Ask the pane

May 6, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights?
Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am a 30-year-old lecturer in the sciences who is serious about my career. I am weighing up whether the time is right to have a baby. How should I proceed and what are my entitlements?

* Our panellists had a lot to say on this, with Rachel Flecker, our academic from Bristol, leading the charge.

"The most important thing is that the time is right for you personally. If it is, your concern professionally is to minimise any negative career consequences, real or perceived. An important early element is handling the interview with your head of department in which you tell them you are expecting a baby. You need to be well informed about the provision and policy your university has for maternity leave, benefits, cover and any women returner's scheme.

"You should present your departmental head with a clear picture of what you would like to happen and how this will be paid for. Personnel should be able to tell you what resources are available to you and your department.

Although, in theory, sorting out who covers your lecturing while you are on leave is not your problem, if you don't know what central funds are available, you may be asked to write a proposal to a funding body for a temporary lectureship."

* Our union panellists offered reminders on entitlements. "The only financial consideration is to make sure you have worked for at least 52 weeks by the 15th week before the baby is due. This ensures you trigger your right to maternity pay and full leave entitlements, including 'additional maternity leave', a further period of 26 weeks," says our Natfhe panellist.

"However, your rights to antenatal care, to return to work on no less favourable conditions than you had immediately prior to maternity leave and your right to not be treated less favourably at any point on account of your maternity leave do not depend on length of service. For example, you can't be dismissed, refused offers of jobs or be offered fewer hours or less pay on your return to work. Any attempt to refuse employment or promotion on any grounds linked to your pregnancy or leave is unlawful. If you believe you are not being treated fairly you should start by checking your contract of employment or your employer's handbook; also seek advice from your local union rep."

* Our AUT panellist adds: "Statutory maternity pay is available for the first six weeks of leave at a rate of nine tenths of the employee's average earnings. The basic rate of maternity leave for a further 20 weeks is £102.80 per week. Many universities have agreed more favourable rates."

* The research council panellist stresses: "Depending on the details of your position and discipline, we can help in a number of ways. First Grant schemes, such as the one run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, have proved attractive to women newly joining or returning to academic life after breaks in academic careers. Women aged 31-35 years who apply have a success rate of 52 per cent (10 per cent higher than men of the same age). The Daphne Jackson Trust runs a returners' scheme providing paid part-time research fellowships in research laboratories ( www.daphnejackson.org ).

All councils operate Research Fellowship schemes that often make allowance for career breaks and may be held part time. The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science Engineering and Technology (www.setwomenresource.org.uk) - set up after the Greenfield report (SET Fair) - offers access to information, training and support to women returning after a career break."

* The panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers'

Association reiterates your legal rights. "Maternity and paternity leave, pay and benefits are set out in law and your institution may offer enhanced policies as well as childcare services and flexible working options.

"On a personal level, when to have a baby is your choice alone. Being a committed parent and being committed to your career are not mutually exclusive."

The Times Higher advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, a Bristol University academic who sits on Bristol's contract research working party.

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