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.


Short response to work-life balance survey 2018 (children)

In case you missed it, on 8th February Times Higher Education released results from their global survey on work life balance amongst staff at universities.  Their survey included information (amongst other things) on working hours, mental health, holidays… and children.  You can see the article here.

The section on children makes for interesting (and frustrating) reading.  There are some great graphs, quotes and figures to illustrate how female and male, academic and non-academic staff perceive the impact of parenthood on their careers.  And the impact of their careers on parenthood!

Unsurprisingly, the message seems to be that female academic staff are less likely to have children, and those that do have children, are more likely to feel that it has impacted their career development.  Also unsurprisingly, these two statements are linked – women report that the anticipated impact to their career influences their decision to not have children.  The write-up of the survey starkly illustrates the dominant ‘academic motherhood’ discourse: that an academic career and motherhood are incompatible, because of the long hours, the insecure jobs (before tenure), the emphasis on women taking on the majority of the childcare responsibilities.  In fact, all the reasons that we started this website.

So in addition to finding it an interesting read, and appreciating that there are some statistics to back up some of our concerns, I am also choosing to find this survey motivating – we can change the situation.

We can change the situation by demonstrating that an academic career and motherhood are compatible.  We can change this by sharing good practice on how we can empower women to be academic mothers.  And we can change this by highlighting instances where we are being disempowered or prevented from combining our careers and our children.

The (in)visibility of academic mothers: why this website is important to me

Once Lucie and I had first floated the idea of an online peer support site for academic mothers, I couldn’t let it go.  It very quickly sucked up any time I had available as I emailed colleagues to get support, tried to figure out a website, and looked for funding for a support person.  In my first blog post on this site, I will explain why.

Academic mothers tend to be invisible.  Throughout my entire academic trajectory, I had not directly seen a faculty member take maternity leave.  That’s an undergrad, a masters, a PhD, and 2 post doc positions without seeing a faculty member take maternity leave[i]. On my current faculty, I am aware of only one other academic mother. I checked with the dean’s office – they also did not know of any more.  Maybe they are there, but they aren’t visible as mothers. Conversely, of the 10 male members of faculty that I work closely with on projects of teaching, 9 of them have children.  Obviously, everyone has a right to a private life, so maybe women are choosing not to discuss their children.  But the end effect is that mothers in my faculty are not visible.

By being invisible, I think we give promising female academics the impression that motherhood and academia are not compatible.  I have seen many early career academics (usually female, and including myself) question whether or not combining an academic career and motherhood is possible. Indeed, since returning from maternity leave, PhD students and post docs have been more open with me in outright saying that they do not think they can pursue their chosen career and have children.  I have seen women leave academia for what they see as more stable, less mobile, more family-friendly environments. And we are all aware of the massive drop off in women between PhD and faculty positions.  Yet it is possible to be a mother and be an academic – reaching out to women for putting together this website has shown me that.  We exist, and we are making it a reality for us.  By demonstrating that is it possible, perhaps we can encourage more women to tread this path.

By being invisible, we also make it difficult to build connections and mutual support systems between us. When I was planning my first maternity leave, I had no idea how best to handle the supervision of my PhD students while I was gone, or how to cope with a project I had designed progressing in my absence, and how to pick it back up again when I returned.  Having role models, or people who had done it before, would have provided me with practical examples of what works and what doesn’t; indeed looking for such a role model/mentor put me back in touch with Lucie, and started the chain reaction of this website.  Here at my university, we now have a small network of mothers and we do fun things together.  I find this invaluable for discussing all the usual motherhood discussions (sleep, teething, feeding, separated abdominal muscles etc.), and also those things that are very work specific (how do we feel about remote fieldwork now? how does maternity leave affect a fixed term contract? etc.).  By connecting academic mothers, we get to learn from each other’s experiences, and not all have to fight the same battles.

Indeed, by increasing our visibility, perhaps we can begin to put in place practical and policy changes to make life easier for the next academic mothers.  If we know what other women are doing, how they are being accommodated, and what structures or processes create a workable system for academic mothers, then we can act more widely on this knowledge. Other women can flag good practice examples, or instigate systems in their own work place.  For example, our little group of mothers has already managed to get a ‘boob room’ (its not officially called this) created in a new building on campus, so that new mothers can feed, change a nappy, or just get some time out. Thus by making academic mothers, and their experiences visible, we can improve the working environment for other academic mothers.

So this website is a small step towards visibility.  I hope we can bring mothers in academia together to share experiences, advice and practical tips.  Maybe we can even provide examples of good practice that others can use to change practice in their own working environments.  Hopefully, together, as a group of visible academic mothers, we can show that an academic career is not only possible, but also can be a wonderful combination of life and work.

[i] For full disclosure – I started my first post doc at the same time as a lecturer returned from maternity leave, and during my second post doc, 2 PhD students had babies.

Equality is not uniformity in parental leave

About a year ago, while I was myself on maternity leave, I came across this article: about this study:  Research intensive universities in the US had instigated a policy whereby men and women who had taken a period of parental leave could stop the clock on their tenure process, thus allowing them to ‘catch up’ from the time they took off.  The ‘gender neutral’ policy was intended to make it easier for women to access the policy, and increase the attractiveness of parental leave to men, thus equalizing (or neutralizing?) the impact of parenthood across the genders.  However, the study found that the policy was actually resulting in higher rates of male tenure, and lower rates of female tenure.  I wasn’t at all surprised by this finding.

My husband and I would be a good case study as to why this policy is not gender neutral.  We are both academics, and we have both taken parental leave in order to be equally involved in parenting.  However, this has impacted our time available to work very differently.

I took 6 months maternity leave with my first baby.  I returned part time and then went full time when he was 1 year old.  So officially, I lost the equivalent of 9 months of work.  However, this figure doesn’t account for the 9 months of pregnancy, or the ongoing early parenthood.  Both of which have impacted me in a way that they have not impacted my husband.  He, also an academic, went to 50% working when our baby was born.  By now he has officially lost 8 months of work.  However, this figure doesn’t account for the time he spent actually working when he should have been off.  For us, this difference is down to gender and the resulting different impact of having a baby on each of us.

As a woman, I was the one who got the physical symptoms of pregnancy.  The sickness so bad that I couldn’t look at a computer screen, that I had to leave meetings to throw up, and some days I just couldn’t get out of bed (it is amazing how few colleagues actually figured it out before I told them!).  The hip pain that meant I couldn’t sit properly at my desk, or sleep at night.  The multiple night time loo trips that meant I didn’t get a proper night’s sleep for 6 months before the baby was even born.  These all affect work – I would have liked to be super woman who barely even notices she is pregnant.  But I wasn’t super woman – I was human and I couldn’t leave my body behind when I went to work. So the impact on my ability to work was substantial. During these 9 months, my husband got to continue as normal.

As a woman, I got to recover from the birth and breastfeed on demand night and day.  My first few months of motherhood consisted only of existing according to the schedule of my baby. I was completely unable to think in a straight line.  While the constant nursing, nappy changes, and short bouts of sleep is mind-numbingly boring at times, there was no way I could have done anything academic during this time.  My husband did as much as he could – he was amazing.  But he can’t breastfeed.  So while I was battling exhaustion, he was actually sleeping OK(ish) and managing to work quite a bit, often with a baby attached to him in a sling.

Since I returned to work, things have equaled out somewhat (if we don’t think about all the time I spent pumping at work!) – we have both shifted our working style and patterns to fit around a 2-academic, 1-baby household.  With the slight difference that by some miracle, my husband manages to work while the baby plays. I don’t because the baby won’t let me.

An extra (for example) year to catch up would be welcomed by both of us, but used very differently.  For my husband, it would replace the 8 months of work that he has taken off, and provide a bit of extra time to make up for the rigidity and fullness of the hours he currently works.  But the fact that he has been able to work during his time off means that actually, some of this would be extra time; time to do more than is standard or expected.  He could inflate expectations of what it is possible to do during this time (much like in the study’s findings).  The same year would not fully cover my actual loss of working time during and after pregnancy, and I would need to use it purely to catch up to where I should have been if I had not had a baby (again, in accordance with the study’s findings).  I would not be doing anything extra!  If at the end of this period, the two of us were considered for tenure, I would not be able to out-compete him.

As a final note, I think there do need to be policies in place that provide men with incentives to take parental leave, and that also compensate for their time off.  But I think we need to recognize that providing equality is not necessarily about a uniform policy for men and for women.  I have been looking into guidelines for the European Research Council starting grants recently, and was heartened to see that they have parental leave policies that are not uniform, but provide an element of fairness.  For example, in applying for a start-up grant, applicants must be within 7 years of their PhD.  Men who have taken parental leave can add the time taken off to this 7 year limit.  Women can add 18 months for each period of maternity leave, regardless of the time taken off.  I would be interested to hear about the actual impact this has on gender equality in academia.  Or maybe I will just apply and test it for myself.