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Vice-Dean Prof. Dr. Erdmute Alber demands more female voices in political consulting


Politics mainly listens to male advice - that is what Prof. Dr. Erdmute Alber, Chair of Cultural & Social Anthropology at the University of Bayreuth, has determined. This has to do with the fact that currently men are becoming more productive, and that women are being hindered particularly by an increased burden of care tasks. "But especially in times of crisis, it is important to hear a variety of voices, and women must not fall silent in the strictures of care work", Alber says in an interview. She researches, above all, the points of contact between state policy and kinship, and is Vice-Dean of the "Africa Multiple" Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth.   

Who are the losers of the coronavirus crisis? Men or women?

If one believes the press reports and initial studies, the crisis is heightening existing inequalities and, moreover, is particularly affecting women. Once again, it has become clear how fragile the hard-won milestones of gender parity really are. Women, for whom questioning the compatibility of wage and care work is a sore point at the best of times, see themselves confronted with multiple demands in the current crisis. They are supposed to be employed, perform teleworking, look after and teach children or other persons in need of care - and all this for weeks on end, without institutional child care, and without being allowed to draw on family or social networks. Of course, fathers are also affected, but empirical evidence shows that much of this care work is done by women.  

What does that mean for the world of work?

For the research sector I can definitely say that we are getting a relatively unanimous picture throughout our networks right now. Our colleagues in Germany, the USA, Great Britain, South Africa, Ghana, and Peru all report that they are no longer able to meet deadlines, and their overall research productivity has been hobbled. Because they have to reconcile wage-earning with extra care work.

Because they are more likely to have part-time jobs?

No, many studies point out that, in Germany, even if they share the same occupation, women do considerably more housework and care work than men - even when they are the sole breadwinners themselves. Differences in type of employment within the nuclear family are therefore unable to explain this imbalance. We are dealing with a social phenomenon here that seems to intensify in times of crisis, insecurity, and threat.

Have there been studies done on this?

I am able to talk specifically about our system of scientific enquiry, where many efforts have been made in recent decades to promote women. Here, for example, the sociologists Misra & Lundquist described as early as 2012 how female researchers not only perform more care work in their private lives than their male colleagues, but also perform more activities during their work that fall under the scope of care - for students and female colleagues. All these mechanisms seem to be reinforced in crisis. I believe that the same goes for other sectors. As many men are now working harder, women are being slowed down by care tasks. I found the findings of female North American researchers published in recent weeks particularly insightful. They report that, since the beginning of the crisis, about twice as many manuscripts have been submitted to journals by male scientists than in normal times. Female scientists, on the other hand, had submitted practically no manuscripts at all in the first few weeks of the lockdown. Such a dramatic shift has never been observed before, as an editor of thelily.com points out.

But the demand for researchers has never been greater...

Yes, that's right: male researchers! Every day, male researchers have their say in the media, quite a few of them repeatedly. Many male researchers seem to be thrusting themselves into the public eye at the moment. Female researchers, on the other hand, seem to be sinking into media obscurity. As experts - on television, in the press, but increasingly also in science journals - men, who are overrepresented as it is, have their say even more than usual. This creates the image that in a crisis it is the men who have to take the wheel. Or even that the knowledge of women is less important. Besides 24 male scientists, only two female scientists took part in the third Leopoldina statement. Indeed, three Thomases and three Jürgens were asked to take part in the exchange and advise the Federal Government (incidentally, the duplication of first names indicates a specific age stratification in the committee).  In contrast, Annalena and Ursula were sidelined.

So what can be done?

In order to counteract this alarming trend, all of us, we ourselves and our employers, must ensure that female employees, workers, and researchers of all levels of qualification do not disappear off-stage, or into care work, especially in times of crisis, but can and should make their knowledge and ideas heard as loudly as their male colleagues. Especially in the area of research.

Isn't the lack of public representation of women researchers a minor issue compared to the task of saving thousands of jobs in in the hospitality and catering industry?  

Even if it seems like a marginal problem at first, research is fortunately still important in making political decisions in our society. This is particularly true in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. However, by systematically ignoring diversity - which of course includes not only the voices of women and various age groups, but also those of scientists from different backgrounds and orientation - knowledge becomes increasingly one-sided. Especially now, we need multiple and complex perspectives, in a situation that is anything but clear.  It is the many small butterfly wing beats that whip up storms, that advance knowledge, and it is their absence which makes knowledge monotonous.

Why has it been so easy for this rollback to a 1950s family model of patriarchal society to occur?

First of all, not enough has changed in the patriarchal structure of our society since the 1950s to prevent such a rollback. Mostly, women are still the ones who give up their job after the birth of their first child, stay at home longer, and then work part-time. While girls and women have overtaken boys and men in terms of educational attainment in some areas, they still fall back in career terms during their child-bearing years. There is therefore still a real problem for women in reconciling work and family life, even in times when the state or institutions are taking over some responsibility for care. The coronavirus crisis is showing us what happens when such institutional support is cut off.

Why isn’t there more resistance to this?

Actually there is a lot! The initiative "Parents in Crisis" organizes demonstrations and petitions again and again. Meanwhile, on social media, fathers as well as mothers testify to being over-burdened at the moment under #CoronaEltern. This was not heeded politically for a long time, and parents and children were not even mentioned in government statements, whereas a separate press conference was dedicated to the cancellation of Oktoberfest. This shows how naturally society today still relies on unpaid female labour. It also shows that care work is not understood as the complex activity it is, that cannot simply be done on the side.

Is there a way back to what was previously achieved?     

We could, in fact, take the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to become aware of structural deficits in our society. Many have made this argument in relation to the health system, or the underpayment of the nursing profession and the associated stark shortage of nursing staff in Germany. But it can also be applied to gender relations. In the middle of this crisis, we are realizing that we have not come as far as equality policy would have had us believe. Politicians, who are obliged to take action, must increasingly take critical and often contradictory research findings very seriously, acknowledge them, and on this basis, formulate clear instructions for action. In this regard, it would be of benefit to make greater use of anthropological research, especially now, in the area of kinship and care. Thinking in terms of simple chains of action, of (simple) cause and (simple) effect, and persisting with categories that ignore the diversity and innovative potential of human social forms, will not get us any further. In this respect, the crisis offers us an opportunity to reorientate political action, and to take greater account of the complexity of social processes, and of the diversity of knowledge.

  • Contact: Prof. Dr. Erdmute Alber Chair of Cultural & Social Anthropology University of Bayreuth Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-4121 E-mail: erdmute.alber@uni-bayreuth.de 
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