Nina Notman profiles four researchers successfully balancing an academic career with family life

If you look at the staff demographics at most university chemistry departments, you’ll notice a lack of women, especially in senior posts. But while the leaky pipeline – the metaphor used to describe the disproportionate numbers of females dropping out of scientific careers – is a hotly debated topic, this hides another disparity: women with children are less likely to hold academic posts than those without.

In the UK, there are no official numbers on the impact of motherhood on academic progression, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, but in the US those figures do exist. Everyone graduating with a PhD in science and engineering in the US must complete the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s survey of earned doctorates, which has collated detailed employment, family and health information from over 160,000 graduates since 1973. A cohort of 10% is then tracked, completing questionnaires every two years, until they are 76 years old. ‘It’s probably the most robust long-term and longitudinal employment database that the US has,’ explains lawyer Mary Ann Mason from University of California, Berkeley, who researches when and why women drop out of the pipeline and also develops approaches to help universities retain women scientists.

Mason and her colleagues have looked closely at the relationship between family make-up and career progression. And in 2009 they reported that, for the cohort that earned their doctorates between 1979 and 1995, married mothers were 35% less likely than married fathers to have taken a tenure track job (a job that may eventually lead to a full professorship, or tenure). By comparison, single women without children do as well as married fathers in securing these prestigious first jobs.

The major reason women leave the pipeline is childbirth

As well as the NSF data, Mason regularly surveys the thousands of scientific staff, postdocs and PhD students at the University of California’s 10 campuses. These surveys reveal how postdoc parenthood disproportionately affects mothers: 41% of women who were initially aiming for a professorship with a research emphasis turned their back on that goal after having children, compared to just 20% of fathers. ‘The major reason why women leak out of the academic pipeline in general, but particularly in science, is childbirth,’ says Mason.

What the surveys don’t tell us is why, but ‘bad timing’ is a widely accepted contributing factor. Systems for academic progression vary from country to country, but regardless of location it takes around five to 10 years after a PhD to secure a permanent academic post. During this time researchers must prove they have what it takes to be a star. And with female fertility declining from age 30, and more steeply after 35, would-be female professors who also want a family are faced with a tough decision. Another contributing factor, explains Mason, is the perception that academia is a rat race and there aren’t enough hours in the day to care for children too. ‘To some extent I think this perception is right,’ says Mason, but she adds it is also a profession with a lot of freedom and flexibility.

There is no blueprint for how to juggle academia and motherhood, however, and the paths of those who do so are every bit as unique as the research they conduct and the children they are raising.


Courtesy of Rachel Oliver

A supportive department helps Rachel Oliver balance her time between the lab and her family

Rachel Oliver

One such person is Rachel Oliver, a reader at the Cambridge Centre for Gallium Nitride, University of Cambridge, UK. When her son was born four years ago, Oliver was a university research fellow and had secured, but not yet started, her first permanent academic post . Cambridge allows staff to return to work on a gradual basis, so after a four-mouth maternity leave, Oliver chose to return to work five mornings a week.

When her son was nearly a year old, she negotiated a long-term agreement to work 80% (of full time), which she has recently increased to 90%. ‘I have a supportive department,’ she explains, adding that it’s a small department with lots of people with young children. ‘There are also senior female professors who are not facing these issues anymore because their kids are significantly older, but they have faced these issues and they do understand.’ Oliver credits this supportive environment for her department’s almost leak-free pipeline. ‘Our pipeline diagram is pretty much the same proportion of women for our undergraduate students as it is for our professors [about 30%].’

Oliver is also supported by her son’s nursery · a small family-run business. ‘We get more support from the nursery than might be obvious from the contract we have [with them],’ she says. This is particularly helpful because her family have not been able to help with childcare due to their own work commitments. ‘Some people have grandparents who are retired and able to swing into action, but that’s not something we’ve really had access to.’

Oliver’s husband is a full time cardiologist, and when their son is ill it is Oliver who stays home. She didn’t realise ‘with a small baby in nursery just how many days he would have a horrible cold and I would need to be at home with him’, she says. But she adds that she has learnt to juggle her commitments, and that an academic career (especially compared to her husband’s job) is very flexible. ‘There are things that it is very important that I am in the department for, such as giving lectures, but a lot of the time I have flexibility,’ she says.

However, she concedes that parenting makes business travel more difficult. ‘I used to travel a lot before my son was born and I’m increasingly in demand to give talks, but I find it very difficult to organise childcare that allows me to flit around the country or indeed the world,’ she says. ‘Somebody who didn’t have children who was at my level would be giving a lot of invited talks at conferences and promoting their research. So I’m not sure that my work is getting the exposure that I might like it to.’ Oliver admits this might slow down her career progression, ‘but it’s not prohibitive’.


Courtesy of Beate Paulus

Beate Paulus started her family while she was a postdoc

Beate Paulus

Like Oliver, Beate Paulus – now a physical chemistry professor at the Free University of Berlin, Germany – was a postdoc when she had her three children (aged 10, 14 and 16). Paulus was working at the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex systems in Dresden when they were born and she took roughly one year’s maternity leave for each child. She didn’t stop work completely, spending approximately five hours a week reading and writing papers and applying for grants. She even took one of her babies with her to the German Research Foundation to defend a grant application. ‘If I hadn’t done it at the time, I would have had to wait another two years,’ she says. However her publication rate still dropped for a year or two after returning to work because she hadn’t done any new science while on leave.

Paulus says that although there were no other mothers in her department, her colleagues were very supportive and she was able to work 75% of full time. When her youngest child was three, Paulus secured a full-time professorship in Berlin. The family decided not to relocate, and for the past seven years she has stayed in Berlin alone during the week. ‘I try to do an average of four days a week in Berlin and one day at home,’ she explains. The rest of the time her husband, who also works full time, runs the household with the help of after-school babysitters.

Paulus, like Oliver, finds herself choosing to go on fewer business trips compared to colleagues without children · she sends her postdocs and PhD students instead. Travelling often happens at the weekend, a time she prefers to spend with her family, she explains.

Berit Olofsson

Organic chemistry professor Berit Olofsson, from Stockholm University in Sweden, had just started her first permanent academic position when she had her first child (now aged four). She says it wasn’t a conscious decision to wait until she had secured a permanent post: ‘I just didn’t want [children] any earlier.’ But in retrospect, it was a good decision. ‘I’m an organic chemist and we deal with a lot of toxic stuff,’ she explains. ‘The minute you realise you are pregnant you have to leave the lab.’

Sweden has a generous maternity and paternity leave system, meaning that many mothers chose to stay at home for the first 12–18 months of their children’s lives. Olofsson and her husband, however, chose to split the parental leave between them. For both their children – they have a second child aged two – she took 3.5 months off initially before returning to work and her husband then took over. She then took a second period of leave later on. ‘If I had another job, I would probably have liked to stay home longer,’ Olofsson says. ‘But being in academia, I really didn’t see the possibility of doing that.’ Even on leave, she worked from home a lot, as her group still needed guidance, grant application deadlines needed to be met and she had departmental duties she was still expected to carry out.


Courtesy of Berit Oloffson

Sweden has a generous maternity leave system, but Berit Olofsson still had to work from home

Olofsson is the first woman to have ever held a permanent faculty position in her department, and therefore the first mother, which she feels meant her colleagues had unrealistic expectations. They were not purposely difficult, she explains, it just didn’t come naturally to them to take her new parental responsibilities into account when sharing out departmental duties.

At home, however, it is her husband who does the larger share of the household duties. ‘He has a “normal” job so he was able to take his paternity leave and not stay in contact with his company the whole time,’ she explains. He usually takes care of the children when they are ill as well, and he is currently taking another three-month parental leave so the family can be with Olofsson during a sabbatical at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa. She credits his support for allowing her to balance academia with motherhood. ‘Without that it would be totally impossible.’ For young academics looking to start a family, her advice is: ‘choose your husband very well!’

Kim Woznack

In the US, Kim Woznack is a professor at California University of Pennsylvania. Her husband has stayed at home since her son (now aged six) was a year old. They also have a three year old child.


Courtesy of Kim Woznack

Flexibility is important, says Kim Woznack

Woznack held a tenure track assistant professor position when her first son was born, and was promoted to associate professor 18 months later. The US system allows mothers to have up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after the birth of their child. Woznack was able to take around three weeks paid leave after each child because she had accrued sick leave. Her children were both born in the last few weeks of the spring semester and, although she officially returned to work after three weeks, she was able to limit her academic duties until the autumn. This meant her first son was three months old before he started going to the nursery on campus. After Woznack’s promotion, her husband decided he wanted to stay at home with their son full time. ‘He’s been home for five years doing all of the childcare,’ she says. ‘Having him at home is a big relief.’

Woznack says that although she was the first faculty member to have a child while working in the department, her colleagues have been extremely supportive. They took over teaching her classes for the final few weeks of term when both her children were born. However, Woznack says she was still writing and grading exams even though she was on leave. ‘I felt this guilt about them stepping in for me uncompensated.’

Like Paulus, Woznack says that even though she could travel more, sometimes she chooses not to so she can be with her children ‘for important events such as soccer games and choral performances’.

Woznack also thinks that the flexibility of academia allows her to be with her children more than other jobs might. ‘I can schedule medical appointments during times when I’m not teaching a class,’ she says. ‘There are many advantages to an academic schedule being flexible,’ Woznack continues, but she admits that the pressures of the job also have an impact on her home life. ‘There are times when I’m grading papers in my basement way past their bedtime, or on the weekends.’