Muriel Helbig - Portrait of an academic leader

Muriel Helbig and her first child © DAAD

Vice president of the DAAD, president of the Technische Hochschule (TH) Lübeck

Dr Muriel Helbig was born in Washington in 1975 and grew up in Germany, Lebanon and the USA before commencing her studies in psychology at the University of Potsdam in 1994. She then completed her PhD in an international DFG Research Training Group associated with the University of Jena (in 2006). Dr Muriel Kim Helbig has been the president of TH Lübeck since 2014. She has also committed herself to international academic exchange as vice president of the DAAD since 2020.

Does the DAAD’s funding policy include strategies relating to gender equality, and if so what are they? What is its funding record, and where is there room for improvement?

The issues of diversity and equal opportunity are major priorities within the DAAD, and these of course also include gender equality. We are currently formulating our strategic diversity targets and the corresponding short- and medium-term measures. Our plan is to implement these as of spring 2022 as part of an institutional diversity agenda.

The DAAD boasts a very balanced gender ratio in the context of its funding lines. In our reporting year 2020, the proportion of women among all DAAD beneficiaries (individual and project funding) was almost 54%. Under the Erasmus+ calls in 2018 and 2019 the proportion of female beneficiaries was 62%. The living conditions of students with children are adequately taken into account in the application and selection process.

In light of the Sustainable Development Goal to ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’, the DAAD has submitted a programme proposal for the new legislative period entitled ‘Empower Women’. The objective of this programme is to increase the representation of women in both academic and entrepreneurial leadership roles in selected pilot countries in Africa and Latin America.

How does TH Lübeck fare in terms of the equality of women, and female students and staff? What are you working towards, and how are you attempting to achieve these objectives? What successes can you highlight?

We are sadly far from achieving equality in leadership positions and among students, particularly those taking technical degree courses. What am I working towards? That equality is not seen as a women's issue (and certainly not as a question of family support), but rather that it can only succeed when everyone is held responsible – men, women, everyone. I’m also generally in favour of a quota, in cases of new appointments, for example. A quota should not though be to the detriment of an already present minority – in appointment processes when filling positions, for example – since the entire burden would then be placed on a few female professors' shoulders. In such cases I’m in favour of something like mandatory equality training for all members, regardless of their gender. I’m therefore collaborating on this with the equal opportunities representative at TH Lübeck, and we’re also trying to have our voice heard in the political arena. We were also successful in acquiring third-party funding, such as for the Female Professor Programme or the E-Quality Award. But overall it’s fair to say that it’s still a massive challenge.

You’re the president of a technical university – what helps you personally to combine this important function with your role as a mother?

What helps me personally? Firstly, the attitude that it’s natural to enjoy a professional career, even as a mother – I’m the third generation of ‘uncaring mothers’ ;-). Secondly, the conviction that even ‘uncaring mothers’ are good mothers. Thirdly, a husband and father who takes it for granted that our family is as much his business as mine. So it could be said that our marriage was my most important career decision. And finally my children. We’re all doing fine together.

Looking back, what’s the most challenging situation that you’ve had to overcome in your professional life?

At first, I actually found it challenging to speak freely in front of large groups – but now I really enjoy it. Later on it was conflicts that were challenging. I had to learn not just to manage them, but also to use them as an opportunity. Working your way into new positions at new institutions is always challenging and time-consuming, but also interesting and full of joy. The question is of course: what is challenging and what is burdensome? These are two quite different concepts. I enjoy things that are challenging, and even seek them out. Things that are burdensome, on the other hand, I consider carefully: are they helpful or bearable for me, or will they make me ill?

What challenges and requirements will women starting their careers in research face in the future, and how specifically can they prepare themselves? What advice would you give them?

The pressure on women starting their careers is huge: finding oneself in a professional environment, and reconciling private plans at the same time. There is no secret recipe, just individual solutions. My tip would always be to follow your gut instinct. And to keep your eyes and ears open – always ask peers, friends, family, and role models for advice and support. All of them will be happy to help! To my younger self I’d say: keep calm, trust yourself.

The series of portraits of leading women in the Chinese-German alumni network and in the DAAD was originally published on the DAAD China website.

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