Breaking barriers for women: how to build effective parental leave
Seven academics who recently navigated the topsy-turvy world of maternity leave make six recommendations for ensuring motherhood is compatible with academia
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The academic pipeline is haemorrhaging women. Parental leave is a pinch point in women’s careers, and the scale of these losses can be directly tied to the level of maternity support – yet support provided for academic mothers in the UK varies wildly, from brilliant to dire. As a group of UK academics who have recently navigated maternity leave, we have felt this first-hand. Below we draw on some of the best – and worst – practices we have experienced, propose six actions in response that can support academic parents and highlight the consequences of neglecting them.
Although we come from diverse backgrounds we are all white, able-bodied, straight, birth mothers – in other words, those the system presumably had in mind – so the issues will be felt only more keenly by those from minoritised or marginalised groups in STEM, who feel the weight of structural inadequacies more strongly.
1. Provide transparent mechanisms for fair access to benefits
Organising maternity leave is complex, stressful and isolating. It may seem obvious, but clear HR guidance is vital – and often lacking. For some of us, poor guidance led to weeks liaising between funders, payroll, HR, relying on colleagues with past experience and, in some shocking instances, missing out on benefits we were entitled to. It needn’t be this hard. At the University of Edinburgh, organising leave is as simple as consulting a spreadsheet.
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2. Provide adequate maternity pay
Leave is essential for the physical and mental health of the mother, allowing time to recover and establish parent-child bonds before they return to work. The discrepancy in maternity leave allowance across UK universities is huge. The University of Oxford allows a generous 26 weeks at full pay, but most other universities offer 4-18 weeks. Shockingly, 7 per cent still offer zero weeks of full-salary replacement. Low entitlements force mothers back to work sooner – a problem exacerbated by the fact that most academics live far from family care networks.
3. Get on board with shared parental leave (SPL) – or do better
SPL allows parents to flexibly share 50 weeks of entitled leave. However, uptake remains low. Sharing leave is critical to gender equality. Partners (often fathers) get to take a turn as primary carer, leading to a better share of home responsibilities in the long term and levelling the gender playing field in terms of career breaks. But it’s crucial that SPL is viable (by ensuring SPL benefits match those of maternity entitlements) and accessible (by raising awareness of these benefits). But universities could go one better – providing paternity pay without requiring mothers to give up their leave. Now that would be revolutionary.
4. Invest in formal maternity cover support networks
Across most sectors, maternity cover is the norm. For academic research, however, formal support is rare. Mothers are generally left to organise their own cover through favours from overworked colleagues or lab members who are themselves losing their supervisor.
In our experiences, informal support networks typically result in mothers taking on work during leave and, in some cases, returning early. Group members shouldn’t be disadvantaged by the absence of their supervisor, and it is crucial for gender equality that taking maternity leave is not perceived as failing your group. Universities should work with mothers to assess and prepare the appropriate support. That support must be formalised and recognised for those who take it on, by funding cover, or at the minimum accounting for additional roles in work allocations. In our experience, where funded support was provided this was through department heads and not institutional practice.
It is often argued that academic roles cannot be replaced – but this is a lack of imagination. While it may not be possible to hire someone with the exact scientific expertise, groups can benefit from a temporary shift in outlook and skill set.
5. Provide tools to help women transition back to work
Women face many new challenges on returning to work, balancing hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, anxiety and greater home responsibilities. Two of our own institutions (the universities of Sheffield and Oxford) provide “return to work” funding to help mitigate the impacts of leave and early parenthood on career progression. Funds can be used to buy out teaching or access research facilities.
However, there can be confusion as to how these tools should be implemented – for example, employers may request that mothers use “return to work” funds to hire maternity cover – thus directing the benefit away from the mother and towards the department. Such tools should therefore come with clear guidance to help the mother make the best decision for her own career.
6. Sign up parental leave advocates
When organising parental leave, there is rarely a point-of-contact who can provide support, knowledge and monitor how things are going. This means that support structures are never evaluated, bad practice is perpetuated and good practice is not learnt from.
Advocates within academic departments can allow best practice to be retained and implemented smoothly, supporting the entire process. Author Tiffany Taylor, of the University of Bath, created a departmental role to support research staff taking parental leave: “I mitigate the impact of leave on research staff by ensuring a support network is in place, and I mediate conversations between research staff and line managers to effectively communicate expectations and best practises. I also gain feedback post-maternity leave and determine if any changes to current systems should be explored.”
Make families a welcome part of the academic journey
For women in academia who choose to start a family, this decision will probably coincide with the most competitive years in their career. Bad practice will not only increase the risk of losing leave takers but perpetuate the idea that academia is not compatible with having families. Ensuring motherhood is compatible with academia should be an institutional and national priority – rather than a problem solved at an individual level by mothers, for mothers.
Ellie Harrison is NERC independent research fellow at the University of Sheffield.
Jo L. Fothergill is reader in microbiology at the University of Liverpool.
Kayla C. King is professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Oxford.
Nicola Hemmings is Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin research fellow at the University of Sheffield.
Siobhán O’Brien is assistant professor in microbiology at Trinity College Dublin.
Susan E. Johnston is Royal Society university research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
Tiffany B. Taylor is Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin senior research fellow at the University of Bath.
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