Helping the mummies return

February 9, 2007

Female academics returning to work after maternity leave face particular problems, but innovative return-to-work programmes are on the increase. Harriet Swain reports

First the good news: about 70 per cent of respondents to a survey on returning to work in science after a career break went back to their old employer, often to the same job. Now the bad news: about a third of returners said the process of going back had been tricky. And then there are those who never return.

The Athena Project, which aims to advance the careers of women in science, will publish the results of its survey, covering about 6,000 people working in science, technology and engineering, later this year. Caroline Fox, programme manager at Athena, says the majority of respondents who took career breaks were women who had been on maternity leave.

While women working in the sciences have particular problems returning to work after children because of the speed of developments in their fields and the timings involved in conducting scientific experiments, what happens to female academics generally is becoming of increasing concern in all subject areas.

This is partly because there are so many more of them than there used to be. A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England last July showed that the proportion of female lecturers rose from 34 per cent in 1995-96 to 46 per cent in 2004-05. If a significant number of these women fall away as they progress through their academic career, universities could begin to face staff shortages at senior levels. The Medical Research Council has expressed concern about the future of medicine, which is a career increasingly dominated by women, if adequate mechanisms are not put in place to help people combine work with family life.

It is a concern that stretches across Europe. The European Commission published a report three years ago showing that women were consistently underrepresented as PhD graduates, as researchers, among senior university staff and as members of scientific boards. While it showed that things were improving, the average percentage of women in senior academic positions in the member states was 13.2 per cent in 2000, but across all academic positions the percentage of women was 31 per cent. Of those surveyed, 19 per cent of men had reached senior positions, compared with 6 per cent of women.

Such figures, together with growing pressure from the UK Government to address the issue, have prompted the Equality Challenge Unit to launch research into what is causing women in academia to divert from their career path after they have children and what is being done by individual institutions to prevent it.

Nicola Dandridge, ECU director, says the project, which is a priority for 2007, aims to build on the examples of good practice highlighted in guidance produced for institutions by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education staff in 2003. It will also try to demonstrate the economic advantages in making it easier for women to remain in work after having children. "A lot of people are taking this seriously because they are worried about losing good people," Dandridge says.

An unexpected boost for action has come from the revamped research assessment exercise. The rules for the 2008 RAE recognise more explicitly than before that those who have been on maternity leave and those who are working part time cannot be expected to have been as research productive as others.

Caroline Gatrell, lecturer in management learning and leadership at Lancaster Management School and author of Hard Labour: The Sociology of Parenthood, Family Life and Career , says: "The RAE has started thinking about this so I think perhaps institutions could start thinking about it more explicitly than they are at the moment."

Some are already doing their bit. Bristol University's women returners scheme, which applies to women lecturers, senior lecturers and professors in science, engineering and medicine, provides six months of protected research time during which women coming back from maternity leave have no teaching or administrative duties.

Nottingham University offers two-year Anne McLaren fellowships to young female scientists and engineers wanting to establish a research career in the UK. These provide flexible working patterns and funds for family support or reclaiming maternity leave.

Manchester University has set up a women-in-leadership project to tackle under-representation of women in management and leadership roles within the university, which includes drawing up guidelines on parental leave.

Oxford Brookes University, which was highly commended last year in the Universities Personnel Association HR Excellence awards for its efforts on work-life balance, allows women to return part time for a period while keeping their full-time position open, and offers five days' paid compassionate leave that can be used to look after sick children. It also allows flexible and home working. As a result, Simonetta Manfredi, director of the university's Centre for Diversity Policy Research, says return to work after maternity at the university is almost 100 per cent.

Then there are the Daphne Jackson fellowships, which offer two-year half-time sponsored fellowships to women - and now men - returning to the workplace after looking after children, including some retraining. "We offer them the chance to get their foot back in the door," says a spokesman for the Daphne Jackson Trust. "After two years they should be on a level playing field."

The UK Resource Centre for Women is running a return-to-work programme for women wanting to get back into science and technology careers in either academic research or industry after longer career breaks to look after children. This includes mentoring and networking and specific courses for returners run by the Open University.

The problem is not an easy one to solve because it involves so many different players. Fox says the Athena survey shows that the availability of good childcare is the priority for women in achieving a successful transition back to work after maternity leave. Next most important is flexible working, while for the relatively few men in the survey who took a career break, keeping in touch while they were away was their number one concern. Gatrell says her research found how well or how badly a woman was treated after maternity leave often came down to individual heads of department.

Carrie Paechter, professor of educational studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose second child is now nine, says it is usually down to the women returners themselves somehow to manage.

"Coming back is terribly hard, and it is possible there are ways they could help you - perhaps by staggering the return," she says. "But it's hard for the next 20 years. Having children simply holds up your career."

'The fellowship takes you through the process and knows you are a little bit shaky to start with'

Pia Ostegaard is researching the genetic basis of chylous ascites, a rare disease that causes chronic abdominal swelling and pain. As yet, there is no cure. But if Ostegaard and the team she is working with manage to identify the gene responsible it may be possible to develop drugs to combat it.

It is unlikely that Ostegaard would ever have been part of this team had it not been for the help she received after the births of her two children. After completing a PhD at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum on fish parasites, Ostegaard became pregnant with her son, Jeppe, now four, closely followed by her daughter Sif, three.

After three years' break she decided she wanted to return to academic work but knew it was virtually impossible to get a grant after a career gap, especially for someone not contracted to an institution. She was helped by a Daphne Jackson fellowship, which not only gave her funding to work three days a week at St George's, University of London, but also helped refocus her research towards the project she is doing.

She realised that most biology jobs were in human rather than animal biology, and the fellowship gave her support in changing direction. "They take you through the whole process and know you are a little bit shaky to start with," she says.

Her fellowship ends in April, but the British Skin Foundation is to fund her part time for another two years. "It's a misconception in a lot of academic institutions that if you do research you have to be devoted to it and that that involves being full time," she says. She thinks she is probably more efficient and focused when she is in the office than she would be if she worked full time. At home she still manages to be "100 per cent mum".

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