Are academia and motherhood incompatible?

While UK universities are starting to address the challenges faced by new mothers, combining parenthood and academia remains a difficult task. Five writers give their experience of what institutions are getting right and wrong in supporting academic mums

January 18, 2024
Waves breaking over the Cobb at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England
Source: Alamy

The perils of precarity

After years of failed fertility treatments and edging ever closer to 40, I had all but given up hope of having a family of my own.

Trying for a baby while doing a PhD in my late thirties had left me in a state of perpetual angst. I had no financial security, no stable home and no idea where I would find myself at the end of it all. This pressure took a huge toll upon my marriage and, after 12 years together, my ex-husband and I separated months before my graduation.

Aware of the challenges of securing any form of paid work in higher education and desperate for some form of stability, I accepted the first job offer that came my way. It was a rocky start. I left my old home in Scotland and moved to a city I didn’t know, where I had no friends or support network. This gamble left me exhausted, demotivated and deeply frustrated. I spent almost two years working in a largely administrative role that had little, if anything, to do with my own research. Without proper support from my institution, it was impossible to plan or carve out a meaningful career for myself. Thinking that things could not get any worse, I then fell pregnant.

According to the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, every 10 minutes a woman in the UK loses her job because she is expecting a baby. That’s one out of nine pregnant women. It was a serious wake-up call when I realised that despite working at my institution for almost two years, there was no guarantee I would be eligible for maternity leave. This was compounded by the fact that I discovered I was pregnant just weeks before the first national lockdown in March 2020. The slow realisation that I was going to be a single mother and would possibly give birth alone during a pandemic left me utterly petrified.

I missed out on vital scans, medical appointments and antenatal classes. Yet as a casualised member of staff at the university, I never once stopped. I worked until nine months pregnant and spent the entire time worrying about how I was going to support my child. I was on my fifth consecutive fixed-term contract by this point and the panic was really starting to set in.

Having a child is one of the most vulnerable times in a woman’s life. After a gruelling 50-hour labour, my beautiful daughter found herself in fetal distress and was born via ventouse delivery. I was given an episiotomy and, as we were enjoying skin-to-skin contact, began haemorrhaging. I ended up in intensive care with a potentially fatal bout of sepsis.

I made repeated requests to my institution to help me understand my rights. I was very worried as the contract I had was due to end. However, the situation was never clarified to me in a way that I fully understood, and, rather than take as much leave as possible, I instead frantically returned to work when my baby was just three months old in the mistaken conviction that this would help me remain at the university.

I later discovered I was fortunate in comparison with many others. Depending on their precise contracts and length of service, precariously employed postdocs and PhD students, even those who have worked at the same university for years, can unexpectedly discover they are not eligible for maternity or paternity protections at all. And the situation is even more atrocious for migrant researchers. They must face the added stress and costs of reapplying for a visa from overseas if they decide to give birth closer to their family rather than remain in the UK.

I was left traumatised by my redundancy. After years of fighting, I felt like I had failed somehow. I was forced to leave my job and my home and move, once again, across the country – this time to join my family. In a recent podcast I recorded on Precarity in British Higher Education, I recounted the awful story of having to physically walk past the brand new breastfeeding suite my ex-institution had installed as part of its goal to provide a baby-friendly environment across campus. I remember how angry I was that I never got to make use of these facilities and that, because of the pandemic, my colleagues never got to see me pregnant or meet my baby. To this day, I think many of them never even knew I had a baby during that turbulent period.

The precious time I should have enjoyed taking my daughter to baby groups or the park was instead wasted trawling through job sites frantically seeking work. Although I spent the next nine months technically unemployed, I was regularly asked to participate in online seminars, chair conference panels, conduct peer reviewing and organise workshops. I completed my first book during this time and even tried desperately to finish a funding application while I was going into labour because a major funder refused point blank to adjust its deadline for me.

I completed these tasks, diligently, without remuneration, in the vain hope that I would one day secure a permanent contract in academia. It saddens me to think that I will never get that time back and I’m still looking for that ever-elusive permanent contract.

My daughter turned three recently, and here I remain, a sole carer still surviving on one wage packet with another fixed-term contract due, once again, to end next month.

Eve Hayes de Kalaf is a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, based at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.


Constrained by outdated policies

By 10am this morning, I was on my third coffee, had made a dent in my inbox and met with a dissertation student. I had also made a playdough frog, read a book about a mischievous dog and managed to get two small children fed, dressed and out the house. Such is the wonderful balance of my life and I am grateful for it. Partly as I know it isn’t easy to have both an academic job and a family.

This is hard to achieve because trajectories for early-career academics are disjointed and hard. At 30, I got married, bought my first house and started a PhD. Once I finished my doctorate and started getting jobs, I worked and lived in four different places before moving to Scotland for a permanent job – the fifth place in six years.

I was lucky as my husband came with me (had he been a researcher, his own career trajectory could have meant separate cities). It was fun to live in all these different places and it was also good for my career to be part of so many departments and networks. It was not, however, conducive to family life. It is scary to get pregnant when on an insecure, fixed-term contract. Will you get another job if you take a year out? Can you return to your postdoctoral position (it is amazing how many women can’t because the funding is reallocated)? How will you finish your research if you need to go on fieldwork? Not to mention how you will provide for a child if you don’t have a job to go back to.

Lady in middle of muddy river taking part in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships to illustrate Constrained by outdated policies
Getty Images

It can be easy to assume that better planning would help, but there are many excellent academics who are postdocs, research fellows or on teaching contracts and short-term lectureships well into their late thirties. Further, planning a baby isn’t like planning a meeting. Bodies and fertility are particular, unexpected and sometimes crushingly brutal.

I now have a lectureship and two young girls. The challenge facing me now is what I can do with my lectureship. Academic jobs are varied and somewhat like an empty jar that you fill. The university will happily fill your jar with teaching and admin roles, but if you get the funding, you can fill your own jar in all sorts of exciting and impactful ways. I want to fill my jar with research projects on how new roads change environmental knowledges and politics in the Western Amazon, which I think will change how we understand and enact sustainable development. However, to do this work, I need to go to Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru for months at a time. There’s no way I’m going without my girls, so I take them with me.

My eldest came with me to Bolivia when she was months old and again aged two. She’s met some of Bolivia’s most impressive Indigenous leaders, had her cheeks squeezed by crowds of admiring old ladies, been face-to-face with toucans and macaws (though was still most excited by the pigeons) and made friends with kids on slides and swings around the country. My husband came the first time, and my sister, the second. Both trips were great for work and family and I am convinced of the benefits of a childhood split between Scotland and Latin America. But the big difference between the trips was money.

I had research grants to cover my travel, subsistence and research costs for both trips. However, I couldn’t claim for the care costs that I incurred during the first. That meant we covered the costs ourselves, which included my husband taking two months off work. For the second trip, I claimed for my daughter’s flights and care costs. The difference was stark. I had left a fixed-term contract to have my first baby, applying for jobs while breastfeeding on the sofa and losing maternity support after six months.

The first research trip to Bolivia undoubtedly helped me get my next job but meant I spent most of it paying back debt. For the second, I did my research, cared for my child, wrote up the project and moved on.

My experience is not unique. After having a baby, I started conversations with other academic parents, first alone and then through the Development Geographies Research Group and the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group at the Royal Geographical Society. We soon realised that there is a lack of both accessible information and consistent policy, as well as similar challenges for those with other care responsibilities.

We recently published the results of a survey of all UK university geography departments and found substantial differences between funders and universities in their policies and practices around paying for care. Some funders explicitly allow for funding to cover care costs (such as taking young children on fieldwork) or the additional childcare costs created by a primary carer being away from home for fieldwork. Other funders do not allow such costs, while some might if you have the confidence to ask, but do not publish any clear guidance.

As a female academic, I experience these insufficient policies for fieldwork and care costs as greatly limiting either for how I do my job or how well I can parent. In a sector that remains dominated by men in senior roles, the gendered implications are galling, and I am left feeling both shocked and bored to be trapped in an outdated debate about whether women “can have it all”.

Jessica Hope is lecturer in sustainable development at the University of St Andrews.


Sinking or swimming

Academia and motherhood are incompatible. Talented and dedicated researchers are being systematically let down by their institutions. We know both these unfortunate truths from personal experience and from testimony at a recent British Academy-funded conference on this subject.

Our research into the support given to research-active staff also confirms how the majority of higher education institutions are wilfully blind to the multiple pressures and barriers returning mothers face. Instead, women are left to sink or swim at a time of significant personal transition but also when their careers are often at a pivotal moment.

Many inspirational individuals swim and thrive, often on their own individual determination and drive. But for many others the incompatible pressures of motherhood and academia become too much and, for lack of support from their universities, their careers stagnate and they leave academia for good.

The pressures of academia are well known and the gendered issues around workload, promotion, grant and publication bias are well documented, as are the imbalanced administrative and pastoral duties. Academic structures of labour and reward are constructed along gendered lines, with the impact of Covid entrenching them further. Research has shown that women face hurdles through inequitable maternity rights, ineffective family-friendly policies and a lack of suitable and formal policies to support career success. While teaching remains a central function of universities, research publications and grant capture are often valued more in relation to promotion and career progression. Research (and subsequent publications and grant applications) requires time, the headspace, the money and the institutional support to succeed.

Teams compete during the Rock the Boat cardboard boat race with a lady in the water to illustrate Sinking or swimming

Research highlights that academics continue to regularly undertake core academic work duties during maternity leave, such as writing grant applications and journal articles, doctoral supervision, teaching and responding to emails. The myth of meritocracy in the sector and deep-rooted systematic gender issues cannot all be addressed by policy and support. However, our research shows that universities recognising the unique and additional pressures staff returning from maternity face can make a big difference, and, long term, can have an impact on progression rates and, in turn, tackle academia’s “leaky pipeline” and gender pay gaps, while also providing more role models of successful mother-professors for future generations.

How can we do better? Through Freedom of Information requests to 130 UK universities, we found that the vast majority (84 per cent) have no institutional policy for staff returning to research from maternity leave. A small number, 13, do have some support in place, such as an “agreed approach” or a pilot scheme operating in some areas, but no formal policy. Almost 100 appear to have given it no thought at all. Some 21 institutions (16 per cent) do have a policy, but these were split across the sector, with 10 being from the self-declared “research intensive” Russell Group. This shows that scale and resources are not the only drivers.

Some institutions provide seed funding for research support, conference attendance or collaboration costs. Others provide some teaching relief. In some cases, maternity policy is cost-free and just sets out the explicit recognition and awareness that this is a challenging time in women’s careers, provides research-tailored guidance for managers, and explicitly acknowledges that expectations on publications and grant capture will be adjusted when quantity is used as a measure. To quote one such policy, the aim is to “establish the minimum standards that all schools are expected to meet to ensure staff are properly supported before and during their leave and on their return to work. It is intended to serve as a framework for discussion between staff and managers, whilst enabling local flexibility and responsiveness to individual needs.” What university could not commit to this?

We are developing a best practice framework that universities can use to develop their own policy or publicise measures they already undertake, so returning staff know what they can expect. Academic mothers can and do overcome the barriers placed in their way, but they shouldn’t have to work so hard. Imagine what we could achieve if we could work with, not against, our own universities to get fair support, allowing us to dedicate our time and energy to getting back to our world-changing research.

Elizabeth Faulkner is lecturer in law at Keele University and Cathal Rogers is the research culture and assessment manager at the University of Manchester.


Buoying people up

When I began working with higher education professionals, I naively imagined work-life balance would be easily achievable given the long holidays and flexible timetables I remember from my student days.

But it took only a couple of conversations with academics to understand that even in the most progressive institutions, there’s still much work to be done. From the woman with her first baby to the father of twins or the parent of a seven-year-old with additional needs, many told me how they were struggling to juggle home and work commitments.

These discussions took place at the University of Southampton, where, with Judith Lock and Moira Maclean, I’ve been involved in devising a support plan to raise awareness among all staff, irrespective of their seniority or their own relationships, about the challenges that family life places on academics.

On a panel, we shared good practice from other sectors, but it’s clear that there are certain issues that seem to affect female academics more than women in other sectors. As highlighted in a paper published in 2020, “The Motherhood Penalties: Insights from Women in UK Academia”, people's ability to balance family and university life is often the result of delaying starting a family until they attain job security. Yet women jeopardise their opportunity to have a child if, understandably, they do so.

In other industries, fertility is becoming less of a taboo subject. There are many initiatives not only to support women with family life, but also to help them consider their options about having a child. But in higher education, guidelines around parental leave and pay are opaque, particularly for postdoctoral researchers or precariously employed staff, and policies are uneven across the sector. Inclusive policies, such as shared parental leave or senior-level job-shares, are also important and can help more academic mothers to reach senior positions.

Competitors running in theatre and on stepping stones in the Dovedale Dash to illustrate Buoying people up

Nor are returning mothers helped by markers of academic prestige or performance based around publications. As many academics told me, it’s easy to write emails or even plan teaching during a baby’s nap or an odd snatched half-hour. But the idea of writing highly competitive grant proposals or papers is a feat incompatible with the sleep deprivation, brain fog and baby-centred nature of new parenthood.

At Southampton, there’s been a real effort within university leadership teams to ensure that “gaps” in research portfolios due to leaves of absence or part-time working are accounted for and that new parents are, therefore, considered equally for promotion and opportunities. This is important progress. Yet academia is a naturally self-propelled career path: people are given opportunities when they’ve gathered evidence of their expertise and put themselves forward. From my experience across all industries, I know that under-slept new parents, who have been changing nappies and feeding babies in relative isolation with little external validation, often lack the confidence or mental fortitude to return to work with this self-propulsion. More likely they’re feeling (unnecessarily) grateful to an employer for having them back and nervous about whether they can perform as well as their pre-parent selves. This highlights the need to buoy people up in their return from parental leave, which is exactly the support Southampton brought my organisation, Mentor Mums, on board to help with.

There are some bright spots. Travel is sometimes a sore point because it’s rarely feasible for parents (especially breastfeeding mothers) to be away from their offspring for extended periods. One academic I spoke to explained how after having a child with disabilities, their zest for adventurous research trips abroad vastly decreased, too. It was encouraging that several Southampton scholars had attended conferences with facilities or had secured extra funding to allow a partner and child to join a trip, but such allowances seem to be discretionary across the sector and are still far too dependent on good managers, budgets, clarity of signposting within grant terms, and adequate – rather than tokenistic – childcare provision at conferences or events.

Our parent workshops at Southampton pointed to other good practice, particularly around helping returning mothers to restart research. Particularly appreciated was the granting of sabbaticals after parental leave, which enables returners to re-engage with their own research before being asked to educate others. And flexitime means parents are always able to meet childcare needs at one end of the day and can make arrangements around the other end accordingly.

Yet it is clear that the playing field for primary carers in academia is still far from level. Aside from their own well-being, it feels vital that the professionals shaping the minds of our future CEOs ought to be able to operate as working parents in a way that demonstrates the positive working cultures we want graduates to build.

Annie Abelman is the founder of Mentor Mums, a consultancy focused on working parents, who has been working with the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Environmental and Life Sciences.

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Reader's comments (2)

Some points I noticed: the authot speaking about the sciences seemed much less negative than the three authors from a humanities background. I'm not necessarily offering a reason - the final author was talking about second hand experiences, vs the first hand experiences of the other authors, and other explainilations could be differing attitudes to the same discrimination between humanities and arts practitioners. Our out could be that the sciences have more resources, jobs are less scarce, and tend to be less insecure (not secure, not not quite as bad. E.g. almost all science postdocs are for three years). The second thing I noticed was that Elizabeth Faulkner noted that of the 21 universities that reported having return to work policies, 10 were Russell Group, saying this showed the problem was across the sector and not related to resources. But 10 Russell Group universities is nearly 50% of such institutions, where as the fraction is way lower for not Russell Group.
Hi Ian, A fair comment, and thanks for engaging with the piece. You are right that proportionally more Russell Group unis have a policy (10/24) compared for the rest of the sector. Our point, perhaps lost in the brevity of needing to stick to a tight work count here, is that it is not JUST a case of resources and that bigger automatically means having a policy and smaller does not. In our longer analysis we further look at teaching relief and ring fenced pots of funding and a similarly patchy picture emerges. Thanks, Cathal Rogers