University Chancellor Andrea Bör: “Work and family were always equally important to me.”

Andrea Bör lives her dream of children and career: the graduate engineer holding a PhD is not only responsible for an annual budget of around half a billion Euros as chancellor of the Freie Universität Berlin. She is also active in a wide array of honorary positions and has four children. How the 48-year-old has managed to successfully gain a foothold time and again professionally in entirely male domains, what she learned while doing so, and what had to fall by the wayside, she reveals all of this in an interview with KontaktTUM. The chancellor of FU Berlin about her career decisions and her special role as the first woman in management board committees.

Dr. Bör, you were at TUM for altogether 18 years, you studied and worked here. What is it like for you being here today?

It’s a little bit like coming home. Lighting mood, the smell, names – everything is familiar and well-known.   I’ll always have a special relationship with TUM. In addition, my family lives in Munich. That’s why the sense of home is due to family reasons, too.

What brought you to TUM then, in 1990?

A really typical career for an engineer (laughs). Previ- ously, I went to an all-girls only school here in Munich. After graduating from high school, I had vocational guidance at Siemens, and the man in charge of student contacts thought I should study electrical engineering, that would be more feminine than mechanical engineer- ing. I thought a little more feminine is surely good and I enrolled. I had no idea at all of what I was getting  myself into.

What do you mean by that?

Not only was I just one of a handful of women in our degree program, but I also had to undergo an operation due to a torn ligament right when the second week of studies started, and I was on the go on crutches from this time on. So almost impossible to overlook… a bird of paradise in a male domain.

Was this special role difficult for you?

It was irritating at the beginning. In the 1200 lecture hall, people still whistled then when a woman walked in. There were ten of us in our learning groups, nine male colleagues and myself. But contacts made then are still maintained today. One of my fellow students even became the godfather of my youngest son, an- other one met his future wife at my birthday party.

Was the job counselor right? Did you enjoy your studies?

Absolutely. Mathematics was exactly what I wanted and it was application-oriented. I wasn’t the very best, but I was there in the upper third. I got through the intermediate exams without any problems and that definitely had a selection function at that time. Studies were extremely important to me and I was very conscientious and reliable.

You became pregnant in the sixth semester.

Yes, and my firstborn son was lying in his baby seat under my bench. We mastered the lecture together and apparently, this stirred his interest in mathematics (smiling).

Was he always asleep?

He was very quiet and slept a lot, but of course I knew which times worked. It wasn’t as easy with my daughter, who I had when I was in the tenth semester. Breastfeed- ing did make it possible to handle her restlessness quite well, but I once caused considerable embarrassment for my professor, who surprised me in the faculty library – with my child at the breast.

Breastfeeding in public was unusual in your day, or not?

Yes, but this was the only way that I could attend all key lectures. Those were veritable luxury events that I treated myself to as a new mother.

What does your husband do professionally?

He earned his PhD at the Institute for Wood Research, which now belongs to TUM, too. When I started my doctorate and had a full-time job, he started up his own business. In this respect, we swapped roles. I was regularly at the professorship, he took care of the children during the day, and I took over the night shifts.

What made you opt for a doctorate?

After my studies, I wanted to work in the industry. But in fact, it was hard to make it clear to male interview- ers in a job interview that a woman with children can definitely do her full job. So I decided to stay at the professorship.

Initially, you were active academically; later you were the consultant of the vice president. Which jobs did you have there?

Together with another colleague, we managed the large-scale IT project IntegraTUM, where a user-friendly and seamless infrastructure for information and com- munication was established at TUM. That was a con- sultant position plus the work as project manager for me. Exactly to my liking: We had to manage 30 IT em- ployees, and the project had a specialist background. Thanks to Professor Arndt Bode as vice president, I  was able to gain first insights into higher education policies at the same time. This undoubtedly paved the further way for me towards science management.

In what way?

As a rule, students and doctoral candidates hardly have insights into university administration and its regula- tions. At that time, I was already involved in a student union and later on as an academic assistant in the specialist field, but it is something different to share responsibility for making decisions or even to bring in concept proposals.

You were appointed managing director of the faculty directly from this position.

Yes, this was on the recommendation of Professor Bode. The die is therefore cast that I am interested in and aim to qualify for positions in university administration.

As of 2008, you were the chief information officer at the University of Saarland, starting in 2011 chancel- lor of the University of Passau and since July 2016, you’re the chancellor of the Freie Universität Berlin. For all positions, you took over the reins from male predecessors. A problem or a privilege?

It was a very, very good school and luckily, I never   had any fear of making contacts. The studies, but also the seven years at the chair, also as the first female academic assistant, were extremely educational for me. In the process, it helped a lot that I earned my doctorate in a specialist field that was accepted by male colleagues. And when I think about the Universi- ty of Saarland, where I managed the computer center, it becomes clear what this means: 99 percent of the employees were men and as a rule, older than me.

And what was it like when you became chancellor?

At the University of Passau, I was the first woman in university management at all. Previously, you only knew presidents, male chancellors and vice presidents. This even led to discussions as to whether colleagues would have to adapt their language or no longer be able to freely talk about certain issues. That wasn’t an issue   for me. I had trained my special role as the only woman for two decades now. Of course, there were some unpleasant situations, too. But: What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

You have been chancellor at the Freie Universität Berlin since 2016. What are your tasks?

As chancellor, my key task is to keep the university up and running. I’m responsible for re-sources, person- nel, finances, rooms, and I’m the superior of academic support staff. I support the president in his endeavors and help implement and further develop the univer- sity’s overall strategy as part of the executive com- mittee. As budget officer, I’m in charge of an annual budget of approx. half a billion Euros.

What do you enjoy most about it?

That this job is so diverse: construction topics, IT top- ics, personnel topics, strategic dimensions, teaching development and a whole lot more. I deal with highly specialized horse scientists, on to the sensitive philos- ophers straight through to analytical team players with the most multifaceted personalities. This is exciting and challenging.

Are there aspects you feel are a burden?

Just like in every large organization, not everything works seamlessly each single day. Some-times, it’s almost highly dramatic like in 2013 during the flooding in Passau, when we had to close the university for three days. But at the end of the day, such a decision and the responsibility for it is my job.

What is the core competence a leadership person should have in this sector?

The person must be able to work under pressure and must not lose their nerves. This is one of my strengths: I’m very calm in extreme situations, and think, act and decide then in a focused way. Incidentally, this is similar in the family area, too.

Are you a perfectionist?

In a sense, yes, but my children have taught me how to set priorities. When my appointment calendar is full and someone urgently needs help, I have to respond flexibly and simply be available. I continually have to adapt to new situations, topics and personalities and make corresponding decisions. Like a doctor who makes a diagnosis and selects the right therapy. Always in the thick of action.

How do you strike a balance between everyday working life?

With my family. On weekends, I’m a mother, wife and housewife. And I do some sports for the physical bal- ance.

Your family lives in Munich, you live in Berlin. Do you commute home every weekend?

My husband, my youngest son and I commute between Munich and Berlin. The three big ones are already going their own ways.

Do you have the feeling your children will claim the modern family image that you live out for them later on themselves, too?

Yes, I think so. My husband and I – we’ve now been married for 25 years – have split the roles up between ourselves very well.

Do you have any vision as to how the world of work could be made even more family-friendly?

Flexibility is the be-all and end- all, but also tolerance on all sides. A wife cannot be a perfect mother and career woman at the same time, that doesn’t work purely in terms of time. What helped me was being able to blend out my family while I was at work, but my children were still well taken care of – by my husband, grandparents, the day nursery, school. That’s why it is so important to provide high-quality family offers with qualified staff so that men and women can realize their professional objectives themselves.

What do you mean by this specifically?

A qualified teacher can take over day-to-day care of children in case of doubt just as well as or better than the working mother. She or he cannot and should not replace a mother, but why should a child not be taken care of for three, six or eight hours a day by a profes- sional who has learned the right pedagogical concept to promote and encourage in an individualized way. For me, work and family were always on an equal footing. Each individual must embrace this, and then it will span broader circles and reach out to more and more people. It must be backed by the partner and co-supported and sustained in the family. Role models are very important as well: I was a mentee myself in various programs and was later active as a mentor here at TUM. By the way, my first mentor was TUM alumna Maren Heinzerling.

Maren Heinzerling was your mentor? Well that’s a wonderful story.

In 1990, she organized the first Munich Girls’ Engineer- ing Day, and I was allowed to help work in the organ- ization as a high school graduate. Maren Heinzerling accompanied me through my studies. To be sure, she was shocked each time when I was pregnant again,  but she supported me. And when I went to Berlin, too. Her advice, her paragon are both very important to me. Role models are especially important for women. Men usually find their role models more easily.

Is there something you wish for regarding family or career?

That all family members are happy. I want my children  to find their own way and that I can sup-port them in doing so. I want my partnership with my husband to continue to work so well. And professionally, I want the Freie Universität Berlin to continue to set accents as a university of excellence, and that we’re successful in the new excellence strategy as the Berlin network, too.


Dr. Andrea Bör

Degree in Electrical Engineering and Information Technology 1997, PhD in 2005

Andrea Bör was born in Munich in 1970 and after graduating from high school, she studied electrical engineering and information technology at TUM. She was the first female academic assistant at the chair for communication networks and in 2005, she completed her doctoral studies in information tech- nology. Afterwards, she was a consultant for TUM Vice President and CIO Prof. Dr. Arndt Bode and managing director of the Faculty for Electrical Engi- neering and Information Technology. 18 years later, she left TUM to take on the position of chief infor- mation officer at the University of Saarland. She was appointed as chancellor of the University of Passau in 2011and she has been the chancellor of the Freie Universität Berlin since 2016. Andrea Bör is married and has four children, two girls and two boys.

This article was published in KontakTUM 2/2018

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Motive:; Graphics: dietrabanten, Munich;