Handover for the Equal Opportunity Commissioner

On 7 December 2022, Prof. Astrid Lembke was elected by the Senate as the new central equal opportunity commissioner for the University of Mannheim. She follows Prof. Jutta Mata, who held the position for four years. In an interview with FORUM, the two professors report on the milestones they have achieved so far and future challenges.

FORUM: Professor Mata, you were the equal opportunity commissioner for four years, that is, two terms of office.What goals are you particularly proud of having achieved during your term? 

Prof. Jutta Mata: For many people, equal opportunity is a highly emotional topic. I wanted to tackle it factually and scientifically and therefore took an empirical, evidence-based approach. When I started, there was little data available for some of the issues. We then collected our own data or prepared existing data so that we could analyze it. Based on this data, we developed measures for evidence-based equal opportunity that can also be found in the new professorial appointment guidelines passed by the Senate in September 2022. These guidelines provide an important foundation for more equal opportunities in the appointment process. 

We also carried out a survey on the compatibility of academic and family life. This showed us that the university was dealing with a significant information gap. Most of the services in the area of equal opportunities are known to only a few members of the university, and we could also see that there was an information gap when it came to supervisors’ knowledge about parental leave and maternity protection.  

FORUM: What else happened at the University of Mannheim in the area of equal opportunities during your term of office?  

Prof. Jutta Mata: We established new programs. Young parents can now take part in the FAiR@UMA program, which helps women researchers who have family obligations request funds for student assistants with minimal bureaucracy so they can get support with their research work. We also put a lot of work into communication. There’s now an informational brochure for the schools’ equal opportunities commissioners, our homepage is new, and we expanded the Senate Committee on Equal Opportunity to include several additional member groups. This means that bottom-up initiatives such as WUMAN are now also involved.  

FORUM: During your term of office, the Covid pandemic occurred. It has now been proven that the pandemic brought about significant disadvantages for women in research. In your opinion, what needs to happen now to help counteract this development?  

Prof. Jutta Mata: The data shows that women were subject to structural disadvantages in the academic system even before the pandemic, and there are good reasons for assuming that researchers with young children, especially women, experienced significant decreases in academic productivity during the pandemic. If we don’t want to systematically lose certain groups in the academic system, we need to counteract this. To do so, we need standardized regulations, for example on how the academic performance during this time is to be assessed in appointment procedures. Of course we also need to look at each case individually. But in my opinion it is absolutely essential that we get it in writing that this period must be assessed separately.  

FORUM: What tips would you like to give Professor Lembke for her upcoming term of office? 

Prof. Jutta Mata: Giving her tips makes it sound like I know better than her how to work on equal opportunities. I don’t think that’s the case, though. We did a handover, and I hope that we’ll continue to exchange thoughts on various topics. From my perspective, a few topics are quite pressing. For example, we absolutely and urgently need to increase the proportion of women appointed to professorships at our university. If we don’t, then that will put us at a distinct disadvantage in the future. It will also be important to think about equal opportunities and diversity together. They have different foci, and both of them are important for attracting the best minds and ideas to the University of Mannheim. We cannot play them off against each other.  

Besides this, I have noticed that the university members have a great need for information. Students often believe that the open comments in the teaching evaluation, where they sometimes give examples of discriminating statements made by the lecturers, for example, are read by some sort of monitoring committee and the teaching evaluations therefore act as a channel for official complaints. This is not the case, though. It would be helpful here to more clearly communicate what steps can be taken if students experience discrimination.   

FORUM: Professor Lembke, you are quite new to the University of Mannheim. Have you ever been an equal opportunity commissioner before?  

Prof. Astrid Lembke: I have never been an equal opportunity commissioner, and I am therefore looking forward to having a chance to take over this important position. In my career I have often been confronted with equal opportunity and diversity issues, however, for example while I was an assistant at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where I represented the academic Mittelbau at the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies for a time. There was a very lively discussion at that time about how we can deal with discrimination and privileges at universities, both in terms of academic work and in daily university life. I learned a lot through that work. I was also lucky enough to be able to participate in the Berlin ProFiL program, which supports women on their path to a professorship. Discussions with other women researchers, including some from completely different disciplines, was very enriching for me. It opened my eyes to how much still needs to be done in the areas of justice and equal opportunities. I would like to work on this in the next two years. 

FORUM: If we look at the numbers on equal opportunities at the University of Mannheim, we see a reflection of the entire German university system: While 53% of the students were female in the fall semester 2022/23, not even one-quarter of the professors are women. Where do we lose the women on this path, and what do you think needs to be done to make the academic system more diverse?  

Prof. Astrid Lembke: One important element is certainly to improve the compatibility of careers and family life. This affects not only women, but also men. However, it still affects women more often. There is a lot that can still be done here. At the University of Mannheim there are already measures that support researchers and students with children, for example with the Parent and Child Room or the offer for students’ children to eat lunch for free in the Mensa until they turn ten. One sticking point at many universities is childcare. Mannheim still has room for improvement here.  

Another element continues to be the appointment procedures. For many academics, this is the point in their career at which it is decided whether they will have a chance at a professorship. In this area, Professor Mata led the way in creating guidelines that are intended to prevent women researchers from being unjustly sorted out–something that at times occurs unconsciously. My task is now to ensure that these guidelines are given a voice and continue to remain visible. 

Mentoring and support programs, such as the program I was able to participate in as a young researcher, have also proven effective in counteracting the trend of women leaving academic career paths at an early stage. I also think it is important to attract young women to subjects in which they have traditionally been underrepresented, for us that would be economics, for example. The more women dare to develop, apply, and fully tap into their talent and skills in this area, the more diverse these subjects will become.  

FORUM: What is the first task you would like to take on? 

Prof. Astrid Lembke: Right now we’re very busy defining the role of equal opportunities at the University of Mannheim and developing a current and modern equal opportunity strategy. The next step will be to work toward getting accepted into the next round of the program for women professors. With this program, the federal and state governments aim to increase the proportion of women professors. I also want to look into a program to support women and their research in the postdoc phase.  

I’m interested in all aspects of equal opportunities, and this includes areas beyond the category of gender. That is why I want to work to make sure that our university views diversity as a significant advantage and that people from all possible social contexts find a good place to study, work, and research here. 

Text: Jule Leger and Rheia Martiny/May 2023