As a PhD student, how many of us felt immense guilt over taking a day off or, gasp, even a whole holiday? How many of those coveted hours off did we spend thinking about all the work we should be doing, getting in a stress over how much there was to do when we got back? For anyone familiar with that sinking feeling of guilt, the minefield of maternity may not be such a stranger. Because there is a certain guilt, especially reported amongst those in academia, of somehow ‘letting the team down’ or ‘asking too much’ in requesting your entitled time off. In my personal experience, of the handful of academics I know who have taken time out for maternity, not one of them has had the full 52 weeks. Most, in fact, have culled it at 6 months. And then have returned with papers half written through sleepless nights and all emails answered. That’s less maternity ‘leave’ and more some kind of work-baby limbo.

It’s true that some of these academics have chosen        to juggle the nappies with the grant applications. Some women are just so ambitious and driven that they don’t want to step fully away from the work. But there are others, equally ambitious and driven, who would really like to ‘leave’ when it comes to their maternity, but are too worried about the consequences and reputation of doing so. Not to mention the financial costs of taking extended leave, especially for those on fixed-term contracts. One extreme (but sadly not uncommon) example was covered earlier this year by The Guardian of a woman who was made redundant following her retun from maternity leave, despite other similar roles on her project being kept open. You don’t have to do much Googling to find other similar stories of where women across a range of industries have been made to feel ‘punished’ for taking time out for a baby. So what is going on?

The problem with academia is, it’s busy. Grants are competitive, and nobody is going to move a deadline because you have a cute new bundle of joy. Promotions are based on time-limited criteria, such as your publication record for the year. Outlining on your CV how many nappies you changed or all the baby milestones you’ve nurtured unfortunately won’t count. Papers don’t write themselves. Recruitment doesn’t magically happen. Your students don’t stop needing supervision because you’ve got a younger and messier little thing to supervise as well.

Whilst the whole point of maternity leave is that somebody else should be drafted in to cover all of these things for you so that you can smoothly sidle back in and pick up where you left off, it doesn’t in reality work like that. Academia is lonely. And competitive. So there is a certain guilt attached to handing anything over. Which means that you’re not alone if that conversation begining with “I’m pregnant and I’m going to be taking a year off” sticks in your throat just a little bit.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. A lot of work is being done, especially with the advent of Athena SWAN, to make maternity leave a much better supported process. Equally as importantly, most HEIs now have initiatives in place to really help new mums return to work, offering flexible working and nursing or childcare facilities. Newcastle Uni still has some way to go in fine-tuning some aspects of these, but over the coming year our faculty E&D team will be running workshops and focus groups to get a real sense of what new parents want, and hopefully put some actions in place to get it. It’s not a short road. But if we take steps the same size as our babies’, we will get there…


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