"Working 4 days a week and having a two year-old child makes for a very full life"
Sabine Spehn, you have a Ph.D. in biology and a two year-old daughter. Unlike you, many women with a university degree decide not to have a family, so that they can concentrate on their career. Was this an option for you?
SS: I always wanted a family, but at the same time I really enjoy working and I love my job. If I can find the right balance and am happy in my work – and I am – then I can also be a good mother to my daughter. Obviously, it can be demanding at times, especially if my little girl isn't well. Then I get a bit stressed. But at the end of the day, it was never an option for me just to have a career and make a conscious decision not to have a child.
How many hours a week do you work?
SS: I work 31.2 hours a week – that's 80 percent of the normal 39 hours. So my day has to be very structured and things need to be organised with my husband, myself and his parents, who help to look after our daughter.
What do you love most about your work?
SS: The variety, mainly. I have various tasks and there's always something new to do - writing reports, drafting press releases, organising public events. At the moment, there are some guided tours starting here. This is a whole new venture that I enjoy very much.
But it's not just the work itself – it's the environment. My colleagues are all really nice. The Directors are very understanding if I have to leave early sometimes to look after my daughter. In return, I'm happy to stay behind for a few hours in the evening if something has to be dealt with urgently.
Does this mean juggling work and home life?
SS: It's not an issue for me to set clear boundaries between work and home life because I really enjoy my job. What has certainly changed since my daughter was born is the fact that I am now more focussed in my work so that I can get X, Y and Z done during working hours. Before, I could just carry on working, but now I'm very aware - that's it, time's up – I have to leave here at 4:15 to collect my daughter. I can't just work on a bit longer.
On my day off – Monday – if I get a call on my mobile, callers are often confused if they hear my little girl in the background. Usually, I can simply explain to the person I'm talking to that I'm not actually in the office, I'm at home or out. Then I deal with the work the day after.
The Max Planck Society works closely with the Family Service to help parents with children. Have you used this service yet?
SS: Yes, the Family Service was a great help to us when we were looking for daycare for our daughter and we weren't getting anywhere with the bank. We applied to 14 state and four private daycare centres and parents' associations. We got a tip from our contact at the Family Service that the Max Planck Society has contingency places at the City Daycare Centre in Munich. We applied straight away and got a part-time place that we now share with another family.
Was the fact that you wanted a family the reason why you no longer work as a scientist?
SS: Many scientists – including at our own Institute – manage to balance family and research, but of course it's much more difficult for them than for me in my line of work. The problem in the science world is mainly the limited opportunities and the uncertainty that that involves. Often people are working on one project and have to apply for the next research project. Or be available to work abroad.
But no, this wasn't the main reason why I went down a different route after I did my doctoral thesis. After I did my research on bats in Panama, I received a great offer from the Zoological Society in Frankfurt, so I found it easy to leave the science world. Now here I am – in a roundabout way – back in scientific communication, and that's great too. I have never had any regrets about not carrying on my scientific career, because now I can combine the two – my fascination with scientific matters and the challenge of doing this in the public eye.
Sabine Spehn, thank you very much for talking to us!
This interview was conducted by Barbara Abrell