An academic mother’s wish list: 12 things universities need

Scientists and girls using tools in science center workshop

Workplaces have many options available to create a more-inclusive workplace.Credit: Hero/Getty

We co-host a blog called Mama is an Academic, which deals with the challenges of maintaining an academic career while raising children. Inspired by our own experiences as academic mums, we aimed to share the trials, tribulations and, of course, successes that come with balancing parenting and work. Being a mother poses very specific challenges to maintaining an academic career, which tends to require complete immersion in ideas, and rewards obsessive and relentless hard work. It often entails international travel and success rests in the balance of securing that all important permanent position. Combining these demands with the all-consuming role of motherhood can seem overwhelming.

So what can workplaces do to ease this burden and promote inclusion of academic mums?

We asked our blog community, and have used the responses to come up with this wish list. We hope this becomes a useful resource to help academia create ‘family friendly’ spaces.

What employers can do

Here are 12 things employers should do. Managing maternity leave is the first step to an inclusive working environment, and it is important to consider effective strategies.

Have procedures and policies in place to manage maternity leave. More than just locum recruitment is needed to effectively cover women on maternity leave and it takes a significant amount of work to identify and arrange such cover. Plan well in advance, ensuring that your pregnant colleague is kept up to speed with the process and is prepared for an effective handover. Checklists can be very useful for this.

Keep people (flexibly) involved during their maternity leave. If publication reviews come in, or new developments occur, many mums on leave will still want to know about them. Regardless of whether they respond or not, being up to date makes the return to work easier. Talk to the mum in advance, to check how she wants to be included during her leave.

Recognize maternity leave as a career break. Employers shouldn’t compare publication records between mums and those who haven’t taken a break. Funders should change funding guidelines (for example, within 7 years of completing a PhD), and equally, employers should ‘stop the clock’ on tenure processes to account for this important leave.

What labs or research groups can do

On returning to work, a positive, flexible working environment is needed, without mums facing discrimination. From laboratories and research groups, we’d like to see the following.

Job sharing. A colleague had an arrangement that the principal investigator would go to conferences to present their work, while they stayed in the lab. Between them they made a great academic. Job shares can allow people to avoid tasks that they can’t fit in around being a mum and that can increase their productivity.

Flexibility about part-time and remote working. We work part time because this makes combining academic work and parenting more feasible for us, but it does not mean that our ambitions are reduced. A positive management attitude that actively accommodates requests for part-time working or for periods working from home allows for a focus on output rather than on time spent at the office to drive productivity.

Job security. Motherhood often coincides with the stage in an academic career where we have short-term contracts and employers and funders expect mobility. We lose many good women to careers in which they can find the necessary stability to raise a family. Where you can, create positions for longer-term postdocs and include those on precarious contracts in funding proposals.

Support for mums to say no. Academic life is hectic for everyone, but when you have limited time, you have to be brutal about what you say yes to. A good workplace will distribute roles between men and women equally, and should be OK with you saying ‘no’ (providing the employee meets contractual requirements). Saying no should not mean you are never offered the chance again.

Meetings and events timetabled in core hours. When a meeting or seminar is regularly timetabled in the early morning or evening, those with child-care responsibilities are excluded. Find an alternative time where everyone’s ideas can be considered.

Support for mums’ attendance at conferences or bringing baby to work. Create bursaries to support mums who want to take small children and support to conferences, or to pay for extra child care on away days. We recently attended a conference at which there were three babies in the plenary audience, a rare but lovely sight. Creating a baby-change facility and an area where mum can peacefully breastfeed is ideal and shouldn’t be hard to achieve.

What academic leadership can do

Even if all the above procedural changes were implemented, a successful, inclusive working environment for academic mums involves broader, institutional change. From academic leadership, we’d like:

Public acknowledgement of academic motherhood as a challenge. Take time to fully understand why it is such a challenge and act to address it. In parallel, celebrate the achievements of academic mothers and seek to reduce the barriers to success.

Recognize diversity. Women become mothers at all stages of their careers and have different wants and needs with regard to flexible working. Do not assume that one solution will fit all mums. Respect people’s choices, and provide a range of support that allows everyone to thrive.

Normalization of these behaviours. It can be exhausting if you always seem to be asking for the unusual. We dislike being the voice that has to ask to be accommodated, and not all of us feel comfortable enough to stand up for ourselves. Yet having a more diverse, accommodating working environment has the potential to benefit everyone around the lab.

Incorporating these suggestions as part of normal working life could reduce the barriers that academic mothers face and, as an added bonus, could improve working conditions and precarity across academia, which can surely only be a good thing.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00019-x

Check out the blog Mama is an Academic.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareers@nature.com.


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