#Ukraine: providing and receiving support

Pregnancy, parental leave and precarity

Or obstacles for early career researchers with children

The status of women has radically changed in the last decades in most areas of the world. From being housewives, women are now prime ministers, CEOs, well- respected academics. 

However, while we celebrate women who made a career in academia, we should not forget that, for many, it came with a price. Despite being in 2023, we have just started breaking the glass ceiling, and many early career researchers will feel they have to choose between being a researcher and having children. A survey among Italian doctoral candidates showed that fear of losing productivity is one of the main reasons why doctoral candidates do not have kids even though they would like to [ADI]. 

This is to be taken seriously, for a while news of pregnancy may be celebrated, and female researchers are often accompanied by thoughts about what this will mean for their academic careers. [EIGE]

The typical doctoral candidate or early career researcher will be between 25 and 40 years old, thus having an age where one as a woman will be faced with whether or not to have children. The positions early career researchers occupy are highly precarious, entail short-term contracts, and are, in many cases, offered as scholarships rather than proper employment. This lack of proper employment means that early career researchers are not guaranteed paid parental leave. 

This is problematic for men as well as women. However, it affects women’s careers more than men's. It is the woman who carries the pregnancy and who is likely to first take care of the newborn. Without paid parental leave and support when returning to work, researchers with small children will face a hard time in academia. Across Europe data shows that doctoral candidates and other early career researchers often work more than 40 hours per week [SFS, Biorxiv, ENPA]. The academic career path is highly competitive, and in order to remain in academia one has to publish or perish. How to assess the academic career in a reasonable manner is another topic, however, the key point is that in such an environment, having children poses an extra unnecessary challenge which can be addressed by offering early career researchers, men as women, employment with sufficient parental leave.

 We urge all European counties to implement the European Charter and Code of Researchers and recognize that doctoral candidates and early career researchers are professionals, and as such, they should be employed and that are entitled to paid parental leave.

This can, of course, not stand alone. The academic environment has to shift towards an environment that treats researchers as full humans, that are entitled to a life outside of research. The expectations towards brand new parents are that they can work as before, without the recognition that being a new parent is demanding. These elements are especially important for international doctoral students and early career researchers who often lack a local support system and have no family to rely on to help them with their new-born. 

There are then three crucial points to tackle in more decisive and homogeneous ways across Europe:

  • employ early career research and ensure that they are entitled to financed parental leave and that their temporary contracts are extended;
  • ensure that early career researchers have the right to stay home when their children are sick. Make the academic environment one that is inclusive of researchers with children;
  • support researchers in adjusting when returning from parental leave, provide spaces for new mothers to breastfeed and support them with finding appropriate childcare.

A mother does not simply need help during those few days after birth, she needs support along the way, and universities can be equipped to do so. In an international environment such as academia, this is even more important as international doctoral candidates and early career researchers often lack a local support system to rely on, to help them. If universities really want to promote equity and avoid losing talented people along the way, they also have to consider the family needs of young researchers.

When early career researchers are faced with the choice of giving up on their dream of a family or on their dream of a research career, everyone loses. Both the individuals, the academic institutions, and society as a whole. If the academic career path cannot be pursued while having children, academia will not be as diverse as it should be, and that is a problem for academia and society [Nature] 

In 2023 a straightforward way to change this is to give early career researchers the possibility to freely choose to start a family while pursuing research careers by offering them reasonable employment conditions. 

This article was authored by 

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