“If universities want more women in science, the way we handle families needs to change – men need to be as “risky” to hire as women”
The above article offers a refreshing and interesting take on the issue of parental leave in academic positions.
Although, it must be said, the attitudes towards pregnancy and parental leave in academic institutions in the UK have improved in recent years, there remains a considerable sense of apprehension and impending doom as an academic researcher takes time off to have children. Here, David Kent, from the University of Cambridge, describes how attitudes towards his decision to take 3.5 months off using shared parental leave were initially mixed, but ended with him being praised for going against the norm and taking necessary time off, despite having a new research group to manage.
This is encouraging, of course. The sooner it becomes normalised for men to take a larger portion of the offered shared parental leave the better – for both men and women. If men are just as likely to take time off after a child is born as women, the bias towards women in all workplaces, not just academia, may begin to disappear. It’s particularly important that such occurrences take place within academia. In a career where any time off is deemed risky and colleagues look in horror when you explain you won’t be around for several months. This, of course, makes starting a family incredibly difficult and needlessly stressful, as the environment in which you work pressures you into feeling you can’t take any more time off than is absolutely necessary, and makes you feel like you’re the unreasonable one for wanting your fair share of parental leave.
An important point that David makes is that his partner hasn’t received nearly as much praise as him – despite continuing to carry out her work to a high standard whilst being pregnant, which everyone should no is no easy task. Indeed, many women are made to feel like their career is about to take a serious knock, and may even feel guilty for their choice to have children.
David is absolutely right – the way the issue of families is handled in academia needs to change. Academics need to feel they can start a family and not be judged, or doomed to failure. It’s not healthy to continue this atmosphere of your research being the centre of your entire life. Of course, there are times when work must come first – when a make or break experiment needs completing, or a tight publication or grant proposal deadline is looming – but researchers are people, too, and have a right to a family, without being stigmatised.