The SpotOn conference focused my thoughts on parenthood and trying to juggle a career, which has to be one of the main reasons for the lack of women in science as you scale the career ladder. It’s the same in any field, I've had many a discussion with non-scientist friends on the difficulties of balancing career & parenthood (not always women!). I actually think that I am very lucky to have a flexible career where I can work part time flexible working hours & flexible location – one of the benefits of an academic career. By contrast, a close friend also has two little girls, her employers won’t let her work less than a 4 day week, and she has to commute into London by train. She is only allowed to take a limited small number of days off to look after her girls when they are ill, which is difficult in the early days when they are beset by bug after bug. So I feel lucky.
The downside is that an academic job is not limited 9-5, there is a limitless amount of work to do to keep up in academia, so it’s the norm, and it’s expected to put in a lot of extra hours. As a working parent this makes keeping up with your colleagues really difficult, especially in the early days of parenthood with bugs galore, sleepless nights, and just plain exhaustion. And when you don’t have ‘tenure’ in American speak, you are trying to compete against fellow scientists who don’t have those constraints & can put in a lot more hours. Personally, I really feel this. I could work full time, but I want to see my girls grow up and be involved in their lives especially in these pre-school years, so I choose to work part time. So my choice, my hit? This choice does make me feel like I am drowning in my academic career, struggling to balance data analysis & paper writing with writing grants to provide me with my next post-doc. Plus all the other commitments – all the European project meetings, associated reports, etc. (why are European projects so bureaucratic?), other reports, paper reviews, helping students, etc. etc. (blogs?!). At times I have reached near rock bottom and wondered if this career I’d worked so hard to get was worth fighting so hard for. I continuously consider giving up on my fight for my academic career. I suspect I am not alone. This must be one the most significant contributing factors into the lack of women in science at higher levels. In the end for me, my love of science is winning out so far, and everyone says it does get easier as the kids get older.
However, things are getting easier for women in academia. I have been very lucky in my choice of ‘bosses’. In my first post-doc, I worked with a female academic with kids. She was incredibly supportive when 6 months into my post-doc I moved to the other end of the country when my husband got a lectureship (she let me work remotely). And she was also very supportive when a year later I went off on maternity leave! Women like her, who are successful academics having juggled a family, are an inspiration to women like me – she makes me feel like it’s possible. We need women high up in academia (and science) to inspire us and make us think that it is possible to be a successful woman & parent.
My current boss is not female, but is a parent, and an advocate of the Athena Swan charter. The University of Exeter is a member of the Athena Swan charter which is in place to advance the representation of women in science, engineering and technology. To encourage this, my new boss (& hence the university) are keen to support part-time flexible working – I work 3 days a week, and since I live a 2 hour commute from the campus work flexibly between home and the campus. This makes a huge difference – of course it’s still a struggle to get all the work done I need to to progress my career, but a flexible working environment and a supportive boss and university makes it actually possible to consider staying in academia.
Of course what is really needed for women in any career is a change in law and culture – the ability for both men and women to share maternity and paternity leave, the ability for both parents to work flexible part time hours, so that it is possible to share the ‘burden’ of childcare.
(and as a side, could academics work a bit less hard please? I don’t want to spend every spare hour I’m not with the kids working or feel like I have to sacrifice family time so I can keep my career on track. Moan over - now back to the grind ;) I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't a passion!)
...coming soon:' Equality? Applying for jobs while pregnant'