Some pre-COVID-19 statistics: research, education, inequality

By Renate Haas

Many experts are agreed that the current pandemic greatly heightens social inequalities. The exact opposite had been one of the motivations for the great education expansion in the second half of the last century. However, even before the lock-downs, the educational opportunities of the lower strata of society left much to be desired. Some findings from Germany may illustrate the status quo ante and encourage comparisons with the readers’ own countries.

According to recent research, before COVID-19 the chances of German children of fathers or mothers with an academic degree to enter university were still over three times higher than those of children from non-academic families. With educational optimism one might perhaps expect that the disadvantages of the latter were finally levelled out over the next steps of the ladder. Yet the gap widened drastically. From about 1 : 3, the ratio of chances opened to roughly 1 : 6 for the master’s degree, 1 : 10 for the doctorate and 1 : 14 for the professorship (Krempkow 2017).

In 1960, when only 6 % of a West-German age cohort went to university, the “Catholic working-class country girl” was considered the prototypical loser (Ralf Dahrendorf). Meanwhile girls and women rank as the great winners of the education reforms, their former place being taken first by the Turkish Muslim boy and later, more broadly, the boy from an educationally “underprivileged” immigrant family (Reuter ed. 2020, 12). The question, nevertheless, remains how far the female gains actually reach. Single improvements are quite well documented in official statistics, but intersectionality is mostly ignored. Numerically, women are ahead up to the first degrees, but then men increasingly gain the upper hand. In 2018, merely 20.5 % of the full professors were women (GWK 2020).

Oddly enough, the social structure of the professoriate has hardly been studied. An important, very detailed analysis that influenced various further research was made by Christina Möller (2015). Like other sociologists, she distinguished four social strata, the lowest of them roughly equivalent to the former working class. From it came only 18 women out of the total of 1330,[*] which meant a mere 7 % of the female professors, who in turn made up just under 20 % of the whole sample. This tiny percentage of female professors from the lowest stratum was also significantly below the percentage lowest-stratum male professors reached among their male colleagues. On the other hand, among the female professors a significantly higher percentage came from the highest stratum than came from it on the male side (cp. Möller 2015, 178, 243-44).

While just 21 % of the male professors were childless, 49 % of the female professors were (Möller 2015, 262-63).

Very few professors had a “migrant background”: only 5.7 % had a different nationality and only 8.7 % had been born abroad. Moreover, substantial portions of them came from the German-speaking neighbouring countries and from the highest of the four social strata. Just one person was Turkish. For solid differentiations according to gender(s) the numbers here were too small, but the fact that the number of professors of foreign nationality, i.e. 77, was over four times higher than the total of female professors from the lowest German stratum, i.e. 18, further illustrates how the interplay of class and gender still multiplied discrimination for women (cp. Möller 2015, 178, 271-72).

Among the eleven discipline clusters, there was only one where the majority of the professors did not come from the two higher strata: “merely” 40 % in Agricultural, Forest and Nutritional Sciences. With 79 and 72 % respectively from the two higher strata, the classic professions Law and Medicine still were the most exclusive. The Humanities held an intermediate position with 61 %. Beside Agricultural, Forest and Nutritional Sciences, Psychology/Education and Social Sciences had proved comparatively open to social climbing. In the Humanities, the ratio between the two higher and the two lower strata was 59 : 41 % among the men and 65 : 35 % among the women. Among the 276 Humanities professors, there were only 8 women from the lowest stratum (cp. Möller 2015, 229, 255, 257).

Inspired especially by Pierre Bourdieu and Joan Acker, but also writers like Didier Eribon and Annie Ernaux, researchers have refined the analyses of habitus and exclusion mechanisms. With the social climbers they have highlighted a certain marginalization on the one hand and more practical orientation, special sensitivity towards exploitation, and social responsibility on the other hand. Feelings of shame seem to play a most subtle role, male climbers included.

Since Möller differentiated also according to birth cohorts, she was able to show increasing social closure from the 1980s onwards, parallel to worsening working conditions. As the numbers of students continued to grow, the jobs for junior staff were greatly increased, but mostly turned into short-term contracts, so that extremely few tenured positions were left. The numbers of professorships rose only slightly. Consequently, the situation of the younger generation has already for quite a while been precarious and its prospects poor.

In short: a serious question will be what all this, exacerbated by the pandemic, will mean for the necessary democratization of the tertiary sector and for the development of Women’s and Gender Studies.


Gemeinsame Wissenschaftskonferenz GWK. 20 Nov 2020. “Pressemitteilung. Chancengleichheit in Wissenschaft und Forschung.“

Krempkow, René. 20 Nov 2017. “Herausforderung Bildungschancen. Von der Grundschule bis zur Promotion.“

Möller, Christina. 2015. Herkunft zählt (fast) immer. Soziale Ungleichheiten unter Universitätsprofessorinnen und -professoren. Weinheim: Beltz.

Reuter, Julia, Markus Gamper, Christina Möller, and Frerk Blome, eds. 2020. Vom Arbeiterkind zur Professur. Sozialer Aufstieg in der Wissenschaft. Transcript: Bielefeld.

[*] Beside full and associate professors, Möller (2015) also included further types of professors, which made up 12 % of her sample.