The REF must face up to reproduction’s true impact on academics

More account must be taken of pregnancy, assisted fertility and miscarriage, say Christina Hellmich and Marina Della Giusta

November 14, 2019
Source: Getty (edited)

The commitment of the UK’s research excellence framework to correct inequalities is commendable. Its apparatus for acknowledging personal circumstances that have impacted on an academic’s ability to research productively during the assessment period is a sincere attempt to allow colleagues to declare such information safely and supportively.

But in the run-up to next March's deadline for submission of special circumstance statements for the 2021 REF, we worry that the mechanism inadvertently disadvantages women by not taking into consideration that certain life events affect them differently from men. We worry that another policy purporting to be gender-equal in principle is not so in practice.

Maternity leave qualifies straightforwardly under the “family leave” category, but so does paternity leave of four months or longer. That is a questionable provision when identical arrangements for male and female new parents at US universities have been described by The New York Times as a “family policy that is friendliest to male professors”. This is because the policy presumes a level of equality that belies the reality of family life, in which mothers not only experience different physical and emotional impacts from giving birth, but also shoulder significantly larger responsibilities for childcare and the overall running of the household.

Nor is it true that women are better suited to such responsibilities. Recent studies have debunked the popular myth that they are better multitaskers than men. Mothers were found to be more time-pressed, more likely to suffer from poor mental health and more likely to drop out of paid work – a situation that becomes more acute with subsequent children.

Hence, to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities, the REF should consider instituting differential output-discounting rates for mothers and fathers, mindful also of the number of children they have.

As for pregnancy, while there is room in the REF machinery for it to be declared, it has to be listed somewhat awkwardly under the “other ill health or injury” category. You would expect there to be a separate category, given that a large body of research has shown pregnancy to cause periods of reduced working hours and productivity, especially during the first and third trimesters, when side-effects such as fatigue, nausea and reduced concentration are most common.

Indeed, pregnancy constitutes a specifically protected category under the UK’s 2010 Equality Act. Yet the scepticism we have recently heard from colleagues about the legitimacy of “playing the pregnancy card” makes us wonder about the extent to which pregnancy is accepted in real life as a justification for limited research productivity. And how will the inevitable stigma of a lesser contribution play out on promotion committees?

The problem is even greater with pregnancies that do not end in live birth. It is standard practice for pregnancy not to be announced to employers before 12 weeks of gestation, after which the risk of miscarriage drops significantly. But that risk depends a lot on age. It rises rapidly from 10 per cent at the age of 27 to 53 per cent at 45. This is of particular concern to female academics, for whom motherhood largely does not start until at least their thirties because of the time it takes to get on the career track.

Starting families at a stage of life when natural fertility levels decline means that multiple miscarriages are not uncommon, and long periods of fertility treatments often ensue. Even then, there are no guarantees of success: the live birth rate for each IVF cycle drops from 23 per cent for 37-year-olds to less than 9 per cent for those over 40.

While fertility problems undoubtedly cause men to suffer emotionally, too, it is women who undergo fertility treatments that the medical profession now acknowledges to be physically and emotionally challenging, experiencing levels of emotional stress similar to cancer and cardiac rehabilitation patients. This is potentially followed by the tiring and nerve-racking early weeks of pregnancy, and then the trauma of miscarriage: a trauma mired in guilt and shame, typically shared only with one’s nearest and dearest.

Requiring all fertility-related issues to be addressed under a generic “other ill health or injury” category disincentivises women to declare these already silenced issues because most women don’t take medical leave to deal with them in the first place; the under-reporting of miscarriage and assisted reproductive technologies – and all the related complications – is endemic.

While no equality provision can compensate for social stigma, a separate REF category for “fertility-related health problems”, with a simple “yes or no” response and the option to specify the length of effects on productivity, would encourage women to break the silence and help expose the problem without exposing themselves.

Considering that women make up 56.5 per cent of the UK student body, the percentage of female academic staff is comparatively low (45.3 per cent), especially at managerial (27.5 per cent) and professorial (10 per cent) level. The remedies currently in place to avoid discrimination in the REF do not seem well positioned to redress this enduring injustice.

Christina Hellmich is a reader in international relations and Middle East studies and Marina Della Giusta is a professor in economics at the University of Reading.

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