is a time when speaking from experience helps, especially when I have seen a tweet hinting that despite all this criticism of the system there is no good advice about how to reconcile family and an academic career.

The social justice fighter in me says that when you face discrimination based on parenthood, you should immediately report it and make clear that it is unacceptable. But the realist in me knows about how conflict management develops and such complaints can escalate. Hence, I can only advise people to analyze their particular circumstances and decide whether to report things. I advise reporting only when people feel that there is at least someone who would be open to follow-through with such a complaint in an confidential manner. Second, no single story can work as universal advice. Nobody is entitled to tell anyone how to deal with their own situation. What we can do is share our stories such that people are aware of options.

When I started my PhD, my supervisor told me that I am the ideal candidate with the exception of my gender. At the start of my PhD I had a fiance with whom I had every intention to start a family. However, during our first Christmas in Göttingen, we had to cancel our family visits because of my work. Our group received word that competitors have the same results as us. I was third author on that manuscript. The postdoc who was first author went for a vacation in Turkey leaving the writing of the article on my supervisor and me. My loyalty was repaid with being entrusted with increasing amounts of work. As a consequence, my fiance started rightfully questioning whether my postponing our family planning will lead to our ending childless. At some point I said: “I cannot do this [Note: get pregnant] to my supervisor”. My fiance eventually broke up with me because my supervisor’s career should not be part of our family planning. The fact is that I believed, as the vast majority of people still do, that parenthood might affect my career perspectives in academia. I believed that if I would not upset my supervisor and do everything she asked, I will have an amazing career in academia.

However, the workload and unrealistic demands only increased. Being away from the bench was something unacceptable. At some point, both our technician and I were asked for individual meetings to be confronted with a list of days away from the bench. The technician was reprimanded for both her and her kids’ sick days while I was reprimanded for a total of 35 days in a year away from the bench. Among my days away from the bench were: two sick days, an international conference (recommended by my supervisor), an international symposium (recommended by my supervisor), the departmental retreat (imposed by my supervisor), my graduate program’s retreat, our financing organization’s retreat (imposed by my supervisor) and graduate courses for my self-development. Interestingly, she never reprimanded me for being away from the bench for helping her teach towards her habilitation. In fact, I did four times more teaching for her than required by my university towards my degree. However, I got the same amount of credits for teaching as I did for courses taken for my own development (a constant reprimand from her side).

Towards the end of my contract I had accumulated seven weeks of vacation days still to be taken. This happened despite the fact that for all my PhDnet related travelling, I took vacation days both in 2013 and 2014, in spite of PhDnet being recognized as work for the MPG that might lead to exceptional extensions. I inquired about whether she will pay the money equivalent for the days I worked instead of taking vacation, as I am legally entitled (Entgeld). My supervisor insisted that I work until the last day of my contract and forget the vacation days. Soon after this discussion, due to the high workload and stress leading to a weaken immune system, I got sick with chronic bronchitis (that took more than a year to get rid of). I informed my supervisor about it. I also informed her that I sent my doctor’s note to the HR department. I was officially excused from work until Friday. On Saturday, she sent me an email reproaching that she didn’t hear anything else from me the entire week I was home sick.

That was the time when I realized that I had given up a fiance, being a mother, my nerves, my vacation days and my health for being paid 65% E13 TVöD as a postdoc. All my sacrifices were towards a letter of recommendation that was constantly used as leverage against me. In turn, I was her best researcher who finished her PhD thesis within 3.5 years with six publications. No matter how many sacrifices I made to avoid being bullied and still get a career, a bully will only ask for more.

Though I brought up my situation to everyone tasked to mediate such situations in a timely manner, two years before I left the MPG, both at the institute and beyond, no efficient intervention happened. In fact, during such a “mediation”, the managing director compared me with a hurt animal, accused me of misdemeanors and scientific misconduct while mentioning legal action that might be brought up against me by those very good lawyers at the GA. However, he still offered me an extension to my contract to finish the project. When I refused, he said that I have a duty towards the project.

Previously, our department’s director, instead of talking himself to my supervisor, contacted my supervisor’s former boss – a female director in the MPG who, according to what my supervisor told me, was responsible for victimizing her people including my supervisor. As a consequence, this director decided to share a room with my supervisor during a symposium. Plans changed due to the organisation but the director still approached my supervisor about leadership problems in her group. When my supervisor returned from this symposium, without knowing that I complained, told me that the female director is not the one to talk when it comes to leadership skills. I honestly agreed because I independently knew of problems in that department. I was shocked at the lack of professionalism with which the situation was handled. At the end, my complaining only victimized both me and my supervisor.

The situation ended because I chose to leave without a recommendation letter. When I left the MPG, I wished that I was the last one that my supervisor would treat the way she treated me (and others). Indeed, a year later, my supervisor left academia reportedly because she had bad luck with PhD candidates. Indeed, one of her doctoral researchers started the Fair-Pay petition leading to the raise of minimum stipend amount to 1365 EUR and another one abolished the stipends. All these considered, I am still in academia working in one of the most prestigious medical institutes in the world and I am planning my move to an even more prestigious university. I have no regrets about the things I gave up during that time because the other path I took made me equally happy, as happiness science predicts. (But this does not condone bullying inside the MPG.) If my supervisor wasn’t a bully, the MPG would still use stipends. What’s more, if I had a child, I wouldn’t have been the PhDnet spokesperson who helped an expecting mother (and not only) who later sent me this sweet card:

Dear Andreea, As you can see, my baby came slightly early […] We finally managed to find a solution to my hiring “issue” […] Thanks a lot for your help & support!
To conclude, a bully will bully you no matter whether you will choose to have a child or postpone it to appease the bully. Being a victim of bullying has nothing to do with you. And, unless there is a change in how conflicts are treated inside the MPG, there is little recourse for victims of bullying.

But what can you do if you want children?

Most parents I know told me that you just decide to have a child and then you manage the rest. This is what a doctoral candidate in my group did: She got pregnant in spite of our supervisor. She requested a lab free of teratogenic chemicals, as she was entitled by law. Additionally, she asked the director to extend her contract up to one year because she was just switched to a contract but needed three more months to qualify for the statutory parental leave money (Elterngeld). The later angered our supervisor. Yet, how our director budged his money was nothing of her concern. Instead, our supervisor should have been grateful that the director paid her PhD candidate for the entire duration of her PhD, which indirectly subsidized my supervisor’s research.

When it came to working with dangerous chemicals, I helped my colleague because we were working with the same class of proteins but with different approaches. We made a good plan of the things she could do and what I needed to do due to toxicity. We both worked full-time and pushed the article faster than in the case the pregnancy wouldn’t had happened. Yet, our supervisor saw our scientific discussions as chats outside the allowed breaks. Nevertheless, we shared first author on that article and authorship on other articles that were a spin-off the methodology we optimized together. At the end, we both benefited and discovered that the secret of combining a pregnancy with scientific output is a trustful collaboration that pushes articles forward while everyone benefits.

If I were the president of the Max Planck Society….

The MPG’s president is the mediator between two sides. One side rightfully demands the normalization of parenthood in science since 2013 and argues that doctoral researchers do not receive enough money to raise a family. The other side thinks that science, not children, should be a priority; parental leave endangers this priority. If I were the president, I would use the accumulation in MPG’s budget, recently criticized as illegitimate, to raise the minimum level of contracts to 65% E13 TVöD, as recommended by the DFG and requested by the 2012 Fair-Pay petition. This would encourage doctoral candidates to start planning a family. Moreover, I would award an additional 15% E13 TVöD recruitment bonus for parents receiving Max Planck doctoral contracts. In this case, one can justify that recruitment bonuses are used for the retention of women and parents in science . The additional recruitment bonus for parents would enter in effect the month the parent returns to work. The raise in salary would make it financially attractive for a parents to come back to work instead of using their full parental leave during which they would receive 65% of their previous pay as state benefits. A higher income would pay for good quality childcare.

Furthermore, to ensure a good environment for everyone, including those taking their rightful full parental leave, I would ask the MPIs to self-report their measures for supporting parents, as done in 2014. But I would also ask numbers for parents in each personnel category. Further, I would make these numbers part of the SAB evaluation. I would compare the evolution of each institute to previous reports while I would further investigate the MPIs that are below the MPG’s average. The MPIs that are above average would be covered in the MPG’s journals, magazines and webpage as inspirational good practice examples for other MPIs.

I would, once and for all, make it clear that family and a scientific career are possible inside the MPG; and never allow any mention of culture as a forewarning used to demotivate people from following their personal goals.

Moreover, the conflict resolution mechanisms must change inside the MPG. For this, we need to have a definition of harassment and bullying available for everyone. Since only harassment is covered by law (AGG) and bullying is covered by a few laws, experts recommend that German companies and organizations introduce codes of conduct. It is also important to train everyone and make them aware that these codes of conduct exist. Finally, the independent mediation body proposed by PhDnet is the way to go. However, the MPG statutes will need to be changed (Article 30 gives directors the legal right to be judged by their peers) by a two third votes of the directors.

Frankly, when faced with a public demand for statutes change, a change depending on the same directors creating the problems, I would not know what to do as president. Especially, when the MPG’s budget will be under discussion in April 2019 and a lot of criticism about the size of this budget is already public. But, if I were the president, I wouldn’t had ended up in this situation.

If I were Martin Stratmann, I wouldn’t have dismissed the complaints the PhDnet spokesperson brought up in 2014. I wouldn’t have started bargaining whether problems are widespread enough, e.g., if 3% of doctoral researchers working unpaid for the MPG is an actual problem. I wouldn’t have tried to convince the spokesperson to commit that no PhDnet member – none of the 5000 Max Planck PhD candidates including the IMPRS ones – would go to the press. I would have listened to the spokesperson who told me: “Whether 3% is a problem or not, it is not mine to decide. But if you have one single person in that situation, and that person goes to the press, it is your problem, not my responsibility”.

The attitude that Martin Stratmann displayed is unwise. His predecessor listened to the same spokesperson, and though he previously called PhD candidates “apprentices” and “half-researchers”, he openly changed his opinion:

We must also recruit junior scientists more intensively. That means
reasonable pay, promotion and mentoring! Your institutes do not face hardship. Junior scientists – I say this in light of recent events because I held a meeting with the representatives of the doctoral students yesterday – do not mean cheap labour. And we are no longer living in the 1950s where a Director could rule like a little king. Young people are in demand worldwide and also have very good networks. Not just other Max Planck institutes, but half of the world finds out how you treat doctoral students or post-docs within a few hours via Twitter or Facebook.

The former president understood that it’s only a matter of time until the statistically provable problems reach the press.

There were more than four years of warnings that business as usual is unacceptable by junior researchers. No other president would have let so many MPG directors go unpunished. Hence, no other president would have ended up in such a conundrum: Being publicly asked to change the MPG’s statutes while the entire world is watching just before the MPG’s budget is discussed. If only this wouldn’t have been the only time when Martin Stratmann was put in a corner by the most exceptional junior researchers in the world. (The story of how stipends became contracts is for another long-read).

Food for thought

To conclude, there is a culture of discrimination against pregnancies and parenthood inside the Max Planck Society characterized by:

  • MPG officials normalizing long working hours over weekends and statutory holidays, with vacation days and parental leave not taken either through self-imposed acceptance of this culture or pressure from supervisors
  • the press office ignoring internal surveys showing a cultural problem inside the MPG and dismissing press reports as isolated cases
  • an open culture of discrimination and imposing gender roles, i.e., childcare is a woman’s job, in spite of surveys and science showing that young fathers want to get involved as well
  • junior researchers fearing for their scientific careers if parenthood is chosen
  • not enough money for a family and, in some cases, risk of poverty if parenthood is chosen
  • measures for supporting parenthood that are awarded to very few people but used for getting the berufundfamilie certification, a certification mentioned as solution to the parenthood problem in academia by the BMBF
  • a structural problem characterized by conflict avoidance instead of conflict resolution that led to an accumulation of an iceberg of problems

Though these problems are discussed in detail for the MPG, they are not characteristic for the MPG alone. The MPG doesn’t show worse statistics than the Helmholtz Association or the entire Germany. In fact, discrimination against parents happens in academia and society. Yet, culture is no excuse for MPG’s failure to do better.

Since these problems are not specific to the MPG, it is not fair to blame them on the Harnack principle – the building principle of the MPG: Gather the brightest minds in the world and give them absolute freedom. (But other problems stem out of the Harnack principle.) As a matter of fact, the same statutes that ensure the implementation of the Harnack principle, have the following statement in the first paragraph of their first article:

It is a special concern of the Max Planck Society to counteract discrimination of any kind.

Nobody can blame the building principle of the MPG for directors discriminating against any protected group. In doing so, we miss addressing the bigger issue in academia: The National Report on Junior Scholars shows that German academics either choose not to have children or leave academia. Now is the time to discuss the parenthood in academia issue because by November the team working on the next National Report on Junior Scholars is deciding their focus. They do so based on the media coverage of issues in academia. This report decides the agenda for the next elections. Having isolated cases blamed on MPG’s culture risks that the issue of academic bullying or discrimination against parents is not put front and center on the agenda for the next elections.

In the meantime, one can blame MPG’s management for spreading a culture of working over-time leading to people being pressurized out of their weekends, statutory holidays, vacation days and parental leave. One can blame MPG’s management for amplifying gender stereotypes leading to fewer women in academia. Finally, one can blame MPG’s management for having no functional conflict resolution mechanism.


2 thoughts on “There is a culture of discrimination against pregnancy and parenthood inside the Max Planck Society

  1. This behavior is more like that of southern Italian clans – something with M …. The chief may do anything, the rest must obey the orders. Modern employee management does not exist. You have to put up with all the misconduct of the directors. All others are the director’s maximum dependent. This principle can be felt on all hierarchical levels. Since the MPG has enormous influence throughout science, all scientists are afraid to talk about it. Not only PhD students are affected. Also postdocs, PIs and other staff members. Mr. Stratmann, or his name is Pinocchio, lies. He has known for years about the bullying problems at the MPI of Psychiatry. He is even an active part to get rid of employees. The same applies to the compliance officer and the general secretary of the MPG. It is a shame that this taxpayer-funded society is allowed to behave this way. Especially with regard to German history, other thoughts come to mind. And the regulators: The BMBF and the GWK (inspection authorities) are fed regularly with MPG lies – and believe that too.


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