Love could be the death of women's life in research

UUK says mobility requirements can force female scientists to quit careers for family. John Gill writes

January 8, 2009

Female scientists may be forced into a situation where they have to choose between having children and having a career as researchers are increasingly required to move from country to country to prosper, according to a report.

Universities UK (UUK) warns that for many women scientists married or partnered to men who are also researchers, the modern requirement of mobility, both within the European Union and further afield, is bringing their careers to a premature end.

"These couples represent a significant proportion of the talent pool for scientific research," the UUK says in its report on researcher mobility.

"In the main, at a certain point in their careers women in these double scientific-career couples put their own career development on hold and follow their partner.

"They may look for jobs in the new country but, unless they are based near a relevant research cluster, they are unlikely to find a position."

The report says that many women use such a scenario to take a break and have children, but it says that there are many obstacles to returning to a research career after such a break. Many women become dependent on their partner's employment, the report notes. In addition, "whatever a woman's academic qualifications, societal and cultural pressures often restrict her ability to work in a way that will further her career", it adds.

"The impact on a woman's working potential is exacerbated by the pressures to be mobile," it says.

"Some women may be consciously choosing not to have children in order to avoid damaging their careers."

The UUK is calling for the obstacles that can limit women's opportunities in research as they move around the EU to be tackled.

Its report cites one female scientist who said: "I had a professor who used to say that when there is a man and a woman (in a department) and they marry, science gains a researcher - the man - but loses another one - the woman."

The report also found:

- there is an expectation that successful scientific researchers will have a fully mobile career, having been employed in several institutions in a number of different countries;

- most incentives to encourage mobility focus on early career researchers, so there is a need for more senior researchers to be mobile;

- transferability of pensions remains a significant barrier to mobility of researchers.

Rick Trainor, president of the UUK and principal of King's College London, said: "Mobility provides individuals with valuable self-development, enhances the future development of the workforce and bolsters Europe's standing in the international arena. However, the significant barriers to mobility need to be addressed."

He added: "Universities UK, along with relevant pension providers and government departments, will be working with the European Commission to resolve such issues."

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