Precarity and fertility in academia: why it is different being a woman

I am officially done with worrying about fertility, my two boys are quite enough of a handful . I’m also done with precarity (hopefully!) in academia, I was lucky and managed to secure a permanent position before I started having kids. A number of recent conversations have reminded me about the enormous stresses placed on us as women in the workplace, particularly as we often reach our fertile years right at the point when we are in precarious short term contracts. This is an enormous problem for us as female academics: how do you do motherhood while coping with a precarious working situation?

I wanted to have children from about age 28 onwards, but ‘the time wasn’t right’. I was doing a PhD, and it felt like too much of a risk: my money would run out, I did not want to be the main carer, and felt like the best way of ensuring that would not be the case was to get myself a steady contract. The job application process became emotionally charged: not getting a permanent/long term job would mean not having kids, or maybe having kids but having to choose that over an academic career. What if I got a big grant and had to take time out in the middle of this? I felt I could not talk about this at work: revealing I had intentions to procreate would be the best way of scuppering my chances!

I also remember the fear of announcing my first pregnancy to my boss and colleagues. It was really scary, not knowing what their reaction would be, not knowing whether I would be sidelined or seen differently as a result. I was so lucky, in retrospect, to be in a department that is very supportive of permanent staff members on maternity leave (by now I was in this hallowed position), and good at reintegrating people back into the team. The attitude on my return to work when I asked if I could go part time was very much ‘what do you want to do?’, with a genuinely open slate. I don’t think this was always the case, but the department has learned lessons from the experiences of colleagues who had kids earlier than me. Management is also increasingly made up of people who have kids themselves, and who understand the challenges that women face.

I have no complaints about how I was treated, but I am increasingly aware of the challenges of my peers, particularly those on temporary contracts. How much higher the stakes of being out of the workplace for a long period of time, and to be the one actually growing the child, and experiencing the associated tiredness and emotional roller coaster that this entails. There are risks of being a man in a temporary position at this  age too of course, but when your body is not really your own for about a year of your life, the worry of how you will maintain an income, and maintain contact with the academic world is intense. It isn’t really a surprise that we lose women at this stage, even those on permanent contracts can find this a challenge.

This, for me, should be the real business of initiatives like Athena Swan, which try to ensure women progress in the workplace. How do we find ways of allowing women to be both academics and mothers in the context of precarious contracts? How can we reduce precarity in academia in order to address these issues? I think we need at a minimum to recognise that precarity is particularly challenging for women of child-bearing age, and results in inequalities for women who want to have children. These are structural challenges, but ones that are peculiarly academic: in other fields you are less likely to be still ‘proving your worth’ after many years of education and post doc experience.

In the meantime what can we do in the current system to improve people’s experiences? Hire women of child-bearing age, without prejudice. Celebrate pregnancies no matter who is pregnant, what their contract is and what the implications are for the institution. Think creatively and flexibly about mothers’ reintegration into academic teams after their maternity leave, use part time and flexible working possibilities as a way of helping them to come back. If you are an academic mum or dad yourself, talk openly about yours and others’ experiences, and offer support in mentoring and a listening ear. Include mothers on maternity leave in grant applications. It isn’t that complicated, but the more of us that make these kinds of efforts, the more likely we are to have a gender balanced profession in the future.

Please see comments below the line for further contributions from others, some anonymous.


Can I ask you a favour? – What it feels like to be a part-timer

By Kirsty Pringle

Kirsty Pringle is a research support scientist at the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science at the University of Leeds. In her work she develops computer models for use in studies of climate change and air quality. She is also the mother of two children (aged 6 and 3). Since the birth of her first child she has worked part-time. Kirsty is interested in the role that positive role models can play in helping to establish a culture of flexibility and work / life balance in academia.

Of all the academics I know, I am the most part-time of the part-timers. By working just two and a half days a week, my weekdays are split evenly between home and work. It’s not for everyone, and I am a little jealous of those manage to share the childcare more evenly with their partners, but for my family it works well.  I’m home a decent amount, and my partner works full time. I enjoy the days of play dough and finger painting more than he does, and I’d feel I was missing out if I was at work more. And I’ve learnt so much from working part-time; I’ve become more efficient, better at managing my time, and just a little bit ruthless about which meetings I attend. And every day that I’m home with the kids, I am grateful that I also have employment that is not “just a job”, but a career that challenges, interests and inspires me.

But part-time roles are almost never advertised; most often they are negotiated after a period of full time employment. I was lucky enough to be in a role I enjoyed before taking my maternity leave, so I was able to negotiate part-time hours that suited me, and I was well supported by my institution.  But I feel for those that are looking to be appointed into part-time roles, especially those that want to work only a few days a week – it is one thing to ask if a full-time role can be reduced to 4 days a week, but 3, or even 2 days?  It would require a great deal of negotiating skills, an open-minded employer and frankly quite a lot of luck.

This means that we part-timers have significantly reduced mobility – moving between institutes is a normal part of academia, and can be a really positive career move. But at the moment, the chances of being appointed into a role that would allow similar working hours is so low that it seems impossible to me.

I’d love to see more flexibility in job adverts, and for consideration of part-time working being accepted as a normal phase of the recruitment process. It isn’t even clear to me when one should ask if the role could be part time – does one ask during the interview?  Only after an offer? To me, the lack of an established pathway makes the task more daunting and emphasises the feeling that by asking to work part-time one is asking for a favour.

Part-time may not work for every role, or for every project, but many research projects do lend themselves well to part-time working, and the growing number of part-time workers in academia is proof of that. But until this is considered routinely as part of the recruitment process, it is a benefit that is more readily available to those of us lucky enough to be already employed in roles we enjoy, and less available to early career researchers, and for the many researchers on short term contracts.

Parenting + and being academic mum

I am an Associate Professor at the university of Leeds, co-director of my institute (Sustainability Research Institute) and mum of two lively boys aged 3 and 6. I describe my experience as parenting + because my youngest has a disability, and this adds an intensity to the whole experience in many ways! Juggling work, home life, and my son’s additional needs has been a massive challenge, especially in the last year as his disability has become more apparent.

My son has what we call ‘wobbly legs’: frankly that is probably the most accurate I can be as doctors are for the moment mystified. As a parent it feels like some of the difficulties of age 1-1.5 related to mobility have extended, and we rely heavily on a special needs pushchair to help him get around. He now has a 3.5 year old body, which (in walking terms) works a bit more like someone who has recently learned to walk. This takes its toll physically on us as we lift him in and out, up and off etc.

There are two other real challenges. First is the endless medical appointments: physio, orthotist, blood tests, neurologist, child development specialist, occupational therapist and more. He will soon start the best therapy to date – trampolining on the NHS (!) – which is brilliant but will no doubt require another daytime appointment. I am managing to fit most of them into my day off (I work 4 days), and my husband will go part time from September too. Being part time, and the flexibility of my academic contract, are the only way that this can work: my husband is a school teacher and therefore has very inflexible work times.

Second, is the emotional toll that discovering and coming to terms with a disability takes. We still don’t know if our son will have wobbly legs for ever, if it will get better or worse. Meetings with specialists are scary, hearing results of key tests is frankly terrifying. As a parent this takes up a lot of head space, and finding time and energy for the more reflective academic tasks can be a real challenge. In some ways I am glad of the distraction of work, which I do love, and which allows me to think about other things. I am also privileged to be exposed to academic thinking on disability, which makes me both embracing of difference, and angry on behalf of my son and his peers: more determined to help create a less disabling world.

As he grows up I am hoping for a diagnosis (thanks to SWAN I have a lot of support on this), and for more certainty about the future. I’m also determined to carry on doing the job I love. The flexibility of hours, and the feasibility of promotion as a part timer are really important for people like me who have extra caring responsibilities.