BERLIN--Earlier this month officials from Germany's commission of Federal and Länder (state) governments for education and research (BLK) announced that they plan to launch a new program designed to double the number of women professors in German universities by the year 2005. The new program, called Equal Opportunities, is set to begin in 2001 and will allocate 60 million DM annually for special measures designed to help retain female academics through the long German academic qualification process.

Currently, less than 10% of German professors are women, and women hold less than 4% of the leadership positions at research facilities. "This state is unbearable," said Edelgard Bulmahn, federal Minister for Education and Research at the Berlin press conference, "at least 20%" of the professors at German universities should be women. "We cannot afford to renounce the potential of women," she said.

The dearth of women in leading positions of science has created a vicious circle, says biochemist Mary Osborn of the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. "Women are absent in debates shaping policy, they are not there to provide a challenge to the status quo. Their absence means also that there are again only a few role models for women coming up in the system that successfully combine both career and family," she tells Next Wave.

The Equal Opportunities program hopes to break the circle with a variety of measures including reentry scholarships for women who temporarily leave the academic track and funding to support women as they complete their habilitation, the "second Ph.D." that is still required for many faculty positions in German universities. Habilitation funding is particularly important because women's representation in academic research drops precipitously from 30% to only 15% between the Ph.D. and the completion of the habilitation.

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Osborn, for one, applauds the government plan. "The current efforts of major German research funders ... to make the funding system more transparent will make science also more attractive for women," says Osborn, who also chairs the European Commission's expert group for women in science.

But Marianne Krizsio, spokesperson for the Federal Conference of Women's Representatives at Universities, is concerned that the program will not lead to an immediate increase in the number of women professors. The program only implements measures to enhance women scientists' appointability to tenure positions, she says, and it doesn't guarantee that they will find permanent jobs. Krizsio tells Next Wave that "quotas and positions 'for women only' may be the only way to change the picture."