Research life

Parental leave and prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a female ECR running out of time on a fixed-term contract must be in want of maternity leave.” 

– another ECR lamenting the precarious nature of research contracts (snazzy Austen references added by yours truly)

As far as he could see, maternity leave was a sweet, sweet ticket to fellowship town. I mean, what’s not to love? You get an exemption from those pesky ‘time since phd’ rules on major fellowship applications, but get to keep working on papers while on maternity leave (without the distraction of admin!). So it looks like you did more work in less time. Plus, you can access all those lucrative ‘career-interruption’ positions not available to others. Cha-ching!

I mumbled something along the lines of “Oh, yeah, sorry about that. I’m pretty lucky. How good are wombs?!” suddenly feeling like a massive cheater. 

Now, after years of painstaking investigation, I can reveal that career interruptions are a scheme clever pregnant women have been rorting since…never. 

Sidestepping the fact that it’s impossible to conceive and birth a baby to suit a timeline, let’s tackle a few gremlins I struggled with.

#1 “You get to keep publishing papers while on maternity leave. That’s not fair”

Ha hahahahahahah. What? I’m at home with a four-month-old and couldn’t hear you over the fatigue-induced hallucination of Boy George sitting on my kitchen bench singing Karma Chameleon at 2am while I once again towelled projectile vomit off the wall. I can’t even spell my own name, but sure, I’m capable of churning out manuscripts, wrangling co-authors and negotiating the hellscape that is ScholarOne. 

It’s not a f@#ing sabbatical, mate. 

Anything I managed to get across the line while on leave was a miracle and a bare necessity – revise and resubmit, incoherent comments on a phd students final draft, that’s about it. 

If you were able to submit multiple first-author papers while on mat leave, I salute you.

#2. “Part time work lets you stretch out your contract and bides you time to look for the next big thing”. 

OK, you go part-time then. What’s that? Oh, you’re worried about the paycut? And having less time to actually do your work?

Yeah, us too. 

If you’ve taken time off during a short-term contract, chances are you’re coming back to more obligations and less time. You might have just a few months left to catch up, finish up and secure the next gig.  

As postdocs, our time is rarely our own – it belongs to supervisors, funders, stakeholders and students. I still haven’t published a first-author paper since returning from leave over a year ago. My role was to report to stakeholders during the final funding year and, working three days a week, I had to prioritise my core responsibilities above peer-review publications. I’m really proud of the work, but I know it leaves me vulnerable when applying for other academic positions.

#3 “You only got the position because you took parental leave”

My biggest personal gremlin – the ‘charity’ fellowship.

I’m the recipient of a career-interruption fellowship. I get to spend the next year focussing just on my research program, building relationships and strengthening my track record. It’s one of the most exciting opportunities of my career — BUT, I cannot stop second guessing myself because what if doesn’t count as a real one and it’s just handed to those of us who took leave to care for some other human for a while?

This is, of course, nonsense. 

Caring for interrupted careers

Caring for other humans (or building them from scratch) is really hard, but doesn’t make you less suited to academic research. It just means that, for a while, you have less time to devote to said research. Initiatives like parental leave support schemes, the ability to work part time, considering performance relative to opportunity rather than simply ‘years since phd’, and career-interruption fellowships are simply trying to retain and recognise excellent researchers doing awesome work with less time. 

The ECR who made that comment wasn’t ‘anti-parents’ – just frustrated and anxious about their own precarious employment. But the main flaw in his point is that these initiatives aren’t universal truths. Parental leave is hard to come by, particularly if you haven’t been at your institution for very long. And there are far fewer fellowships than excellent people who deserve them. 

A truth universally acknowledged, but a problem not yet universally solved.

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