This weekend I had lunch with a friend, who despite having a three-month-old infant managed to get her and the baby out of the house only thirty minutes late, which I thought was a triumph, especially as said (adorable, lovely, squishy) baby was very grizzly and Put Out by the terrible business of having to go outside. This friend has very much taken to motherhood, despite its challenges, and is enjoying her maternity leave. This morning I gave a lecture on gender in late medieval/early modern Europe, where I discussed the poetry of the now sadly overlooked writer Anna Bijins, whose most famous poem “Unyoked is Best!” encourages women to avoid (forever, or at least for a while) the burdens of marriage and seek economic independence and used it as a way of framing discourse about women and work. This lunchtime I sat in my college SCR with a coffee and a copy of THE, where I read this article about maternity leave at different UK HE institutions. Although I am well aware of the challenges that face women on returning to work in HE after maternity leave, it had somehow never occurred to me that different higher education institutions would have hugely differing policies in how much maternity leave they afford.
Compared to our colleagues in the USA, Brits do pretty well out of maternity leave (though not as well as in some places in Europe). Statutory maternity leave in the UK is 52 weeks. Statutory maternity pay is 90% of your salary for the first 6 weeks and £138.18 per week for 33 weeks. There is no legal requirement to pay anything for the remaining 13 weeks. You must have been working for your employer for 26 weeks by the time you are 15 weeks away from when you want to take maternity leave. In practice, many UK employers offer far more assistance than this, but I had naively assumed that most UK HE institutions would offer roughly similar packages, since after all there is a nationally agreed single pay spine for employees in HE, in which most institutions participate. However, the THE article by Jack Grove revealed that my own institution is amongst a small group that offers 100% salary for 26 weeks, followed by 13 weeks’ statutory pay. 34 HE institutions offer statutory pay only. Based on a junior lecturer salary of £31,645 p.a., the difference is striking – a lecturer in the first group would earn £17,619 during her maternity leave; a lecturer in the second group would earn £7846. That is nearly ten thousand pounds of difference! And it can often be difficult to find out if you are entitled to have your contract extended if you are on a fixed term contract and need to take maternity leave – so taking leave could mean taking months out of a well-paying job and not knowing if you will be able to make up the time lost. Unsurprisingly, many junior academics delay having a baby until they have a permanent job, but those are becoming more and more scarce.
Unsurprisingly, many women cut short their maternity leave and return to work early. But the cost of full time nursery care is often prohibitively expensive. According to this childcare calculator, the cost of childcare for one child under two is £262 per week for nursery care in the south east of England, £184 per week in Wales and £206 in Yorkshire (but of course salaries outside of SE England are often lower, too). The example lecturer I quoted above, if she were repaying a student loan, after tax would be earning around £440 per week. Around half her salary would then be going toward paying for childcare – that is if she can find a nursery place. The average UK family now spends over a quarter of its income on childcare. So if she has already feeling the pinch because of several months on statutory maternity pay, the return to work might prove to be very expensive too.
For this hypothetical lecturer, it might make sense for her to reduce her working hours, opting to work flexitime. Employees in the UK have the right to ask for flexible working if they are carers for a child or adult. Universities are often quite good at providing flexible working conditions, and in general university culture seems like it should be friendly to working mothers. We can often request our teaching schedules to be organised in a way that means we don’t teach late or we have some days free, for instance. And because most of us working as lecturers have our own offices and are expected to work under our own steam, for a lot of the time we’re not really scrutinised. As long as you get the work done, there’s no need to be chained to your desk. But university culture often still favours the traditional unmarried male lecturer in its organisation. Research seminars tend to be organised after 5pm, meaning working parents can often not attend them and so miss out on networking opportunities and on hearing the latest research. Conferences never, in my experience, offer any childcare for visiting scholars. Nursery places are often extremely limited. And perhaps more pervasive than all that is the deeply-ingrained belief that being an academic is a vocation, and so if you are really serious about it, you will put it first. So if you need to stay up until midnight grading or dealing with paperwork because you were silly enough to have a child who needs feeding and putting to bed during part of an evening where you could be working, then that is your problem. Academia is a culture where everyone complains about being busy, but only as much as the next person does. It’s fine to say you feel stressed and busy and that you have a hundred things to do. That shows that you are important and getting things done. It’s not ok to admit to being overwhelmed and exhausted. That’s why there was recently a great flurry of discussion about mental health in academia, but I think it’s also a major issue that affects parents. I am not a parent myself, but I hope to have a child in the future, and as someone who is 31 and coming to the end of a three year contract with, as yet, no fixed employment prospects, the decision of when it is prudent to have a baby is a complicated one.
As you may remember, I’m co-organising Gender Equality Now!, a day about gender equality in HE that is being hosted here in Oxford. We’ll certainly be discussing issues like this and debating what institutions can do to address these problems. These are of course not just problems that affect women; provision for family life is important to many of us in academia, but working toward gender equality helps women AND men who are primary carers. I hope you’ll consider making the trip to Oxford on 10 June for what should be a fruitful day.
Good post! Nice to remind people (and ourselves) of the monasterial conditions under which we still work…
“Research seminars tend to be organised after 5pm, meaning working parents can often not attend them and so miss out on networking opportunities and on hearing the latest research.”
Wow! I’ve never been at a scientific institute in the USA, Chile, the UK (!), the Netherlands, Germany, or France (in my memory of nearly 20 years of giving seminars) where this is true. South Korea, yes, but not in Western Europe or North or South America (to the best of my knowledge). In fact, as a former organiser of colloquia at my institute, I moved the seminars 30 minutes forward to assure that working parents (like myself) could leave the building at 5 pm at the latest. Perhaps evening seminars are a function of academic discipline?
“Conferences never, in my experience, offer any childcare for visiting scholars.”
This is thankfully changing. In fact, some universities (like my own) have a (little-known) policy of providing childcare for any workshop/conference organised there. Furthermore, the giant American Astronomical Society conferences are also providing childcare. It’s a start… even if it’s very late.
“It’s not ok to admit to being overwhelmed and exhausted.”
No kidding. A senior Dutch professor was out for a year with “burnout” a few years ago. It was the talk of the community, and not in a good way… But he managed to return and take on an even more powerful position, heading a national lab. It can happen, but I think we’re all terrified to admit the sheer load we’re under. I keep coming back to the insidious idea (to quote David Byrne, “Found A Job”), “If your work isn’t what you love/Then something isn’t right”: a nice concept that devalues our actual work and the benefits we should be getting from it.
Good luck with the Gender Equality Day!
Thanks for commenting, Scott! It’s encouraging to hear that in the sciences at least there is an effort to organise events that allow working parents to attend. Here at Oxford, most of the seminars start at 5pm. This is why I host my medieval gender group at 1pm – even though not many parents attend, I want them to feel like they can! (Plus we have free sandwiches, and who doesn’t like those?) I remember at York many of the events I attended were at 4 or 5pm. I do understand that scheduling around the teaching day can be difficult, but 5pm slots are definitely not family-friendly. I wonder if you’re right that this is partly a feature of different disciplines. In history there is often a focus on using seminars as an opportunity for sociability afterward, often with wine – which is lovely, but again, tends to mean that these events happen in the evening.
Ah yes, the free drinks issue… That’s why our colloquia end at 4.30pm — still a chance to get drinks in AND go to dinner afterwards! As a working parent, however, I often skip the dinner — being away from home so much anyway, I feel like I can’t sacrifice one night per week to the institute on top of all my other commitments.
On the other hand, I’ve been arguing for years that we should have our colloquia just before lunch, but it turns out that’s a huge conflict with the teaching schedule of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, which controls when we teach…
Great post. It really bothered me reading the Times piece that they didn’t explain very clearly how timescales work in academia. You might very likely be 28 or so before you finish a PhD and in your early 30s before you get a permanent job. I get the impression some people outside academia will read that article and think ‘well, how selfish, of course they should get a permanent job first, isn’t that obvious?’ but they will be assuming that you could do that in your mid-late 20s.
>>And it can often be difficult to find out if you are entitled to have your contract extended if you are on a fixed term contract and need to take maternity leave – so taking leave could mean taking months out of a well-paying job and not knowing if you will be able to make up the time lost.
I was a higher education careers adviser rather than an academic, but I worried about this one a huge amount: from May 2010-April 2013 I was on an 18-month contract, then a 12-month contract, then another 12-month contract, and trying to get pregnant. Had no idea whether, if I actually succeeded, I would have a job to go back to, since obviously the organisation would have no particular obligation to extend my contract whilst I was on ML.
I mentioned it a couple of times in institutional satisfaction surveys: in theory I didn’t mind being on fixed-term contracts, since I was reasonably sure that they would be extended and there were some redundancies going on so it wasn’t like “permanent” contracts were entirely secure. But the maternity leave thing was a big deal for me, and obviousy one of the ways that fixed-term contracts impact far more women than men.
I’ve now left HE (though I would really like to go back one day) and have a permanent/on-going contract, and am due to have a baby in October. 🙂 So it’s worked out pretty well in the end for me. But it is a huge problem caused by the growth in fixed-term contracts that I don’t think is being discussed enough.
Thanks very much for this comment, Mary – I think it’s very helpful that you’ve shared your experiences. Congrats on your pregnancy! It is something that as a woman in academia I am aware of, because like most “young” academics, I finished my PhD in my mid/late 20s and if I do find a permanent job in the next year or so I’ll be in my early-to-mid 30s, and it can be really hard to get established in one’s field and make the decision to start a family… I know this is a problem for women in all fields, but in academia it can feel more acute simply because you will be that bit older before you find a job. And you are right that there needs to be serious discussion of the impact of contract jobs on the presence of women in academia.
Great post, Rachel. I have to say I was also shocked that maternity leave can be treated so differently across British HE.
On this seminar point, the only Oxford history one (apart from graduate seminars) I have regularly attended that wasn’t at 5pm is the Long Nineteenth-Century Seminar, held at 11:15am for (I believe) exactly the reasons your post suggests. I think it can be harder for academics to schedule around seminars held during times of the day they might also be expected to teach or lecture, yet clearly it IS possible…
Hi William, thanks! Yes, this is why I hold my medieval gender group at lunchtime. It makes for a slightly more rushed discussion, but it’s guaranteed to take place at a time most people are free.
Maternity leave in HE in the US is even worse. We are given 6 weeks of maternity leave unpaid, and to obtain 60% of our pay we go on state disability (because having a baby is a disability!). While full time child care is cheaper in California ($220 a week, so about 130 for you), the costs add up when you are working the late shift. For example, I generally get assigned to teach the 7-10 p.m. courses, thus drastically increasing my amount of child care expenses.
The situation is improving, but I recall while working on my MA one of my professors actually gave a lesson very much in line with Anna Bijins, advising the women in the class against having children should we want to become serious scholars as she was under the impression that the two were mutually exclusive.
And lastly, to address the issue of waiting until you are fully established, this may take entirely too long. My mother waited until her career was “set” and ended up having me in her forties, which she has numerable times told me was a decision she regretted, while encouraging me to have children while I may still have enough energy to properly care for them. Whether or not my methods of caring for them are up to par, seeing as how my academic life and personal life aren’t always the best of friends, it is definitely something I felt worth doing, but would have enjoyed more support especially since I believe success in one area is tied to success in the other.
Yes, I think that the maternity rights situation in the US is just awful…
I think there’s never an ideal time to have children, though there are better and worse times! It’s just frustrating to me that this is still the biggest area where women may be expected to sacrifice career success when men who are fathers are generally not.