Combining Academia and Motherhood

There is often a lot of doom and gloom in Academia. People discuss the workload, the work-life balance, and the difficulty in taking maternity leave or having a family. For example, this recent piece in The Guardian highlights one professor’s less-than-positive experience of having children as an academic. The Times Higher Ed writes about the leaky pipeline, often attributed to the difficulty in balancing motherhood and an academic career.

However, I believe that, while there are often difficulties, I think there are also reasons to be positive in Academia. In my opinion, in terms of family life, Academia is no worse than, and in many places better than, most other professional careers. There are advantages and disadvantages in an academic career when it comes to family life, but in many ways they are similar to the challenges faced by many professional women across a spectrum of careers. Many of these are societal, rather than academic, issues. I would hate a young, promising academic to be put off just because they only perceive the negative aspects.

Heavy workloads – common across many professions

The workload. Yes it is intense. And there always seems to be more to do. Part of the problem is that nothing is ever finished; at 5 or 6 pm I can’t put things down and say, ‘done now’. Papers and research are long-term ongoing projects. Teaching requires constant introspection and improvement to deliver the best for the students. There is a constant pressure to write (and win) grants, and the admin is non-stop. However I think work-load challenges are common across the careers of many professional women, whether you are in academia or not. Business professionals will often have requirements to work long days or weekends, and to travel for work.

Flexible working – a great positive

My daughter and I on holiday

Much of the workload of an academic is self-driven and self-motivated.  It can be organised in our own time and done to our own agenda. We decide what to prioritise and how to achieve it. We set our own hours and our own goals. As long as I turn up to do the teaching and go to all the meetings I am supposed to, I can work from home, a coffee shop, the library, or anywhere else I deem appropriate.  If we feel like going home early on Friday and catching up on Saturday, we can do that. There are few professions as flexible as academia.

We must be driven and self-actualised to achieve our goals and progress up the ladder, and face pressure to go to conferences, write papers, win grants etc. However, we have freedom in deciding how to go about achieving these goals. I frequently travel overnight or abroad for work, and conferences are often up to a week long, necessitating being away from my family and young child. Fieldwork could mean being away from home for several weeks. But I can make up for it by working from home during the long summer holidays (and yes, Lord Adonis, I do work all the three months long!).

Compare this to the challenges faced by other professionals, who must work in an office all day every day, and cannot choose their own work and work to their own timetable. Managing workloads, working long hours and traveling for work are common in many business careers. Hospital doctors working their way up the ladder from foundation to registrar to consultant are often of a child-bearing age. They must do shift work, working a variable shift pattern, often including overnight, and may have to stay late to ensure some patient receives the critical care they need. Childcare is very challenging to find to suit shift work like this. Nobody will die if I leave work early, or give up and go home if I’m having a particularly bad day.

Generous maternity packages

As a mother, my experiences differ from those mentioned by the academic in this article. Students were understanding when I explained I would be on maternity leave. Colleagues did (mostly) not expect me to continue to work and write papers while I was away, although I did keep up with some projects (especially PhD supervision and some key grants; deadlines don’t wait). I did KIT (Keeping in Touch Days), for which I was paid, but enjoyed them and chose what work do to when I was there. I was offered flexible working when I returned, and given the opportunity to request (not guaranteed) a later start, to work from home on a certain day, or any other factor I thought necessary. I was allowed to use my accrued annual leave to phase my return back to work, working part-time for three months on full pay. My maternity pay package was reasonable.

Supportive colleagues and family

I acknowledge that I am in a privileged position. I have a permanent lectureship, and job security. I have family nearby and a wonderful husband who is a very involved father. My department is supportive and encouraging, and emphasises the need to take annual leave, to not respond to students’ emails out of hours, and take time off at weekends. These factors make it easier for me than it is for others to combine parenthood with academic life.

Specific challenges for academics

There are several significant specific challenges academics face that may differ to the careers of other professional women. Firstly, taking a degree, MSc and PhD takes years (8 in my case), so you will be in training longer than for most other professional degrees, even doctors, before you are paid. You may accrue debt and interest during this time.

Secondly, it can take years to secure a permanent position, necessitating moving around the country (or world) on short, fixed-term contracts. These posts range from part-time teaching replacements a few months long, to three-year full-time research contracts (the holy grail of post-doc work). There is an increase in zero-hours contracts in the sector as a whole. This job insecurity makes it challenging to put down roots, buy houses, maintain relationships, and have the secure foundations many people feel are necessary to consider having children. In my opinion, this is the greatest impediment academics face in developing a normal family life. There is work to be done here, and the UK research councils and initiatives such as Athena Swan are slowly starting to tackle them.

Thirdly, academics are paid less than some professions, although I do note that junior doctor payscales are not too dissimilar to PDRA and lecturer payscales. PhD students, early career researchers and teaching fellows may be underpaid relative to their skills and experience. This may make it challenging to pay for childcare.

Female academics are disproportionately likely to marry other academics, and the chances of both securing permanent positions at the same university, or in the same town, are unlikely. Compared with other professions, it may be harder for an academic to move towns or change jobs for personal reasons.

Finally, as previously mentioned, life as an academic involves travel away from home, attending workshops and seminars out of hours, pressure to be increasingly productive, and working weekends (either at home, or through mandated appearances at open days, conferences and so on). Universities can help with this by implementing best practice (as suggested by Athena Swan), for example, by making seminars lunch time affairs and having mandatory meetings between the hours of 10-4 only.

Some way to go, but reasons to be positive

However, with the right support, a supportive family and partner, it is possible to combine academia and family life. Permanent lectureships offer better job security and flexibility than many professions. Universities and departments, encouraged by Athena Swan, are making inroads into improving the experiences of women going on, and returning from, maternity leave. Parental leave schemes offer a new opportunity to share the joy of a child’s first year, and make it possible to return to work when is best for you. It is far harder for colleagues who do not have permanent positions. But in general, I would hate for young, promising academics to be put off a promising career because they feel that parenthood and academia are incompatible. There are many reasons to be positive.

We need to have more conversations about how motherhood affects us in academia, and what we can do to improve it so that more people believe that parenthood and academia are not mutually exclusive. What are your experiences? Please share in the comments bar below.

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