Professor Edda Rädlein is head of the Group for Inorganic Non-metallic Materials at TU Ilmenau and is also the university's Equal Opportunities Officer. In an interview with UNIonline, she talks about her life - from girls' high school to studying physics to equal opportunities in her everyday life.
Portrait: "NASA would have rejected me."
Prof. Dr. Rädlein, you originally come from Bavaria, studied there, then spent time in Lower Saxony and are now in Thuringia. Which federal state is your favorite?
Bavaria is fantastic in terms of financial provision. But Ilmenau is just the right mix for my needs. It's pleasant - I don't attach much importance to theatres or dress codes. Even before the border was opened, I had a feeling that the Thuringian Forest must be beautiful.
How did you come to Ilmenau?
At the time, I was already a materials scientist in an extremely specialized field, of which it was clear in advance that there were only six chairs in Germany. So you have to plan very carefully where you will end up with your habilitation and how you will bridge the gap until a position becomes available. The professional side was right in Ilmenau and I was sure at that point that I didn't want to go to one of the big cities. Ilmenau is fantastic!
You went to a girls' grammar school as a pupil and had almost no contact with boys, as perhaps other girls do at a normal grammar school.
The neighbouring property was a boys' grammar school. In between was a very narrow lane, our contact, which was our contact zone for the editorial meeting of our common school newspaper. That's where we saw boys, but I actually had severe boy shortages.
What was it like for you to then get into a university where - in your physics course - it was also still predominantly male?
Fantastic! I didn't have to wash my clothes at first, I didn't have to put on makeup, and it didn't matter at all what I wore. Unfortunately, it also didn't matter if I sewed something great on the weekend - none of the guys noticed. Social constraints that you think you have to go along with suddenly fell away. I don't know if it's like that in every degree, but in physics, it's decidedly pronounced. And I liked that. I didn't see any other women for the first couple of weeks either.
Do you notice any differences between school and university in terms of atmosphere?
Yes. It's a completely different way of approaching work. Physicists are very focused on their work, very proud of what they accomplish, and very willing to do extremely hard things. At school, there is a group feeling that you have to work around the rules to make your life as easy as possible. At university this didn't happen at all. We didn't care if there were rules - and there were only a few of them, which we grasped relatively quickly: You have to know everything in the end and how you get there doesn't matter. I liked that, I thought it was a very good time in college. I knew I was going to end up in a guy-dominated major. But I needed that after those nine years....
You studied at FAU in Erlangen. How did you like it in the city? Was Erlangen already as lively a student city back then as it is today?
The city was too much for me. The university and the studies were great, I also had great friends, but I was only in the city for one weekend. I didn't know I would be homesick at all. Erlangen was way too big and scary for me.
Then you like small towns better, like Clausthal, where you wrote your doctoral thesis, among other things?
I found the nature there very good, but the weather was so horrible. There were sometimes two weeks where you couldn't see the neighbour's house. And it was also very far away from home. But the sky is great for stargazing!
Speaking of stargazing. Where does the interest in astronomy come from?
It's always been there. I was already glued to the window in the car at the age of four, looking up and wondering: are the stars moving because the car is moving or are they moving on their own?
You wanted to be many things at school. Did you also dream of becoming an astronaut?
Yes, of course I did. I was already reasonably awake when the moon landing took place and my primary school teacher said to me at that time: If a woman comes on the moon, then that's you. I remembered that.
But nothing came of it ...
I actually applied to NASA together with a colleague who was a friend of mine. But we never sent back the application forms we requested. NASA is discriminatory - my friend was too tall to fly and I was too fat. But we were too big to be ground crew.
How did you feel when you realized that you could combine your great passion astronomy with your profession?
I was quite proud. It was pretty clear from the beginning that I would have little chance of finding a job. I thought to myself at the time, now you've done all the studying - now you'll do what you enjoy most in your diploma. But actually I ran open-eyed into unemployment.
Speaking of unemployment: In the past, it was more difficult for a woman to gain a foothold in your professional field and to gain recognition. Has that changed nowadays?
Back then, it was still allowed to say in industry "We don't hire women". After I got my diploma, I applied for jobs where I was clearly rejected because of that. Today, no one can afford to do that. On the other hand, I feel like there are gals who are less daring. We were raised to fight our way through.
In 2015, the TU received the TOTAL E-QUALITY award for equal opportunities. Can one speak of pride to be allowed to work at such a university?
I think it is a normal social development, we are very good, but not outstanding. As the Equal Opportunities Officer, I see the places where we still have shortcomings despite the award. For example, we still have too few daycare places. I have just heard today from someone who is currently academically funded, and rightly so, but now cannot get a Kita place. I understand that resources are limited somewhere. But that's where no predicate helps you if there's no space.
How would you encourage a fresh high school graduate who is still unsure about choosing a science major?
If she likes it, let her do it and try it out. It's not a mistake to change your major once in a while, and it's not a mistake to study something in the sciences if you have a talent for languages or are good with people. You will be able to live this out here as well. But if you already have difficulties in the scientific subjects at school, you should think twice. You won't enjoy it. But a friend of mine studied physics just to prove to her physics teacher that the 5 in the Abitur was not justified. And she did the degree, always really enjoyed working as a physicist and also saw herself as a physicist. She did have to work a little harder, but ambition can of course drive you to heights.
The interview was conducted by Eva Seidl.