Do mothers have a place in academia?

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Do mothers have a place in academia?

It is no secret that women have a much more challenging time juggling between a career and family than men. This is especially true of academia where women regularly drop out of their careers, causing a huge loss of talent in the field. At the entry level, there is an equal representation, with around half of all undergraduates being women, and most getting better grades than their male counterparts. However, as we move to senior positions, the number of women in academia dwindles steadily, with hardly any women at top-level faculty positions such as president or dean. In the best interest of science, it is essential that deserving scientists hold senior positions, irrespective of their gender or any other secondary consideration. When so many women embark on a career in science, what prevents them from reaching the top and forces them to give up midway?

According to Polly L. Arnold, Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh, apart from “overt and covert sexism” at play, which results in women scientists being paid less, getting promoted less, and receiving fewer grants, one other major factor responsible for creating gender inequality in science is “the unavoidable coincidence of the productive and reproductive years.” One of the biggest challenges that young scientists face is delayed job security: Research scientists usually get a position in their mid to late thirties. At this juncture, they have a lot to do to establish themselves professionally: start the lab, get grants, publish papers, attend conferences, teach students, and so on. Unfortunately, the thirties is the age when most women would either be having young children or would want to start a family. For women, this coincidence comes at a heavy price: most women have to pay what Mary Ann Mason, professor and faculty co-director of the Berkeley School of Law Earl Warren Institute, terms as “baby penalty.” According to a study, 70 per cent women perceive a tenure track position as not being compatible with having children as these positions involve immense pressure, competition, uncertainty, and long work hours.

What makes academia a difficult place for mothers is a rigid system and a male-dominated environment that sometimes equates flexibility with unprofessionalism. There are numerous instances where women scientists with children face negativity for wanting to work from home, leaving early to attend to a sick or nursing child, or bringing a child to a conference or a field trip. Professor dame Carol Black, Principal of Newnham College sums up this problem beautifully: “Workplaces are still male-orientated at the top and that can mean 8am meetings because the men aren't the ones that need to drop the children off at school. These kinds of things discriminate against women.” In the absence of paid maternity leave, extremely short paternity leaves, and lack of childcare assistance, many young mothers in academia have no option but to slow down by taking up part-time positions or opt out of a career in science altogether.

What is worse is that mothers are never actually able to recover from the setback that childbirth brings to their career. It is hard for women scientists to get their career back on track after the initial break or slowdown due to childbirth. This is because even during the childrearing years, it is mostly the mother who takes on more responsibilities at home, thus making it difficult to handle the added job responsibilities that come with a promotion. Even at retirement, salaries of women in academia are, on an average, 29 per cent lower than their male counterparts. As Mary Ann Mason puts it, “This is partly the result of parenting responsibilities: For women, each child reduces her pay. This is mostly as a cumulative effect from time and money lost earlier.

True, a larger societal change is required where men take on more of the family responsibilities, but there are quite a few things that can be done at the organization-level to promote equal opportunities for women in academia such as paid family leaves for both men and women, a flexible career path, a well-defined comeback policy for women taking a break, child care assistance, equal pay for men and women, and a more supportive and positive environment. Several universities and organizations have started implementing these structural changes with positive results.

Equality Challenge Unit, a charity seeking to improve diversity in higher education has started the Athena Swan program to promote women’s representation in science. Many universities are participating in this scheme, bringing about improvements in the way pregnancy, maternity leave, and women’s return to work are managed. Queen’s University Belfast, Cambridge University, Imperial College London, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Warwick are some of the silver-level Athena Swan institutions. The result: These universities house a happier and more diverse workforce, more women scientists at top tier positions, and a bunch of proud and happy parents. This is a great beginning! We hope to see these policies being embraced by more academic institutions across the world in the near future. 

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Published on: Mar 11, 2015

Senior Editor, Editage Insights. Researcher coach since 2015
See more from Kakoli Majumder


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