The uncertainty and risks related to parental leave and a research career

After several very interesting and statistical QUICS blogs on uncertainty and Bayesian statistics etc., this is a blog about a different kind of risk and uncertainty.

Although I’m busy trying to get used to coordinating the QUICS project, statistics and uncertainty analysis again, my mind is currently still very often on something else (or someone else, to be more precise, see Fig 1), as I have recently returned to work from maternity leave.

Fig. 1. QUICS outreach to the very young.

And being totally honest, getting back to research after 6 months of full time baby care is not as easy as I hoped. Although, I very much feel I am one of the lucky ones, for several reasons: Firstly having passed my probation as a lecturer, and then being promoted to senior lecturer a couple of years ago, means I now have a permanent contract and the maternity leave benefits are good. Of course, I worked hard to become a lecturer and write journal papers and apply for funding and all the rest of it, but to all the contract researchers out there still on short term postdoc contracts, please be aware it is also very much a case of being in the right place at the right time when vacancies open up, being able to take up opportunities in very different locations and countries, as well as a bit of luck in just getting that 1 point lower or higher score for your research proposals etc. Secondly, my husband, also a senior lecturer at Sheffield University, is very involved and has taken up the recently introduced shared parental leave option, meaning we each have 6 months ‘shared parental leave’, and he is currently at home looking after our son. And last but not least, the QUICS project is full of helpful people, e.g. people willing to take seriously things like meeting online when travel is difficult, willing to temporarily take over someone’s task and taking seriously the researchers’ code of practice.

But the decision of whether or not to have children whilst trying to build a research career is not such an easy one. We personally waited until we finished our PhD, completed several post-doc positions, wrote papers, got lecturer positions, applied for funding and got some projects funded and started up…. etc. etc. etc… Somehow it never seems to be quite the right time, but one thing is not uncertain at all – for women the biological clock is ticking. So we eventually decided to go for it and although I’m getting closer to 40 than to 30, thankfully, our son arrived all healthy and happy.

Unfortunately, it’s often more uncertain and risky for academic researchers, especially those on fixed research contracts. Sadly for Postdoc and PhD researchers, it can cause serious difficulties to take maternity leave or shared parental leave, and the news makes dismal reading: Academia for women: short maternity leave, few part-time roles and lower payShould academics lose out financially for taking maternity leave?.

Both in UK and other countries, it really depends on the way your project is funded as to what maternity benefits you can get, as well as on your department on how they deal with short contracts, and what happens if, for example a baby is due in the last few months of a 1-year contract. It also really depends on your supervisors, close colleagues and Head of Department. As apart from the research time that can be lost due to maternity leave when you are unlucky with your source of funding, there is a whole list of other things that can take your time away from research… Think for example of time lost due to morning sickness, miscarriage (more common than many people realise), back-ache, iron deficiency, breastfeeding once back at work & various other embarrassing tricks your pregnant body plays on you which no-one told you about earlier… (In case you wonder, yes I experienced all of the above). Many women I know also experienced these and various other pregnancy related inconveniences (I have yet to meet one woman who came out completely without issues! Talking to most women I know who recently had babies, it is not just the growing belly visible to all, there is also an equally large growing ‘mental’ baby that slowly over 9 months manages to take over most of your brain, only to be gradually released again once the physical baby arrives). Understandably, many women (and also their partners) do not necessarily wish their colleagues to know about these kind of issues, and thus struggle in silence. And hence this remains a perpetuating circle… As to you it then seems like every other woman goes through her pregnancy without any troubles, making you feel bad for feeling bad, and feeling guilty because you think you should be happy as for some people the silent heartache is that they are not able to get pregnant at all, and so on…

Again, I feel lucky in this respect; I have been working with the same colleagues for some time, and felt I could talk to them about this and they provided both moral support and support with my research. Also, once I was pregnant, my husband immediately said he wanted his ‘6 months off work’. I thought quite a few men in the UK would jump at this opportunity to share parental leave and spend some time at home bonding with their new baby. To our surprise, we were the first people in the faculty to go for this new option, and although HR sorted us out fine in the end, we were the first ones to try out the new forms to apply for this and get confused by the new forms. However, just as we had sorted out our applications for shared parental leave, news headlines appeared that since this opportunity was introduced in the UK, only 1 in 100 men were taking up this option!
Why are only 1 in 100 men taking up shared parental leave?
Why have so few men taken up shared parental leave? Perhaps it’s because mothers won’t hand over the baby.
It is not clear why so few men have taken up shared parental leave to date, reasons mentioned are income equality between men and women (why is this still so often the case in 2017!?), as well as women not wanting to give up their share of leave. Interestingly, a lot of people are now indeed asking me whether my husband is coping with the baby, to which I can happily say that both men are doing just fine (Fig. 2). But yes, I admit honestly, I do miss my son, and find it very hard to leave him in the mornings!

Fig. 2. Men are also perfectly capable of looking after babies.

So what can we all do to reduce this risk and uncertainty related to maternity / paternity / adoption leave and a research career? Firstly, keep checking with research funding providers what the provisions for maternity / paternity / adoption leave are, and be upfront about this to prospective researchers. If the provision is less than ideal, keep complaining about this and mentioning this to HR, Heads of department, the funding body etc. Secondly, talk a bit more openly about these issues, and finally, make it clear to researchers that having babies is ok and not an ‘inconvenience’, as we all need a new generation to carry on our research in 20-30 years’ time! Hopefully, this blog may help some researchers currently thinking about the risks and uncertainty related to becoming parents.

Alma Schellart

The uncertainty and risks related to parental leave and a research career