This article was initially published for Research research.
‘No funder should expect researchers to choose between family and work.’
I have had two children while working in science. The first time, I was employed in the pharmaceutical industry. I took 52 weeks of maternity leave with full, statutory and holiday pay. It was a delightful experience.
The second time was much more stressful. I had moved from industry into a biology PhD at University College London (UCL), funded by the British Skin Foundation. I got pregnant three months into my studies. I was in my thirties, and my first child was 20 months old.
I was just starting to build a research career in a highly competitive environment, and I was uncertain of my position. I decided to keep news of my impending baby within my family. But after about two months, my anxiety got so bad that I decided I had to talk to someone. I arranged to speak confidentially with a senior female researcher.
Perhaps I had been naive up to that point, but that talk opened my eyes to some of the issues facing women researchers in academia. During our conversation, she described how she had delayed having children into her forties in order to not interrupt her research career. I have since met several other women who did the same.
The second bombshell was that my status as a PhD Student entitled me to 6 months of maternity leave, but without pay. Had I been a full-time employee I would have been entitled to up to 39 weeks’ paid maternity leave; the first 6 weeks at 90 per cent of average weekly earnings, and the rest at £141 a week. Employees also get support towards childcare.
Undergraduate mothers are usually eligible for maternity allowance subject to making a case for financial hardship with support from their institution. Full-time undergraduates eligible for student finance also get an allowance for childcare.
What postgraduates get depends a lot on their funding body. Some funders make provisions for paid maternity leave, treating research students similarly to employees. These include the research councils, the National Institute for Health Research, the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.
However, of the 92 members of the Association of Medical Research Charities that provide funding for postgraduate studentships, only five, including the Wellcome and CRUK, offer maternity pay to PhD stu- dents. Diabetes UK, for example, says on its website: “The institute where the grant is administered is the employer and as such is responsible for maternity and paternity leave and pay.”
A postgraduate qualification is a prerequisite for an academic career. PhD students are an indispensable source of scientific labour for universities and are often expected to work long and unsociable hours. But they are not full employees, and as such they are not automatically entitled to maternity pay or help with childcare. I was one of those who fell through the cracks between funders and institutions.
Whose responsibility is it to support researchers who have kids during their PhD? Treating postgraduate students as employees could be costly, especially with employers’ obligation to make pensions contributions. Many funding bodies operate as charities; some have more resources than others.
Even so, no funder should expect researchers to choose between family and work. Lack of maternity pro- vision risks restricting research careers to those with independent resources, those willing to delay or forego having children, or those who go straight from under- graduate to postgraduate degrees. It’s another thing that limits diversity in the research workforce.
I was about 8 months pregnant when I eventually broke the news to my supervisor. He was supportive, encouraging me to take the full 6 months maternity leave, and remained so when I returned to work.
Even so, the first few months after returning to the lab were draining. My PhD stipend was not enough to cover full-time childcare, and I grappled with figuring out the most affordable options. Recently introduced government regulations meant we were not eligible for child tax credits. I applied to UCL for support but was turned down.
Research published in 2013 by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, analysed the reasons for the dearth of women in the upper ranks of academia. The team concluded that a research career and motherhood are often incompatible, and highlighted that academia was less accommodating to mothers than other professions. Based on my two contrasting experiences of pregnancy and maternity leave, I agree.