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.