Choosing research or family: A dilemma for scientists?

At our university, a majority of the undergraduate and PhD students are women. If you look into the higher hierarchical levels of University structure, you will perhaps find as many female as male postdocs, but then ??? Most professorships and full time research positions are filled by male scientists. This pattern is equally prevalent at other universities and research institutes, too.
One of the main reasons might be that women are more concerned about family issues, and the time of establishing a career in science clashes with the natural decline in their fertility. In science, job contracts often don´t span more than two or three years, and so there is also a lack of financial security and job safety. The safety of a steady job is only given when a tenured position (in Germany a “professorship”) starts – but by then it might already be too late for some women to start a family.

Not only is the time slot for having children narrower for women than for men, but also the challenge of balancing work and family responsibilities affects women to a larger extent than men. This might be due to societal expectations towards the mother, who still is implicitly assumed to be the primary caretaker of a child, and therefore ends up with more of the responsibility for raising children.
Therefore, women often feel they have to decide between either an academic career OR starting a family after their graduation, and a large amount of women scientists give up their research for their families. For many women, it seems impossible to be both a good mother and a good scientist at the same time.
This might be why the majority of female professors, at least from Germany and Africa are childless. But examples from other countries like Sweden and France show that, with a supportive working environment, a different understanding of the maternal role and acceptance of part-time work enables more and more women to combine these two purposes in life. Although many employers in scientific institutions recognize the imbalance of women with university degrees and women in higher academic positions, the academic working environment to date has not managed to deal with this issue in a satisfactory way.
For example, part time work often is not a realistic option in a university setting. Policies for parental leave and part-time work often exist on the books, but few people can make use of them in practice. Often, researchers in part time positions spend all their working time for fundraising and teaching activities instead of continuing their research. Many men, too, experience difficulties when they want to reduce their working hours to take more time for their children.
The core problem behind this structure might be that scientific outcome often is valued solely by track records, publications and yielded grants. Even though the constraints of these metrics are known, they are a long way from being adequately changed to suit women, or parents, who spend time raising a child.
For instance, implicitly or explicitly, many competitive grant schemes disregard if a women has had a period of maternity leave – because there is such great competition for funding or the few fellowships, terms and conditions to gain funding often expect full time working people. Research positions expect a long list of successful publications, disregarding the family background of the scientists.
This circumstance discourages women and often forces them to take less well-paid jobs in which they have less independence within their profession. Furthermore, It is often more difficult to find a way back into science after maternity leave as well. So does part time work mean forced resignation of the career?
In their recent publication in Oikos, Katherine R. O’Brien and Karen P. Hapgood treated this topic in an interesting scientific way by applying an ecological model on minimum research productivity. They recommend that researchers establish a good track record in the beginning of the career and build up a network with other researchers and institutions before taking a break for parental leave. With the help of their former success, they conclude that it would be easier for researchers to find their way back into science even if they only return to work part-time while bringing up their children.
The imbalance of women to men in leading positions and highly paid jobs is not a problem limited to academia, but also occurs in many other professions. I wish that organizations dealing with sustainable development would offer better support for motivated and talented young people who also wish to have a family. We need a revision of the standard metrics regarding research productivity: part time jobs should allow scientists to continue their research.


9 thoughts on “Choosing research or family: A dilemma for scientists?

  1. There seems to be a simple solution to making the issue of track record fairer without too much effort. For example, in Australian Research Council grant applications, candidates are required to give evidence of their track record over the last five years. Elsewhere, applicants need to describe constraints on their productivity. Inevitably, some reviewers of applications miss the constraints on the career when ranking applicants, so don’t adjust for the differences in opportunity.

    For example, I saw one case where the track record of an applicant for a post-doc was not rated strongly by a reviewer, despite the applicant having 28 publications in the last 5 years (even if none of the papers were in Science or Nature, which seemed to be the gripe of the reviewer; eyes roll). That level of performance is good by any measure. But add in 2 children being born in that time, and part-time work when not on maternity leave – that is exceptional productivity

    One solution seems simple – applicants should provide information about track record over the last five years of full-time equivalent work. This still doesn’t account for any loss of momentum that might occur during breaks for child rearing or illness, but it is clearly fairer, and makes it much easier for reviewers to compare track records.

    Of course, what qualifies as a career break would need to be defined (“I decided to go surfing for a few years” might not cut it?). And claims of career breaks need to be justified and verifiable. But such verification should not be required in the application, otherwise an unfair burden is placed on the applicant to compile that evidence (and given ~10% success in many grant programs it would be a waste of people’s time). However, successful applicants might be required to provide documented proof of the relevant career breaks prior to being awarded the grant. This proof would need to match the claims in the application.

    What do people think of that suggestion? It seems simple and fairer to me.

    Another point I want to make is that academia is somewhat more family friendly for many people than some other professions. I’m not suggesting that improvements are not required. However, flexibility in working hours and self-determination exist for many (not all) academics, and that means working hours can fit in around child caring duties. It is not perfect, but other professions are even less perfect. For example, see:

    It is correct that some countries manage this better than others. In Australia, parental leave in academia can be reasonably generous. For example, The University of Melbourne, where I work, provides up to 1 year of parental leave for people employed for more than 1 year prior to taking leave, 14-24 weeks of which is paid (depending on length of employment), plus a bonus payment of 12 weeks of salary on returning to work. There are also arrangements to share leave with one’s partner if that partner is also employed by The University of Melbourne. And people can return to work on a part-time basis. Summary: we want as many excellent women researchers applying for jobs at The University of Melbourne as possible please!

    While recognising that things are not perfect and that changes such as the one I suggested would improve matters, academia need not be family unfriendly. Here is a closing quote from

    “We need to stop telling young women how hard it is to be a woman scientist and start telling them about how amazing the job is”, Prof Judith Mank (UCL).

    • Thank you very much for this positive perspective and the interesting links, Michael.
      I agree that most Universities are still more family friendly than other businesses, but still we experience a lot of difficulties in the academic sector. I think your University found a good solution for parents that wish to spend time with both education and research, and I hope that other institutions will follow this example.

      • JacquelineLoos Do you have Children? Have you experienced this difficulty that you have described? I refuse your conjecture, if you only predict the hypothesis by poor philosophy but no factual evidence to support it, how can you assume that it is not the same in every employment in every possible career path in every sector? From what I have read it seem to me as you think that career is more important than the continuity of your bloodline. From what I know opinions as yours described in this article have only two types of women (excluding feministic sexists) single mothers that have rather issues of their own and resentment towards their past actions, Career chasers that have no children at all and therefore are becoming a victims of a false premise of what is it to be a mother and what does it involve. As a Scientist you should be aware of the facts regarding the differences of males and females and their primary roles, dont try to change millions of years of evolution just because for the past 50 years women and men are socially equal. There are certain things that only females are entitled to do and there are other certain qualities to males that females simply cannot adapt to or compare to and again vice versa. I have a great respect to women one woman gave me my life my mother. It is tearing my heart appart when I see women having dilemma between career and family. I hope you will be able to find the right answer that you are looking for, but remember that you are a woman and therefore are entitled to do the most miraculous deed and evolutionary genious carry a child in your womb making sure that science of nature and biology is preserved for future generations, that life can survive, it is because of you, a woman, a smart woman. If scientists and smart people will decide not to have children, our society will degrade leaving stupid people to be entitled to do decisions they should never be allowed to make. remember its all in the DNA…wish you luck with regards G. J. Baca

  2. Hi Jacqueline, and thanks for your thoughtful posting about being a mother and researcher. I circulated the Oikos piece around my similarly-situated colleagues at Dalhousie and ANU, and believe it has some great lessons for young women. I agree with Michael that academe can be an excellent match with having a family, given the flexibility it can afford, but also agree that the viability of the path depends on how you start it. The Oikos piece emphasises the importance of establishing a research track record early on, ideally with a research-only post-doc, and avoiding the teaching-only ‘ghetto’ (or here in Canada, the endless slavery of ‘sessional’ teaching) however much you enjoy that latter part of the role.

  3. This problem concerns both parents, at least it should. You can’t have it all – this is what Anne-Marie Slaughter stated, as Michael McCarthy states in the first comment. BUT – you might not be able becoming a president while being at home with your kids 14 hours. This is not the kind of career everyone is looking for!
    So at this point I disagree with Slaughter – A career can simply mean or is actually a well-paid, full-time job. Some jobs require presence, e.g. in hospitals. Of course then you cannot have it all, but this affects both men and women.

    It is a very german point of view to stay at home with your kids-as a woman. This is based on a long cultural tradition and also on the actual situation in Germany regarding day care. It does not matter if you are in “academia” – having a “career” should be able for everyone. Parental leave for three or even six to ten years is something very german; and it is also unnecessary for the child (unless there is simply no day care!).
    I do therefore mind your statement that you talk about women-it concerns both parents, it should! Nevertheless we should keep this debate alive, especially in Germany.

    Academia or not – there would be a big deal if both parents!! had to take parental leave and then have the choice for an adequate day care. This is not the case in Germany, but in Scandinavia-and it works well. There would be probably no dilemma, not even for researchers.

    Btw: There is no way as many female postdocs as male ones!

    • Thanks Andreea for your comment! I agree that appropriate day care for children plays an important role to allow both parents to have full time jobs. But I experienced that in some societies leaving a child in day care all day long is disregarded, and very often it is the mother that therefore stays at home, not the father. In coincidence with your comment I think that both parents should have the option to take parental leave, and in some countries and research institutions, this solution seems to work fine (see also former comments). Hence, in academia it might even be easier to realize a combination of career and family than in other professions, e.g. in industry. Yet, the positive examples from academia represent only a small fraction, and I think it happens too often that qualified people (feel that they) have to stop their career due to family affairs.

      • Hi jacquelineloos!
        I agree, it happens too often to qulified (and expensive!) people-this is a luxury problem to a certain point:these people often can afford to stay at home.

        You mentioned that in some societies it is disregarded to have your kid in day care – where? I read some books regarding this topic, it is at least not the case in western Europe (apart Germany). I confess this is not the world… do you mean the US?

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