Time off for baby need not stall a research career

Women’s career progression in academia is a thorny subject around the world. A recent UK report shows the majority of academic staff under 25 are women, but for every age group after that the majority are men.

The annual Equality in HE: Statistical report 2014 by the Equality Challenge Unit, or ECU, found that women continued to be under-represented at senior levels in UK universities.

Some 78.3% of professors, 72.1% of senior managers and 79.9% of vice-chancellors or principals were men. It also found a 13.6% median pay gap between male and female academics.

A large part of the problem relates to women’s traditional role as carers, whether primary carers of children or elderly relatives. It is for this reason that many more women than men are working part-time in UK academia, although only 6.9% of academic senior management roles are part-time, according to the ECU report.

Another issue is that taking maternity leave can play havoc with a research career. But what if there were policies that could encourage a gradual return to teaching responsibilities so new parents could focus on getting back up to speed on their research?

Award-winning scheme

A report due out in March will highlight an award-winning scheme run by the London School of Economics, or LSE, which does just that and which could be replicated elsewhere.

The Workingmums.co.uk Best Practice Report, which is being launched on 9 March, will highlight how LSE not only offers ‘Additional Paternity Leave’, or APL, to dads of up to 16 weeks at full pay – way above the statutory norm in the UK of £138.18 (US$215) a week – but allows any academic who has been absent for more than 18 weeks a teaching-free term on full pay to catch up on research.

Most returning parents can opt for a phased return to work using their accrued annual leave. The impact of APL on research output is taken into consideration as part of probationary periods and promotion of academic employees.

Gail Keeley, HR Manager, Policy and Employment Relations at LSE, says: “Those academic employees who have taken advantage of APL have all taken a term’s research leave and I think this shows that when employers think creatively about the steps to improve career prospects, employees appreciate the opportunity to share ‘bringing up baby’ without the risk of ‘suspending’ their careers.”

She adds that supporting the fathers also helps the mothers to progress. “The LSE was founded in 1895 for 'the betterment of society’, recognising that family life in society has changed or is changing and enabling fathers to be more involved in raising their children is in line with the founding principle of the LSE,” she states.

Curt Rice, leader of Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research, says he knows of no similar policy to the LSE’s research leave initiative in Europe, bar Sweden’s Lund University’s policy of extending PhD contracts by twice as long if parents take maternity or paternity leave to allow them to get back on track. Other European university researchers concur.

Positive impact

George Lawson, Associate Professor of International Relations at LSE, shared parental leave with his wife. Not only did his six months at home with his son have an enormous impact on their relationship, but Lawson benefited from having a term’s research leave to re-establish his research trajectory.

It gave the family time to establish a childcare regime that was stable and worked so they could fully focus on their jobs. “It’s a win-win for us and LSE,” says Lawson. “If employers help staff during moments of change it makes them more productive and loyal. When I talk to colleagues at other institutions I realise that what LSE is doing is very pioneering and off the radar.”

Most other dads he knows outside the LSE take a maximum of two weeks’ paternity leave and even then they complain that their work piles up. “If employers are genuinely committed to equality, this kind of scheme is a must,” he says.

The impact on women is possibly even greater. This is Lawson’s second time around as a father. He has a 12-year-old son by a previous relationship, but his then partner gave up her work for a while after having the baby and eventually went back part-time.

Kirsten Ainley, Director of the Centre for International Studies at LSE, also took a research leave term and describes it as “extraordinarily useful”. Far from her research career suffering as a result of her taking time off, she has recently been promoted.

Despite the stereotype of ‘baby brain’, she felt enormously creative after having her baby. “It was a time of turbulence and creativity. If your institution can support you during this period, they can reap the rewards of harnessing that creativity,” she says.

Ainley is publishing more than she ever did, has recently taken on the centre directorship and feels her career has been boosted by just having the space to focus on research at that time.

She adds that if she had had to do teaching and administrative work, she feels her research would have suffered. “It’s easier to do the time-subscribed jobs, but finding the hours to think about your research is much harder,” she says.

She knows women academics at other UK universities who spend a lot of time working late into the night to keep up with colleagues when they go back. It’s not a recipe for a low-stress life.

Ainley, who works full-time but can do some days from home, says: “Most women academics I know want to go back to work after having children, so their employers should do all they can to help them maintain career momentum.”