Bundle of joy spells bundle of trouble

February 18, 2005

Family-friendly policies may look good on paper, but fall short of many parents' needs, writes Caroline Gatrell

The academic career ladder has never been easy for women to climb and they are poorly represented at the top. Only about 12 per cent of vice-chancellorships and about 14 per cent of professorships are held by women and, of 67 sub-panels in the 2008 research assessment exercise, only ten will be chaired by women. This suggests that, even for women who work full time, the road to success is long and arduous.

One full-time UK female academic with an outstanding publication record was told on seeking promotion to reader that her application had been "parked". She says: "That is typical of how women are treated. There is a sense of: 'Oh dear, we've got to take down the roadblocks that are limiting your career progress. Well, OK, we'll raise the barrier and admit you to the car park, but you're not going anywhere after that - we've parked you'." This same woman is now in line for a personal chair but has been informed once again that her case is on hold.

It is unsurprising, then, that for female academics who wish to work part time because they are combining a career with motherhood, the situation is less promising. This is in line with revelations about the impact of having children on women's careers released by the Equal Opportunities Commission this week.

Beth had been in academia for several years before she became pregnant.

Although she was on a fixed-term contract, she assumed, given her length of service and the family friendly ethos espoused by her institution, that this would be extended and her maternity leave funded. She also hoped that she could return to her full-time post on a part-time basis - perhaps as part of a job share.

At the time of her pregnancy, Beth was working on a long-term research project. She arranged to see the principal investigator and announced that she was expecting. The reaction to Beth's "good" news was undisguised consternation. The principal investigator admitted that before the news of the baby, the team had planned to seek renewal of Beth's contract. It was explained, however, that due to her impending motherhood, they no longer wished to do this.

Beth spent most of her pregnancy worrying about the future. She argued her case with line managers, feeling that her employer had failed to live up to its promise of fair play. She was reluctant to pursue her case too forcefully because she feared being labelled "difficult". Eventually, Beth reached agreement that her contract would be extended and that she would be paid during her maternity leave. However, she was persuaded that this arrangement should be regarded as a special favour, for which she must pay a price. Reluctantly, Beth agreed to sacrifice the unpaid maternity leave she was due and return to work after six months on a lesser grade.

"When I was eight months pregnant, they downgraded my contract and since then they have made it clear to me that I am not entitled to anything, so I feel powerless to kick back because they could take it all away from me.

The employer uses a patronising, grace-and-favour attitude so that pressure can be brought to bear," she says.

On returning to work, Beth made a successful case to be allowed to work part time. However, this proved stressful, as she was offered little help managing her workload and felt isolated, being one of only a few part-time academics. She was told that job sharing was out of the question because "job shares do not work", although no evidence was provided to support this argument.

"There is an expectation that part-time mothers have 'spare' time that is available to the employer," Beth observes. "You are expected to give extra for no pay. I know the organisation is supposed to have all these policies, but when it comes down to it they won't take responsibility. It's up to you to fight your corner. Their attitude is, 'If you want part time, then you have to manage the consequences of that - that's it: you manage it.'"

I heard Beth's story as part of Hard Labour , a study in which I examined the experiences of women and men from a range of professions and locations, including academia, who combine parenting young children with employment.

Although this research explores the lives of a small group of parents in depth, it is set in the context of a significant demographic change, in which the number of women with children under five who maintain continuous employment has risen sharply. The highest percentage of working mothers with pre-school children (76 per cent) are highly qualified professionals.

Large-scale studies of this demographic shift confine themselves to analysing trends and do not attempt to understand social experiences.

However, the assumption is made that in "higher" occupations such as academia, working mothers will benefit from family friendly policies that will be effective in practice.

Unfortunately, this assumption was not supported in the Hard Labour project, which revealed discrimination across a number of professions. No matter how well qualified the woman, it appeared that if she sought to change working practices to accommodate childcare, she would face barriers to career progression. It might have been hoped that the situation for female academics would be different from that of women in other professions, but this did not seem to be the case. In higher education, where women were allowed to work part time they appeared to feel marginalised. One woman described herself as having been placed "on the mummy track".

These problems did not apply only to women. Some fathers who wanted to change working practices to accommodate childcare found this hard to achieve unless sacrifices were made. Alan, a scientist, found that the only way of spending more time with his children was to leave his full-time research post and move to a part-time job elsewhere. And Sam, a sociologist who had always got on well with his head of department, found that he was "frozen out" when he requested part-time status, which, he was told, "signified a lack of commitment".

Arguably, these examples are surprising because, on paper, many UK universities have well-developed family friendly policies. However, these may offer only limited protection to working parents unless employers can work out ways of tackling negative attitudes that go against the spirit of flexible working. For example, assumptions that part-time academics are uncommitted to their jobs, or that parents must pay a price for flexible working, could be a barrier to promotion and career progress.

Parents who felt they had experienced discrimination in the workplace indicated that they would be unlikely to complain about it formally, even though they were prepared to discuss their difficulties privately during research interviews. Challenging discrimination is a lonely process.

Although anti-discrimination laws have been in place in the UK since 1975, it is down to individuals to construct and prove their own cases against their institution - not an inviting prospect. More important, working parents fear that claims of discrimination might damage their professional reputation.

Hard Labour was a qualitative study and my sample was small. I therefore acknowledge that there may be unpublicised examples of innovative, family friendly policies in higher education that work in practice. Partly for this reason, I plan to extend my research, focusing on the experiences of academics in the UK. However, it is notable that the recent Equal Opportunities Commission report Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain accords with the findings from Hard Labour , asserting that "work is not flexible enough, especially at senior levels". So does the EOC "Pregnant and Productive" campaign launched on February 2, which suggests that women in all walks of life may experience problems at work when they become pregnant, and this week's report on flexible and part-time work.

To end on a positive note for part-time academics (and possibly a cautionary note for employers), the parents I interviewed had one tactic on their side. While they did not wish to fight a battle in-post, many were prepared to move to another institution. They recognised that they retained highly transferable skills, enabling them to negotiate different terms and conditions elsewhere. If part-time academics believe that the treatment they receive from their own institution is inequitable, they might well seek something that suits them better and leave - taking their publications with them.

Caroline Gatrell is a teaching fellow at Lancaster University Management School. Her book Hard Labour: The Sociology of Parenthood is published by Open University Press, £19.99. Case studies were drawn from a range of UK institutions. Names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.

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