Academic mothers criticise ‘consistent lack of support’

Universities see maternity leave as a ‘tick-box exercise’, study warns

October 1, 2019

UK universities are failing to provide women with full support before, during and after maternity leave, which then hinders their academic careers, according to research.

For a paper presented at the British Academy of Management’s conference last month, the University of Salford’s Jonathan Lord and Anmol Joel interviewed female academics about their experience at work during their maternity journey.

They found that the 26 women they interviewed “consistently” reported a lack of support at all points. Most respondents said it was often unclear who was responsible for ensuring a smooth transition throughout maternity leave, with human resources departments and line managers claiming that it was the other’s responsibility. This was backed up by interviews with HR staff and a number of line managers.

The research looked at four levels: the pregnancy and maternity leave stage; the transitioning stage from maternity leave back to work; experiences soon after return to work; and the gradual career progression experience.

According to the paper, at the first stage women reported “unfair treatment for being pregnant or taking adoption leave, and experienced difficulty due to a lack of maternity cover arrangements”.

During maternity leave and as they transitioned back to work, women reported a lack of communication from their institution and little help for a phased return. Women reported that the “keeping in touch” days arranged by some institutions were very transactional and not at all helpful.

That often left them worried about what their position would be when they returned. “There was a lack of awareness of this as a problem, almost as if maternity leave was a tick-box exercise, without recognising the psychological effects on women,” Dr Lord, senior lecturer in human resource management at Salford, told Times Higher Education.

According to the report, women said that once back in work there “was a lack of awareness for psychological support required after return to work from maternity, and both HR professionals and line managers agreed”. Many also reported a lack of breastfeeding facilities on campus and inadequate childcare options at conferences as additional problems for them.

This, coupled with certain organisational structures, restricted career progression for women further down the line, according to the paper. “To have a successful academic career, you need to publish research, teach and become a line manager,” Dr Lord said. “However, these criteria hinder mothers, who have demands at home, whereas male colleagues are able to do those things and progress their career.”

The women interviewed said they found limited opportunities for flexible working, and those who did work part-time found that this had a detrimental effect on their promotion opportunities.

Dr Lord said that despite incremental advances in maternity leave – for example, the time off allowed rising from six months to 12 months – institutional culture at universities had failed to change.

“It’s not just about ‘you get 52 weeks off and some of it is paid’; it’s about the long-term impact of having children. That is what universities now need to look at, not just those 12 months – it’s before, it’s during and it’s the long-term after-effects,” he said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (2)

I absolutely agree with the article about better support for women and maternity leave and I welcome attempts by universities to be more supportive of families with children. That is great for those who now can have paid leave and a guarantee of a job when they return to the university. However, for those of us who are the maternity cover, we are in a very precarious position. Also, I suspect the majority of such people are female (I may be wrong, but I could find no data) so it does enter into the E&D agenda, too. I am coming to the end of an 11 month maternity cover contract where I am expected to cover two posts. I have had no support at all from the university in finding any other job opportunities. For example, because the contract is less than 12 months, I have been told that they will not put me on the redeployment register. It seems to me that universities should be supporting people who have successfully covered staff absence in the same way they would support other fixed-term contract employees. For instance, in the fixed-term contract at the university, it says that there is a "right to a statutory redundancy payment where the expiry of a fixed-term contract gives rise to a redundancy situation" but this does not apply to me. I suspect that people on maternity cover are treated quite differently (and probably legally so), but if so, it does create an equality issue. Universities could at least put us on redeployment and could encourage those looking for research fellows, temporary lecturers, etc to meet and discuss posts with those about to lose their jobs. The legal position is that the employer should at least "show that it acted reasonably – for example, by conducting a fair procedure and investigating alternative employment". These 2002 regs apply to all staff, even if the contract is less than 12 months.
Universities (and law firms....!) also need to understand the EqA 2010 implications for pregnant students and for maternity leave from studies. My experience is that HE institutions are still largely in the dark ages in this respect, passing students from pillar to post, and abrogating their responsibilities, especially concerning indirect discrimination, maximum period of registration, etc. (Some still seem to think that maternity leave is only for employees!) There is no excuse for this, but for obvious (mostly financial) reasons, virtually no testing caselaw. Many students suffer very badly from, and are outrageously neglected as a result of the unequal powers of HE/students.