Birth of Caesar, British Library, Royal 16 G VIII
Birth of Caesar, British Library, Royal 16 G VIII

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.