When considering the best time to start a family in academia, specifically in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) it is vital to think about the question from two different viewpoints. Firstly, we have to be realistic and start considering the culture we have, the impact this has on decision-making, and how the individual may best traverse this. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, as individuals and as a community we cannot simply accept that this culture must be adapted to, or that it is simply the individual’s responsibility to gain resilience. We need to talk about how to change this culture so that decision-making about planning to, or having a family can be facilitated through ongoing local/national/international community-led support. Initializing a movement to enable this change is the focus of this blog.
There are a number of actions that can be taken and policies that can be implemented, that will impact, and hopefully facilitate, decisions around starting a family, therefore enabling the retention of women in STEM:
- Changes that can be made at a local level - within a department, or a single institution.
- Change that requires transformation of STEM - these are more challenging, but might be facilitated, for example, by professional bodies or groups of universities/employers.
- Change requiring transformation of societal attitudes - these need political leadership to change.
Making these changes does not only benefit women, but also enables the retention of talented individuals within STEM who might otherwise leave their career, and will improve the rate of subject-specific progression at the local/national and international level.
Give proper support during periods of parental (maternity/paternity/adoption) leave. This should involve additional funded postdoctoral staff to support research activities that overlaps during the transition of the parent back to work. There also needs to be funded formal cover for teaching/admin activities. Ideally, this should also include extra support for colleagues to acknowledge their role in covering the ‘hidden’ labour. Those on parental leave should not be expected to reply to reviewers’ comments or attend interviews during this period. Accessing proper support is most challenging for more junior researchers at postdoctoral level (see STEM changes).
Allow flexible working. This includes understanding that everybody’s working day is somewhat different, setting meetings within core hours (e.g., 10 am – 3 pm), and allowing some flexibility in, for example, lecture timetabling. These small changes can significantly help parents to continue working in an academic setting.
Normalise part-time work. For example, the Chemistry department at the University of York has offered a 'part-time assurance' which tells staff they can move to part-time work at a point of their choosing with the assurance that they should be able to return to full-time when they wish. This has made it easier for staff to plan becoming a parent. This policy allowed 10-20% of academic staff to work part-time across the past 10 years. At a departmental level, this requires a willingness to predict and account for long-term patterns of part-time work and build-in the appointment of additional staff who can help provide cover where needed. However, this approach can never offer any absolute ‘guarantee’ as circumstances can evolve, and it remains problematic for researchers employed on fixed-term contracts, where such flexibility is often not allowed (see STEM Changes).
Properly support part-time work. It is vital when staff are planning parental leave or part-time work, that they know that their workload will be adjusted appropriately. This requires effective and fair workload modelling. Importantly, this must be based on a standard (e.g. 37.5 hour) working week - not the notional idea that all academics are somehow expected to put large amounts of additional labour into their job (see STEM Changes).
Enable part-time flexi work. Allowing staff to work flexibly part-time. In many parts of the world, it is not possible for parents to take enough leave during school holidays. If working part-time, it can be useful to save-up days off to use them during school holiday periods, rather than simply taking a day off each week. Allowing staff to take blocks of time in this way when they need them can transform how people balance work and family demands. This is especially useful to support single-parent families which have extra pressure on school holiday periods, enabling the individual to best fulfil their potential.
Promote people based on the quality of their work, not the quantity. It is important when considering a candidate for promotion that if they have been working 50%, or have taken time out for parental or other leave, they should not be expected to produce as many outputs as someone working 100%. Of course, the quality of research and teaching must be at the appropriate level, but the quantity should be benchmarked to the hours they have been working. It is also important to note that ‘quality’ should not be measured by simple metrics such as journal impact factor, as this can introduce other biases. This can require departments to push back against university promotion committees and advocate for this change in recognition.
Create a culture that values the presence of families. It is possible to welcome families into a department and promote connections between different parents and their children – for example by organising a family-friendly event such as a summer barbecue or sports day. It is important to ensure such events are inclusive with regard to different dietary requirements, and although alcohol may be available, ‘drinking events’ are better avoided in this regard. It is also desirable for departments to think about how to include families of students (undergraduate and postgraduate) as well as temporary and permanent staff to ensure that everyone is able to feel included as a parent. In addition to social events, departments can also consider providing space for breast-feeding (or pumping), or space and facilities for family use should children need to be in work with their parent for a short period of time.
Encourage men to take parental leave, or share parental leave with their partners. Despite changes in law in most of Europe, many people (and HR departments) are still relatively unaware of a non-birth parent’s rights to take or share parental leave. Furthermore, even when there is awareness, very few parents are sharing leave in this way. We need to use role models and meetings at which parental leave is discussed to promote/normalise this. In other parts of the world, the idea of men, or other non-birth partners, taking any sort of parental leave needs to be placed firmly onto the agenda and is a societal change that would be highly desirable (see Societal Changes).
Normalise the expectation that a typical working week in STEM is ca. 35-40 hours. Although it may vary from time-to-time with heavier weeks and lighter weeks, it is beneficial for the mental health of all for this to be the case. The expectation of hours beyond a standard working week is one of the biggest barriers faced by parents in STEM. Individual departments and institutions can promote this concept locally, encourage staff to get involved in activities outside of work, and take annual leave. However, fundamentally, it is the culture and expectations of STEM that need to change.
Give researchers better contracts. In an ideal world, there would be far fewer precarious contracts - they are particularly challenging for researchers in their 30s who have to consider a biological clock affecting their fertility. Efforts to provide greater stability would certainly benefit all who are considering becoming parents, allowing time to make and sustain relationships with children. At a minimum level, research grants and fixed-term contracts should be more flexible, or more flexibly managed by employers – allowing staff to move to part-time should they wish, or take paid parental leave without loss of funding or detriment to the research irrespective of the funding source. Precarious contracts are also one factor that drives researchers to need to regularly relocate – this is a major difficulty to those with family responsibilities, causing many early career researchers to drop out of academic STEM careers. Obviously, this requires sectoral change, which could be driven by research funders.
Rebalance the expectation of childcare roles between men and women. This would significantly help rebalance some of the gendered aspects associated with starting a family. It is clear that in the majority of heterosexual relationships women still take on more childcare responsibilities than men, and do more of the household labour. Policies such as shared maternity/paternity leave can help promote a rebalance, although it remains the case that many men do not take up the option. This has led some countries to introduce 'use it or lose it' approaches with regards to paternity leave which is offered in addition to (rather than part of) a birth-parent’s leave. If the father does not take their part of the leave, it is lost. This is a way of nudging more men to become more deeply involved in family life. It is also important to widen expectations of what a traditional family looks like – making less assumptions that each child has two parents, or that they would be a mum and a dad. It is also important that diverse families are all supported equally – for example single parents should not be disadvantaged in the tax and benefits system compared to the traditional two-parent family.
Normalise the idea that careers have different shapes. There is a traditional view that a career (STEM or otherwise) should build steadily and smoothly, without breaks or interruptions. It is important to recognise that careers have many different shapes – some people may have periods of part-time working associated with children, or ill-health, or caring responsibilities. Others may take career breaks. These things may impact on the number of outputs or the visibility of the individual for a period. As well as ensuring support for individuals through these periods (see above), we should recognise, as a society, that careers can be like this and still produce outstanding outputs. It is not necessary to work full-time across a whole career to do transformative things.