Juggling pregnancy and research work: Challenges female researchers face


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Juggling pregnancy and research work: Challenges female researchers face

Pregnancy is perhaps one of the most gratifying and yet challenging phases of women’s lives. Apart from having to adjust to the physical changes this phase brings with it, they also have to amend their lifestyle as the pregnancy progresses. To ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy, women have to ensure their wellbeing. While it can differ for every woman, it usually can mean foregoing certain physical tasks, avoiding long working hours, and more. Naturally, therefore, one of the main concerns of female researchers who wish to begin their family is the uncertainty around continuing with their work. Let us take a closer look at the challenges and considerations female researchers deal with when they are pregnant or are planning to have a child. 

Impact on career

Usually, the timeframe around which female researchers consider planning their family coincides with the phase when they are busy building their career. Planning pregnancy can, therefore, be a tough decision for many women.

Some try to time their pregnancy so that it has minimum impact on their work. “I waited until I was in the writing phase of my dissertation for my first baby, and then I wanted to be in another stage of research for my second kid,” shares Kate Clancy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This scenario might not work for everyone though. Biochemistry and molecular biology researcher Vicky Howe who decided to get married and have two kids while completing her PhD says: “I had initially planned to wait until the end of my PhD before trying for a baby. However, by the middle of my second year, I had begun to have second thoughts.”

Another cause for hesitation to begin the family is the prospect of taking a maternity break and the impact this can have on career. "Taking time off to have children reduces your visibility in the international community," says Eric Wolff, a principal investigator at British Antarctic Survey. She adds that institutions should support women and ensure that they feel part of the research community.

Perception about pregnant women

"There is widespread prejudice against pregnant women […],” says Paul Illing, toxicologist and an adviser to the U.K. government on the safety of chemicals at work. Women may hesitate to announce their pregnancy to their supervisor or team because they may want to avoid the perception that they would no longer be as committed to their work.

Another reason that Elizabeth Pain highlights in an article published in Science is that: “Women often delay announcing their pregnancy to their supervisor out of fear that they would miss out on the opportunity to go to an important conference, gain some research training abroad, or get more funding or a new position.”  

However, Shubha Tole, a senior professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, feels “Pregnancy does not have to derail a woman’s career in science.” She believes supervisors should understand and support the women in their team. Setting an example, Shubha helped three of her postdoctoral fellows navigate their pregnancies while continuing their projects.   

Lack of institutional support

Working in a lab can be dangerous for pregnant women due to the risk of getting exposed to pathogens or chemicals that can be harmful for them or the fetus. Institutional regulations can ensure the safety of women during this period. “There were some chemicals that we were using in the labs that I had to be a lot more cautious around,” explains Jillian Nissen who was pregnant with her first child when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University in New York, United States. Unfortunately, most labs have little research available on the effect of chemicals and pathogens they study on pregnant women, so women are often left to look after themselves.

Several countries have policies and laws to ensure the safety of pregnant women at workplace. In Europe, for instance, the 1992 European Directive requires supervisors to conduct risk assessment when a female employee notifies her pregnancy. However, few academic institutions in the U.S. have appropriate guidelines for women to work in labs safely. In such cases, the supervisor can take the initiative in ensuring the safety of pregnant team members.

Pregnant women may face issues that can have an impact on their daily life, such as antenatal anxiety, morning sickness, and disturbed sleep patterns. Caring supervisors and team members can go a long way in helping women continue their work during their pregnancy. Women form an important workforce in science and research, and their safety and the continuity of their career should be a priority for funders as well as institutions. “You need policies that actually invite women to be part of science, not just ensure compliance and counting heads,” opines Kate.

Juggling pregnancy with work

It’s admirable how women show grit and determination to continue with their work during their pregnancy. Adejoke Bayowa, PhD candidate at the University of South Africa, shared her experience of working through her PhD while she was pregnant. Talking of her state of mind at the time she said: “Slowly but surely, I am determined to push on with this PhD. Quitting is not a part of our agenda— we look forward to a beautiful beginning, my baby and I.”

To all the mothers-to-be, we wish you all the best! 

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Published on: Mar 19, 2020

Sneha’s interest in the communication of research led her to her current role of developing and designing content for researchers and authors.
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