Men who juggle campus and Pampers

October 24, 2003

There is much talk about equality in universities, but how many male academics actually take on the role of primary carer in the home? Caroline Davis reports.

Becoming a full-time dad was never part of Sami Kafala's plans. The nuclear physicist had played an active role in looking after his twins in their first two years, but he had also been building a research career.

However, when the project he was working on at Imperial College London came to an end in 1998 and his contract was not renewed, he became the primary carer for his children while his wife carried on in her job as a part-time teacher. At one point, he took a soul-destroying job in telephone sales to make ends meet. He and his wife had a "swing-door" approach: as she returned from work in the evening, he set out.

Kafala had begun to fear that his academic career was over, but he has just found a part-time research position in medical physics at Surrey University. He got a helping hand from an unexpected quarter, the Daphne Jackson Trust. The trust is just one of a number of initiatives to help those scientists who have taken a career break to look after children to get back into the lab. Most are aimed at women, but it's not only women who have a family life to juggle. Kafala is, however, the only male fellow of 107 funded by the trust since it was set up in 1992. He says: "I still share the childcare with my wife. I take the children to school in the morning and help with the homework - my wife doesn't do it all."

The trust's Katie Perry says: "We've had men apply in the past. But they've either dropped out because they've found a job or have just not been suitable." She says men and women approach the application differently.

Applicants for a fellowship must find a university supervisor and then submit a project proposal for peer review. Because many applicants have been out of the field for some time, they are often asked to revise or rewrite the proposal. Perry says: "Women can suffer from a lack of confidence in their ability, but we had to ask one man to rewrite his proposal - and he was shocked."

The problems of women in academia are no secret. Although almost 13 per cent more women than men were accepted onto degree courses this year, female participation in academic life declines with age. The fall is particularly marked around the age of 30, when many people start a family.

Data for 2001-02 showed that just 13 per cent of UK professors were women.

It is widely argued that academic life and childcare are almost impossible to combine. The testimonies of women who have tried are well rehearsed.

Karen Kirby, an electronic engineer at Surrey, is not unusual. "You are torn between what's best for your children and what's best for your career.

You feel guilty all the time, try to compromise and end up shouting at the cat!"

Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the experience of men who change their work patterns to accommodate children is very different from that of women. Pedro Ferreira is a Royal Society research fellow in astrophysics at Oxford University who became a single father with an eight-year-old son when he was widowed 18 months ago.

Because he is a theoretician and not lab-bound, he says he has found it easier to be flexible with timekeeping. "That's important because if my son is ill, I have to go to him," Ferreira says. "He finishes school at 3 o'clock and, although there are after-school clubs, I like to pick him up by 4pm. If I need to do work, I can take it home. I use mostly pen and paper or a computer, so I can work from anywhere, even on holiday."

He says he has had nothing but support from colleagues. When he was asked to lead an international working group, a position that involved travelling around Europe, another group member said his family commitments might interfere. "The other heads were completely outraged and said they would quit if I was treated like that."

Ferreira acknowledges it is different for women. "I think it's harder for women. I look around my field of research, which has a larger proportion of women than other fields of physics. I see women whittling away in the hierarchy. It's a manifestation of how difficult it is for them."

Charlie Lewis, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University who has published widely on the role of fathers in family life, says: "Academics project themselves as very open and working in an egalitarian environment.

But when you look at how many men do go part time or flexi to care for children, you can count the number on the fingers of one hand. It is still thought that the natural inclination for men is to become the provider. If men make the decision to become the primary parent, it is a decision made completely against precedent."

When they do take on the role, he says, it becomes something of a macho status symbol. "Academic men can display their parenting in a way women can't. Women with children are judged to be primarily mothers." The female head of a UK sociology department says that at one point all the male academics under her wing had children. "They would make a point of leaving at 5 o'clock and not agreeing to meetings in the evenings, while women in the same position feel the pressure and do not want to draw attention to their situation."

The experience of academic fathers has received little study. Esther Dermott of Bristol University has, however, studied how professional fathers combine their dual roles for her PhD. She found that most did not want to take on the primary carer's role but desired more flexible working hours. "Fathers didn't feel guilty working a 50 or 60-hour week as long as they were there to read a bedtime story or go to a school play and felt they had a relationship with the child. It didn't matter if someone else was doing the main childcare tasks."

She suggests that women should adopt the same approach rather than wait for men to choose to become primary carers. This might make fathers push more for part-time work and level the playing field. "If the pressure is only coming from mothers, it would suggest that there is going to be continuing inequality," she says.

Indeed, finding a male academic who has made a conscious decision to work part time and share primary childcare is not easy. One is Peter Moss, professor in early childhood provision at Thomas Coram Research Unit in the Institute of Education, University of London. He made this choice more than 20 years ago, and it was difficult then. But he thinks it is even harder, if not impossible, in today's university.

Although he found himself squeezing four days' work into three, he did not feel the pressure to produce that today's academics face, with research assessment exercises and lots of contract work. "I was researching in a much less stressed situation. These days, there would be a veneer of acceptance, but underneath I would be marked down."

For him, the big question is how gender balance will finally be achieved - men taking more time off for childcare or women giving up primary childcare in favour of a more traditionally male parent/work balance. He has his own theory. "Everybody I talk to in higher education is exhausted. We all need to work less. It doesn't make us any happier - it just makes us more miserable and is doing nobody any good."

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