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Female scientists in crisis

Why women working in academia cannot focus on their research in times of Covid-19 and what might help them

Alena Sander & Claire Grauer

This is the English version of a blog first published at FES Corona & Care blog, here.

Alena Sander is a Research Associate and PhD candidate at the Centre for Development Studies at University of Louvain (Belgium) as well as mother of a two-year-old son. During the time she is not taking care of her son, she is researching power relations and resistance in the context of international development aid.

Claire Grauer is a Research Associate and PhD candidate at the Faculty of Sustainability of Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany and mother of two children (3 and 6 years old). In her research, she is looking at the interrelation between time wealth, time shaping competency and sustainable consumption in the context of education for sustainable development (ESD). Apart from her research, she is a proficient reader of children’s books, sand-sweeper and apple slicer.

As soon as a female academic gives birth, she is losing ground compared to her male colleagues with regard to the number of publications she will likely be authoring. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis now seems to exacerbate this well-known tendency. According to various editors of international scientific journals the number of submissions by female authors decreased substantially during March and April 2020 compared to the same period of past years ­–­ while submissions by male authors increased by up to 25 per cent.

This is important since careers in academia follow the paradigm publish or perish with the number of publications in academic journals being a decisive factor for a career in science. Even before Covid-19, female scientists who have children published less frequently in academic journals than male scientists with or without children, the main reason being the perpetuation of traditional gender roles combined with an academic working environment rewarding working overtime and self-exploitation.

Today, women all over the world are affected disproportionately by the crisis. Female scientists, those who are also mothers especially, are no exception. Like other mothers, they have experienced a surge in care work, including mainly household chores and child care, resulting in losing precious time previously available for academic research and writing, and thus: publishing. This then may have tremendous (negative) consequences for their future academic careers.

Care work: a double-edged sword

Reporting on women’s care work in the context of Covid-19 over the past months mostly focused on the visible, physical part of this kind of work. This included taking care of young children and supporting home schoolers, carrying out an increased amount of domestic work as well as providing support to people at risk such as elderly family members or neighbours. We found it striking, however, that there were very few mentions of the invisible part of this care work, also called cognitive work, or mental load – which, as we suggest, has also increased massively since the pandemic started in the beginning of the year.

We understand mental load as the anticipation of needs, decision-making and organization of everyday life with regard to one’s family household. Put differently: Mental load describes the management of the household and the family, and is mostly carried out by women. It contributes to women’s mental exhaustion and increased stress. Next to the burden caused by increased visible care work, we assume that the mental load is one of the main reasons preventing female academics during the current crisis to devote as much time to their research as their male colleagues.

To illustrate our case, we spoke with 24 women from seven European countries in late June 2020, asking them about their everyday lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. All of them are currently working at academic institutions, holding various positions, and all have young children aged from infant up to young teen. We wanted to know which kinds of care work they have been carrying out since March 2020 and what kinds of challenges they experience with regard to their academic work and research during the past months.

While we are aware that most European researcher mothers continue to live and work under rather favourable conditions in comparison with other women, e.g. those who may have lost their job due to the current economic crisis, we feel that their situation is under-reported. Therefore, we want to raise awareness about the urgent need for solutions.

Researcher moms and physical care work

With childcare facilities and schools closed, and grandparents either being part of the so-called risk group or living far away, who takes care of the children? It’s the mother, of course.

Highly educated researcher mums are no exception, quite on the contrary: Many of our interviewees reported how their flexible working hours, otherwise considered an asset, now are the reason they were taking over as main family caretakers once many countries shut down most areas of public life beginning in March 2020. This was especially the case for women whose partners had less flexible employers, expecting them to continue working full-time from home, regardless of living with young children who needed to be watched.

Consequently, many researcher mothers were only able to work in the early morning hours or in the evening, or carve out one, two hours here and there in the course of the day. A scientist from Great Britain explained how once she finally got to sit down at night after twelve hours of child care and home schooling, she barely managed to open her laptop, and was often too tired to even take one look at her research. Instead, she mostly only managed to tick off little tasks from her to-do list and write emails. For her “the beginning of the crisis was the end of my research.”

Another reason many mothers had to take over as primary care takers is money: Many of the researcher mums we spoke to are earning less than their (male) partners. This is especially an issue affecting early career researchers whose work is often considered more as a course of study than a “real” paid job. A PhD-candidate from France told us: “My boyfriend earns a lot more than I. If he would earn less, we would experience serious financial trouble. Therefore, it was clear from the start that I would take over the main part of child care when our daughter’s primary school closed in March.”

Shouldering the increased burden of physical care work is especially difficult for single researcher mothers and those, who are among one of the risk groups. A Belgian researcher we spoke to experienced both at the same time: “My ex-husband is working in a so-called system-relevant job. Because I have asthma and am afraid of being infected, he could not see his children for the past weeks, and thus not take care of them. Me and the children are seriously suffering from cabin fever meanwhile – and I can’t find any time for working on my research.”

We would like to add that not all of our interlocutors experienced such a stark imbalance with regard to household and the physical care work. However, even those who managed to equally share their physical care work with their partners reported how they often find it impossible to regularly work concentrated and focused over longer periods. This however is an essential prerequisite for academic research and writing.

Why researcher mothers cannot concentrate: Impacts of invisible, cognitive care work

The interviews we conducted add evidence to our initial thesis whereby the crisis has greatly increased women’s invisible care work. Children, at home all day, needed attention and support with home schooling. Several family meals needed to be prepared daily, while grocery shopping during the pandemic required almost strategic planning. Holidays and other trips needed to be rescheduled, as did doctor’s appointments. Children’s birthday parties needed to be planned in line with pandemic regulations. What’s more, family life with everyone home around the clock may often cause stress and frustration among household members, which needs to be dealt with. And then add all the never-ending worries, for example about family members such as one’s own parents, friends who could not be visited, as well as insecurities regarding one’s own career.

All of this may cause an emotionally draining workload, which is constantly present in women’s minds, but to a large part, remains invisible to the outside. For those affected, it may result in a considerable decrease cognitive resources – which then are missing once the female academic is finally able to sit down at her computer at the end of the day.

During our conversations, we got many insights into how mothers are mostly taking on this kind of never-ending and demanding invisible care work. A female professor from Belgium said: “At the moment, I am thinking about so many things that, once I finally get to sit down at my computer, I need some time to calm down before I start working.”

But even once a mum’s racing mind has calmed, working from home with children present negatively impacts focusing on one’s work. A professor from Wales told us that because she was her children’s first person of trust she would never be able to work over longer periods. Even though her husband was doing his best, her two children “absolutely ZOOM bomb every meeting.” A British researcher added: “I need chunks of time to write and concentrate and I haven’t had that.”

Some researcher mums described themselves as a sort of “news centre” within their households. They are the ones keeping themselves and the whole family up to date with regard to current Covid-19 related news, like a British scientist mother explains: “I am the default carer when it comes to information gathering and strategic planning of what we half-jokingly call our ‘family corona policy’, day to day and week by week.“

Moreover, our interviewees said that they have been worrying a lot more than usual during the past months. They worried about their children, their parents, about their career and even about the state of the world. A British researcher living and working in Sweden put it like this: “What makes the situations stressful [for me as a mother] was the whole transition process, the instability, the constant checking for updates and updated guidelines […], the feeling of powerlessness, trying to balance everyone’s physical and mental health demands.”

The emotional care work does not end within the confines of female academic’s flats. Many reported how their students, too, are currently requiring more support than before. A professor from Germany said: “I am putting in a lot of effort into my teaching. I do not want my students to suffer from the current situation. It’s already hard enough on them.” Furthermore, many women are also feeling responsible for supporting their friends and other social networks. A PhD researcher from Belgium told us about the many long talks she had with the head of her son’s nursery, after said nursery experienced financial difficulties due to the crisis. The amount of time she had to spend with encouraging the other woman “is taking a toll on myself”, and she often could not stop thinking about it during her work time.

After more than three months in a state of emergency, many researcher mothers were feeling guilty, constantly having the impression of neglecting both families and work while “hardly keeping their head above the water”, as a German researcher put it. An Irish researcher confirmed: “Over the past three months I have felt constantly guilty as I have felt unable to give proper attention either to my work or my son’s education and have done justice to neither!”

The university has to change!

The Covid-19 crisis amplifies existing inequalities between male and female researchers, especially those who are also mothers. Not only are researcher mothers taking over a much larger part of the increased workload of chores and childcare, but they are also carrying out the bulk of the invisible care work.

This, in turn, is leaving many women short of mental resources badly needed in order to do research, and to write academic publications. This is causing a constant feeling of stress and frustration among female academics, none the least because many are highly insecure about the immediate to long-term future of their academic careers, on top of constantly feeling guilty towards their children and families.

We therefore want to draw attention to the importance of alleviating the consequences of the crisis for female academics. Since the pandemic already affects them disproportionately, they should not be further disadvantaged and experience negative impacts on their careers, which, as it seems now, is very likely going to happen.

We are therefore calling for a system change away from one that is measuring academic success mainly by counting the number of publications. Even before Covid-19, this system sanctioned women with children disproportionately and made many talented female scientists prematurely leave academic jobs out of frustration.

Based on their many years of work experience within academic institutions, our interlocutors shared many constructive ideas:

  • Adapting the so-called „academic age“ in application processes for those applicants who are carrying out care work (taking care of children or other relatives); also contracts, when temporary, should be extended for those in the role of carers;
  • The silently accepted practice of rewarding academics for working (unpaid) overtime has to end (not only for those doing care work – it is generally negatively affecting health and well-being);
  • Qualitative aspects, too, need to be included into academic evaluations and application processes, such as diversity of teaching, reports of students, and engagement in academic positions and administration – areas in which women often are excelling;
  • There should be quotas within those departments and positions of academic intuitions where women are underrepresented. Overall, sabbaticals and other forms of downtimes need no longer lead to sanctions or disadvantages;
  • Child care in general, as well as emergency childcare during crises such as Covid-19 need to be expanded and accessible for everyone at academic institutions (and beyond) who need it.

In addition, many female academics urged their employers as well as funding institutions to work on these solutions in the short- and middle term. Overall, institutions need to take on responsibility for ensuring that care work does not negatively affect (mostly women’s) academic careers.

Almost all of our research participants agreed that this is not only the responsibility of universities or other academic institutions. Policy makers, too, need to ensure that the importance of care work in general is becoming more visible and appreciated as being relevant for society – for example via more flexible, longer and better paid parental leave models which specifically motivate fathers to take over equal time to care for children. This would be one important step towards achieving a more equal distribution of care work between partners in the long term. Our interviews illustrate that this might indeed be an important measure: Those female academics who managed to more or less evenly distribute care work between themselves and their (male) partners during the Covid-19 crisis, while also finding more or less sufficient time for their academic work, all had partners who were either working part time (as in the case of one British and one German scientist) or on parental leave (two researchers from Sweden).

The unintended consequence of the pandemic: when students expect you to take on a pseudo-parenting role

By Mercedes Valadez (Ph.D.). Mercedes is a tenure track faculty member in the Division of Criminal Justice at California State University, Sacramento. Her research focuses on race, ethnicity, inequality and the criminal justice system. She is the mother of a toddler (born 2019). Mercedes is a member of the California Faculty Association Parental Rights Committee which focuses on highlighting issues and inequalities that pregnant faculty and mothers face. The Committee focuses on making policy recommendations to address necessary changes to support mothers in academia.

Balancing teaching, research, committees, community work and parenthood was a challenge before the pandemic. Post-pandemic it has been excruciating at times. Yes, working and parenting during a pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster. But, beyond worrying about our own health and that of our family, at times, we were expected to serve as a source of emotional support for our students. This isn’t something that we are necessarily trained to do. But, being away from family will sometimes encourage students to be overly dependent on their instructors.

On our last face to face meeting, I took a poll and asked students whether they would prefer to take a synchronous or asynchronous online version of our course. Every single student chose asynchronous. After a couple weeks into the transition, I organized a zoom meeting with students. The purpose of the meeting was to address any questions or concerns related to the switch to an online platform. The topics that students wanted to discuss were not related to the assignments or remaining exam. Students didn’t want to discuss assignments or grades, they just wanted to talk to someone. They shared how lonely, depressed, and worried they were. They talked about not having anything to look forward during this time.

Before ending our zoom meeting, I discussed the support and resources they had available to them through the university despite the closure. But, I also asked everyone to share one tip that has been helping them through the pandemic. Some students shared that playing with their pets helped, others said baking.  But, the one tip that stood out was a student who shared that she wrote something on her calendar that she planned to do the next day so that she would have something to look forward to the following day. When they asked me what helped me get through the pandemic, I asked them to wait a minute. I walked over to the living room where my husband was trying to entertain our 13 month old and brought her over to say hello to my class. I told them that even though it has been really difficult working from home, I’ve enjoyed spending so much quality time with my daughter.

Many of us are not trained in mental health or counseling, yet we were expected to serve in an emotional supportive role to our students. Balancing the needs and worries of another 176 individuals is not something that I was trained to do. Nor is it humanly possible to address all of those individual needs and worries as they related to the pandemic. While not all students depend on their faculty for emotional support, some did during the Spring 2020 semester. This past semester I heard more from students about their food insecurities, depression, family troubles, financial worries, and a host other issues compared to all other years combined. I had to quickly become well versed in all of the resources available to students both on and off campus

Like most faculty, I care about students and want them to succeed both in and out of my classroom. Several colleagues and I discussed that we found ourselves in a pseudo parenting role. By that, I mean that it felt like we had to do a lot of virtual hand holding. I would send out weekly announcements and reminders about due date for assignments. I would also send out a “checking in” message to let them know that I wanted check in with them and see how they were doing with the course. At the end of the semester, I received a few messages from students expressing their gratitude that someone checked in on them. For example,

Thank you for an awesome class.  I so much appreciated all the study tools you provided throughout the semester and your availability and reaching out to make sure I was doing ok” (Student A).

“I really enjoyed taking your class this semester and I really appreciated all the accommodations you made when everything transitioned online.  I wasn’t expecting any changes to be made to this class since it was already online and it was more accommodating than most of my in person classes that actually had to shift to online teaching. The changes you made helped me a lot through the semester. I just wanted to say thank you and I hope you have a great summer” (Student B).

Thank you professor for an amazing semester. I enjoyed your class and learned a lot. I wanted to thank you for being so supportive, flexible, and kind through this crazy semester. Have a wonderful summer and I hope to have another class with you again soon.” (Student C).

No one warns you that students may look to you as a source of comfort or help when you are going through your Ph.D. It isn’t something that is openly discussed. The pandemic created a new challenge for faculty. That is, the additional expectation by students that faculty would take on a pseudo-parenting role. I use a mentor or manager style. But, I understand that this past semester was unique and students needed much more guidance and support. It is worth highlighting that as faculty we need more training and support to deal with student related crises.

However, we need to remember that our time and energy is not limitless. Our parenting responsibilities are with our children. We should be careful not to exhaust ourselves by taking on pseudo-parental roles and responsibilities that are not ours to take on.

The emotional aspects of parenting in a pandemic (whilst working from home)

By Gesche Huebner

Gesche Huebner (PhD) works part-time as a Postdoc at the Energy Institute and as a Lecturer at the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering, both University College London. Her research focuses on energy consumption in buildings and on the relationship between buildings and health. Gesche has two young daughters (born in 2015 and 2018). She is interested generally in how we can increase diversity in academia and create more inclusive environments. She is also keen on promoting (and conducting) more rigorous, transparent, and reproducible science.

What does it feel like to parent and to work in a pandemic as opposed to how do you arrange it*? I am at the easy spectrum of juggling childcare and working from home: I have a partner who shares childcare (of a two- and a four-year old) and chores; we are still paid as normal; none of us has been sick; we live in a house with a small garden, my work place (University College London) is supportive. Yet, even at this ‘easy’ end, it can be difficult and emotionally complex. Some of the emotions are related just to parenting, other to working from home whilst bringing up children.

Guilt. It is mainly feeling guilty for snapping at the children more often; for using the “Because I said so”-way of ending conversations more often, for letting the older one watch much more TV, for trying to get bedtimes done more quickly on some days, for generally being more impatient and more irritable. I know I should not – it is not the children’s fault but it is me feeling stressed because there is always the thought of work in the background and obviously the general concern about the virus.

Sadness. It is heartbreaking to see how the older one has internalized staying away from other people; how she makes space when encountering others, how she is concerned if other people pass her closely. And it’s sad how often I have to say ‘no’ to otherwise perfectly reasonable suggestions – “Can we go to the park again?” “Can I come to the post office with you?” The children don’t even ask about playgrounds and friends anymore. But it is also sad to see how happy the older one is when she spots a friend and then I have to keep them apart whilst all they want to do is play together and hug each other.

Worry. I am concerned about any negative effects to longer-term emotional and social development of the children if all this continues much longer. They are basically told all the time to stay away from people instead of being open to others, makings friends, playing together. I don’t let them out of my sight in parks and constantly call them back if they venture too far instead of letting them be free and independent. There is also this big worry about falling behind in work; the worry that I won’t be able to compete. It might well be that those academics without caring responsibilities will increase their productivity; the one of those with caring responsibility decrease. And from what floats around on Twitter, it might be even worse for women. Yet, very likely we will be judged by the same standards.

Frustration. The frustration is partly directed at others who I feel don’t really want to understand what it is like to parent and work from home for weeks. There seem to be superficial platitudes – “do what you can” – but I think we need to have a serious conversation about what it really means, what can be expected, how we can recognize the specific circumstances, and how we can at least redistribute the more tangible aspects of work (e.g. around supervision and marking). There are also superfluous comments – “mute your microphones so that we don’t hear your dogs or children”. The frustration is also about the feeling of being behind. I see absolutely amazing work by others that goes beyond the day job. I admire these efforts and wish I could do more – but I am just about scraping by, just about staying on top of things; there is no space to do anything additional; neither in the work context nor in the ‘decorate your house, reinvent your sex life, bake your own bread, learn to knit’-sphere.

Embarrassment. The other day I skyped with a senior colleague – microphone not muted – and the older child shouted “Mama, can you wipe my bottom?”. Or should that be ‘amusement’?

Feeling more defined by your children. I am sure some language has a word for that. I used to try to separate work and family. They are physically separated (London versus Cambridge); I tried not to mention my children too much at work. I was slightly concerned about boring my colleagues or ‘being the one with the kids’ but mainly I just liked this feeling of a separation, it is nice to feel like a ‘me without children’. Now I feel children creep up in everything. “No, I can’t make that meeting slot, I have to look after the children.” “I really have to go now, time to take over the children.” Meetings being interrupted by children shouting or just being curious. Also me bringing children up more often – ask me about my weekend, what can I say that does not involve children? Discussing a survey draft for a Covid survey – I speak about the need to collect certain data on children. But also this constant thinking about meals, about activities, about new outdoor spaces, about arranging online meetings with other children. There is never the ‘just me’ time.

Joy. This is a big one. I absolutely love spending so much more time with my children. They are fun, kind, and creative. They make me laugh a lot. It is so nice that the two sisters get much more time together. It is beautiful to hear how much more German and Italian they are now speaking when not being in an English day care setting. No more rushed mornings, dashing to the train, leaving crying children behind. I get so much more sunshine, fresh air, and cuddles. Don’t get me wrong, I would much prefer if this pandemic had not happened. But I am grateful for the gift of more time with my children.

Exhaustion. Is that an emotion? Don’t know. I am off to bed.

 

*How we arrange it: We work in two hour-chunks during the daytime, Monday-Saturday. Evenings as needed (haha). Whoever has the children should not be on the phone or computer though every so often we have overlapping meetings and one of us has to be with the children and attend work meetings. Trying to make it fun for the children and have as much family time together as possible; e.g. we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. Personal exercise either happens early in the morning, does not happen, or happens during one’s working hours – which then means more evening work. Chores either happen whilst having the kids, don’t happen, or happen in the evening.

How can our institutions cope with our leave?

We have blogged before about how employers can best support academic mamas. Recently, it occurred to me that there is another perspective – how can our research groups manage in our absence?

For both periods of maternity leave that I took, I was aware that there was disruption to those that I left behind. A couple of people were taking on more work in my absence. Or, that work I did was not being completed while I was away, and this had an impact on other people. This was particularly true where that work was related to specific funded research projects. For example, in a project with a number of lead scientists, we had all assumed that my input would be absorbed by others. Most of it was, but not evenly across everyone! And some parts of my leadership in that project were never covered (perhaps they were a bit too intangible to recognize), and researchers reported that they really felt the gap.

I’ve been thinking for a while that this was a topic of a blog post for here. But I was struggling to think about what it was really about. Then, recently, I was visiting an institute who had a number of colleagues away on parental leave, and they were finding that hard. They were struggling to cover workloads, and to cope with key people gone. It led me to wonder: How can we mitigate this disruption?

What can we do as mamas about to take leave?

I am cautious about suggesting that we, as mothers taking leave, should have to manage the institute such that they can cope with our absence. Rather, my intention is to highlight that there are ways we can all reduce the impact of someone taking parental leave. Nevertheless, there are a couple of quite low-effort things we might consider doing.

Diversify supervision – if you supervise PhD students, what happens to them while you are on leave? I had an agreement with mine that we would still meet, and most came to my house for a catch up while I was away. But I wasn’t able to give the same amount of regular input, comments to drafts etc. Instead, they had their second supervisor for that. The only problem was that I work very closely with 1 other faculty member on most of my PhD supervision. While I was away, he was very busy. Perhaps I should have had more people I worked with on PhD supervision. Or we could have formalized alternative people during that time period – i.e. what their roles were, and how it would work with hand over.

Let go – accept that whoever is taking on your roles (see also below on getting cover) is going to do them differently, and maybe take them in a different direction. It is so hard for that person to get on and do the job if they are worrying about whether or not this is what you would do. It also means you are likely to get more interruptions of your maternity leave. So empower them to do it their way.

What can our employers and research groups do?

GET COVER. For everything – if you employ us to do a job, hopefully its because that job needs to be done. If you don’t employ someone else to cover it, you are just ensuring that someone else picks up the slack, is not paid for it, and feels overworked. And it happens all the time! Teaching is the easiest to fill, but are there also ways that you can fill contributions to research projects, leadership roles, etc?

One of the best things we did when I went on my second maternity leave was to create enhanced contracts for 2 researchers. Their new roles were to design and run integration opportunities (reading groups, project retreats, etc.). It wasn’t a direct replacement for my role, but certainly helped mitigate some of my absence.

The one exception to this rule might be for fixed term, project funded researchers – i.e. most PhDs and post docs. If you get cover for them, are you preventing them from extending their contract (and therefore finishing their projects) when they return (see also the point below to funders).? If so, it would be more appropriate to have a conversation about how the project might restructure to cope with their absence. Failing to have this conversation means we struggle without their results, or modelling abilities, or whatever, and the whole team feels frustrated. But if we can openly consider how we might change working processes, or when inputs are needed, we can keep the whole team happier.

How can research funders help?

Provide options for extentions and cover – Post docs and PhDs take parental leave too. Often, deadlines can’t be shifted and projects can’t be extended. So researchers get less time to finish their research, or have no job to come back to. Best practice would be extra funding available to employ maternity cover, and easy extensions to ensure the mama can come back to finish their assigned number of working months. As an example, the German Research Council (DFG) provides both these things… it can be done.

 

These are all thoughts are based on my experiences, and in conversation with colleagues. Please feel free to add more in the comments.

Why it is good to be a an academic mom

About the author: Sarah Velten is an environmental scientist and recently finished her PhD in social and political sciences on collaboration for sustainable agriculture. She’s got a 4-year old son and her second child is due in a few weeks.

Being an academic mom certainly comes with many challenges and difficulties and many things can and should be done to improve the situation of moms in academia. Previous posts in this blogs have already addressed quite a few of these issues. However, there are also some benefits in being an academic mom. Thus, for a change, I would like to turn the headlights on these positive aspects. I divide these aspects into two topics: The advantages of working in academia as a mom as compared to other kinds of occupations and professions and the advantages of being a mom for your work in academia.

The positive side of being an academic while being a mom

In academia, work can very often be organized more flexibly than in other areas. Although there certainly are exceptions, I have experienced work as an academic to be less bound to specific times and places than in other sectors. Thus, here it is much more common and much less problematic to (partially) work at home and outside usual office hours, which makes it much easier to align work and child care requirements.

While it is unthinkable to bring your baby to a major business meeting or conference when you are, let’s say, working for a big corporation, things are much more relaxed in case of academic events. I myself have taken my family to events such as conferences or stakeholder workshops and have seen many instances of mothers taking care of their children while attending such events. This even included mothers engaging in breastfeeding and expressing breast milk while participating in discussion rounds (again, try to imagine this happening at a board meeting of a bank, for example). Also this attitude that is more accepting of the requirements of motherhood makes it much easier for women to get back to work and progress in their career while also having children.

As a scientist working in the area of sustainability sciences, my work is intrinsically concerned with ways to enable a better future. However, I think much if not most of the work in academia in general is aimed at contributing to a better future (even if there might be controversy about the ways to get there). What nicer job is there than one where you can tell your children – the next generation – that you work to help secure a better future for them?

The positive side of being a mom while being an academic

Linked to this aspect of work for a better future is also the first positive aspect of being a mom while being an academic: As a mother, you have much more reason and therefore probably also a heightened motivation to do your work and to do it well. You probably cared for the concerns of future generations even before having children. Yet, by having children yourself, this concern transforms from moral imperative into personal interest and from a rather abstract idea into a concrete case.

In a more practical manner, being a mom makes you work more efficiently. This is owed to the situation that, despite the greater flexibility to organize your work in academia, you end up having fewer hours per day to invest in your work. Doing extra hours is not as easy as without children because you just have to be there for them for a hardly negotiable amount of time each day. Although this may sound restricting in the first moment, this situation also has a positive effect: On the one hand, this has led at least me to work in a more disciplined way as there simply hasn’t been time to keep procrastinating. Related to this is also that I’ve become better at setting priorities and at distinguishing worthwhile work and efforts from rather superfluous ones. In other words, I’ve become better in doing the 80% of work that can be done in 20% of the time and in leaving aside the 20% of work that eat up 80% of your time. On the other hand, being forced to lay down work and to engage in activities that have to do nothing with your work provides your brain with the time and distraction it actually needs to digest all the things it has learned about, to put them together in novel ways, and thus to come up with nice ideas. In earlier days, I had a hard time to grant myself this space for creativity and would often force myself to stay at the desk until I would find a solution (and often this didn’t work and the ideas would only come to me when I had finally given up). Nowadays, this space for creativity is necessarily part of my daily routine and hence, it has occurred not infrequently that I had the best ideas for my work-related problems when I was spending and enjoying time with my son.

My last point here is an issue that is true for many working moms in general but thus also for academic moms: Given appropriate circumstances, being a working/academic mom makes you more balanced and makes you appreciate more both your work and your role as a mom. As a friend of mine put it once: “When I’m at work, I enjoy doing adult things and recover from being a mom; when I’m with my kids, I enjoy spending time with them and recover from work. “

This is of course no complete list of positive aspects of being an academic mom but just the things that come up to my mind when I think about reasons to be happy to be an academic mom. Maybe you can think of more reasons?

Written by Sarah Velten