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.