Earlier this month, Times Higher Education exposed the massive disparities that exist in the levels of maternity pay in UK higher education.
Rachel Moss, who is a lecturer in medieval history in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford, was surprised by the article – and she took to her Meny Snoweballes blog for a closer look at what it means for UK academics.
“Although I am well aware of the challenges that face women on returning to work in HE after maternity leave, it had somehow never occurred to me that different higher education institutions would have hugely differing policies in how much maternity leave they afford,” she writes, adding that she had “naively assumed” that most UK HE institutions would offer roughly similar packages, “since after all there is a nationally agreed single pay spine for employees in HE”.
Dr Moss expresses further shock at the degree of variation revealed when the article calculated how much a hypothetical academic would take home at both the best and worst universities for maternity pay in the UK.
“Based on a junior lecturer salary of £31,645 p.a., the difference is striking – a lecturer in the first group would earn £17,619 during her maternity leave; a lecturer in the second group would earn £7,846,” she points out.
Using an online childcare calculator, she goes on to work out that half of her hypothetical worst-case academic’s salary would be going towards paying for childcare.
“If she [is] already feeling the pinch because of several months on statutory maternity pay, the return to work might prove to be very expensive,” she writes.
Although Dr Moss believes that, in general, university culture “seems like it should be friendly to working mothers”, she says that this is not necessarily the case.
“University culture often still favours the traditional unmarried male lecturer in its organisation,” she opines. “Research seminars tend to be organised after 5pm, meaning working parents can often not attend them and so miss out on networking opportunities and on hearing the latest research.
“Conferences never, in my experience, offer any childcare for visiting scholars. Nursery places are often extremely limited. And perhaps more pervasive than all that is the deeply-ingrained belief that being an academic is a vocation, and so if you are really serious about it, you will put it first.”
In addition to all this, Dr Moss believes academia has a culture where “everyone complains about being busy”, but in which it is “not ok to admit to being overwhelmed and exhausted”.
In a comment on the blog, a reader calling himself Scott agrees with this final point, but points to an example that may offer grounds for hope.
“A senior Dutch professor was out for a year with ‘burnout’ a few years ago,” he writes. “It was the talk of the community, and not in a good way…But he managed to return and take on an even more powerful position, heading a national lab.
“It can happen, but I think we’re all terrified to admit the sheer load we’re under.”
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