The Conversation Around Work and Parenting Needs to Include PEOPLE

PEOPLE: Led by our CBO, Denise Mueller, people means encouraging and embracing diversity of thought, background, and culture, and acknowledging everyone as a valuable contributor.

In the spirit of Affimed’s value of PEOPLE, which embraces diversity of thinking, background, and culture and where everyone is acknowledged as a valuable contributor, I will be doing a series of candid interviews with colleagues within Affimed on how this value can be meaningfully amplified.

Recently, I spoke with Affimed’s Senior Program Director and Head of Program Management Office, Iris Birnkammer, who is based in our German office, to talk about the similarities and differences that exist between two different cultures when it comes to DEI issues—particularly through the lens of working moms and the challenges and opportunities that presents.

Both Iris and I came to Affimed five years ago when it was a much smaller company. She pointed out that when we joined in September of 2016, the company was made up of 40 people; now it is closer to 140. We, like others, came for the values, the vision, and the people. As the company continues to grow, our values and vision must grow with it. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

One of the reasons I wanted to speak to you, Iris, was that you have seen—like I have—the changes Affimed has gone through in the last five years. What originally drew you to Affimed?

When I was exploring career opportunities, I was really interested in the innovative thinking Affimed had about immuno-oncology as a relatively new field, along with the approach the company has developed with the innate immune system. But there are a lot of interesting companies out there, and it was during the interview process where I realized that I felt at home. I was so engaged in the conversations (they didn’t feel like interviews), it was so easy to interact and find common ground with the people I met that I actually lost track of time.

We have spoken on numerous occasions about the challenges working women face, particularly women with children. What is the biggest difference between the U.S. and Germany?

For me, the biggest difference is in the leave benefits between the two countries for new mothers. So I gave birth to a baby last September and was on maternity leave for seven months, which is actually not a long time by German standards, but I know it’s considered a long time in the U.S. My U.S. team members kept asking when I was coming back, and when I came back, my German colleagues asked me why I came back so soon. I see this as an area of opportunity for us to build and foster a culture that truly understands and supports the unique needs of new parents.

What are some of the things we can do to amplify the value of PEOPLE in regard to working moms and parenting in general?

There is still work to be done. Women are not treated the same in society—especially once you have children. I am hoping that one day there will be an equal split in childcare and all the things that come with it. Men are involved in the upbringing of children; I just feel it’s not a topic for men in the same way it is for women, and because of that, it doesn’t seem like a problem. But the reality is, it shouldn’t be about working moms—it should be about working parents.

I think it is getting better in the U.S. where it is more commonplace to see fathers leaving early to pick up their kids or for other parental duties, but women tend to talk about it more in terms of their boundaries and needs, so it ends up seeming like a women’s issue versus a parental issue.

The same is true here in Germany. Men may share with their peers at work that they need to leave to take care of their kids, but they are hesitant to tell their supervisor, which I think women, more often than not, do. But there’s no reason parents can’t have these conversations equally, and it should be encouraged by companies and supervisors.

I know that when I’m in the thick of it, I’ll invite a conversation around parental and family needs so that I know where everyone stands. There needs to be a way to balance that.

Parental and family needs are a priority for both men and women; they’re just talked about (or not talked about) in the same way. Affimed’s culture supports these needs, our size is an asset, and we can offer the flexibility to have work/life balance. You can have a career and a family. This is an opportunity to be celebrated more than just tolerated.

That flexibility is a number one thing that I offer people I hire. Your time is your own right. It is a benefit that we put on the table as a recruitment tool and is important for retention.

Germany supports this as well, and COVID has increased this flexibility. It shows that we can pivot quickly when needed and we accept change readily. Giving people the flexibility they need for work/life balance will help them thrive even under unusual or challenging circumstances.

I’m a strong believer that if work gets in the way of life, you’re going to be unhappy at work. At the end of the day, Iris and I both agree it’s really about normalizing the conversation around parenting and parenting needs across the board and encouraging the conversation to include both men and women. That could be one way the value of PEOPLE could embody equity.