As we celebrated Mother’s Day this past May and look forward to Father’s Day, it’s a fitting time to reflect on the much-deserved support that parents, both mothers and fathers, need from academic institutions. There has been much debate on whether mothers in academia can “have it all?” But the same questions don’t seem to arise when it comes to male academics. In my opinion, it’s not about motherhood versus fatherhood, nor about tallying who does more or who receives more support from their institutions. It’s about recognizing the challenges women face versus those men may or may not encounter. If fathers were to take on the role of primary caregivers, undoubtedly, their work would also face similar strains. So, what kind of systemic changes are required to support parents? How can academia better accommodate the diverse needs of parents striving to balance their research pursuits with family responsibilities?

As a mother of an 8-year-old, I can attest that each stage of parenthood presents its unique set of challenges. Assuming responsibility for another human being is no small feat.

I’ve also observed firsthand the transformative power of parenthood. Parenthood compelled me to overcome my areas where I needed improvement and to embody qualities that I wanted to instill in my child. I strove to become a role model. Moreover, the time spent away from my son during work hours became a catalyst for increased productivity. Every moment away had to count or it was pointless.

These dual aspects — personal growth and increased professional efficacy — propelled my career trajectory upward. My opinions gained weight, my experiences were valued, and I witnessed a profound transformation within myself. So, how can we presume that parenthood detracts from one’s professionalism, when, in reality, it often amplifies it?

Scientist workin in a laboratory who appears to be pregnant

The Big Collision

When envisioning the research environment and the pursuit of knowledge, we often conjure images of serene libraries and focused academic discussions. However, juxtapose this with the cacophony of raising children. Picture the hushed ambiance of a university library suddenly interrupted by the cries of a teething infant or a scholarly debate abruptly halted by news of a child swallowing a marble.

This collision of worlds epitomizes the stark contrast between the traditional image of the research scholar, and the responsibilities of a caregiver. Yet, within these challenges lies an opportunity for transformation — a chance to embrace the multifaceted identity of the parenting scholar. How can we encourage those in academia to balance their work responsibilities with their parental responsibilities so that they don’t just perform optimally but even better than before?

The real question isn’t about favoring one gender over the other, but rather, are we, in academia, genuinely providing adequate support to parents as a whole? Yes, newborns demand constant attention, but so do 8-year-olds and teenagers. Though their needs may evolve, the unwavering presence of a parent remains vital.

How can academia better support parents in a way that preserves their parenting responsibilities while enhancing their effectiveness at work?

When considering the concept of the parenting scholar, it’s crucial to expand our perspective beyond just the researcher. While the researcher is indeed a central figure, we must also acknowledge the multitude of other roles within academia that require caregiving responsibilities. Researchers, peer reviewers, faculty members, PhD students, and journal editors — each of these stakeholders fulfills an important role within the academic ecosystem that may conflict with the demands of parenthood.

For researchers, the pressure to maintain a rigorous publication record while also being present for their children can lead to feelings of inadequacy and burnout. Peer reviewers and journal editors may find themselves grappling with time constraints and competing demands, struggling to balance their editorial duties with family obligations. Faculty members, tasked with mentoring students and advancing their own research agendas face similar challenges coping with the demands of parenthood.

To truly support parenting scholars, systemic changes must extend to support all these different stakeholders. This necessitates a 360-degree approach that addresses the diverse needs and challenges faced by each role. Provisions like parental leaves or breastfeeding accommodations are no longer enough.

Practical problems people may encounter

Pregnancy related issues:

One inherent problem that most parents face in academia is that they are advised to wait until they get tenure to have their first baby. This means more stability, more money, and less chances to be passed over for tenure just because you are a parent. However, it also means increased risk of fertility issues. By the time people get tenure they are in their mid-30s at least and this could pose a risk for women trying to get pregnant at this age.

The average age for PhDs in science and engineering in the year 2021 was 31 years. On the other hand, in biomedical fields, the average age for receiving the first National Institute of Health Research Project grant was 43. This conflicts with the time that people are thinking of starting a family.

Why can’t academicians have it all? Tenure, publications, work-life balance?

Additionally, many are advised not to discuss their family or their plans for parenthood at the interview stage because it may hinder their career prospects. Why is this the case?

As I was reading some researcher stories about the challenges of parenting in academia on Editage Insights (full disclosure: This is Cactus Communication’s, i.e., my employer’s author resources platform), I realized that there are simple changes that can be made — not always big ones, to ease the challenges faced by parents. To begin with, one thing surprised me is that there were no lab coats designed for pregnant women! Such a small change and something that can be so easily fixed too! But the issues are not being discussed enough. Hence, nothing changes.

Also, is there enough knowledge or awareness about the chemicals and the effects of those on the fetus and if there are any special measures taken to protect women, will it have negative consequences on their career?

Childcare

There are also an increasing number of non-birth parents in academia — foster parents, parents who adopted, those who chose the surrogacy route. They have childcare responsibilities too, which they need to balance with their work. Do academic institutions account for the challenges that these parents face?

Do institutions have lactation rooms? Are similar facilities available at conferences, including diaper changing rooms?

According to this study, nearly one-half of new mothers and nearly one-quarter of new fathers quit full-time STEM employment after becoming parents. It was found that 43% of mothers leave STEM after their first child and this number is 23% for new fathers.

Is it because of lack of subsidized on-campus childcare support? Childcare support is expensive, and stipends may not really enable early career researchers to afford childcare. Could childcare be subsidized by institutions with direct or indirect funding?

More importantly, how can we rid academia of presumptions that parents, especially mothers, are less committed to their work than those who are childless? How can we ensure that they don’t face salary penalties? In what ways can academia prioritize output and impact over time spent on campus to support parents effectively? How can hybrid working models and parenting leaves be integrated to avoid adverse effects on parenting scholars? Will these measures help retain talent and cultivate future STEM leaders?

How can academia partner with parenting scholars to inspire children to pursue STEM fields, thereby contributing to a brighter future?

We need to have more of these conversations — if you too are a parent in academia, I urge you to join the conversation and shed light on the challenges you’ve encountered. Let’s commit to understanding these issues together as a first step towards creating a more supportive and inclusive academic environment.

Roohi Ghosh

Roohi Ghosh

Roohi Ghosh is the ambassador for researcher success at Cactus Communications (CACTUS). She is passionate about advocating for researchers and amplifying their voices on a global stage.

Discussion

3 Thoughts on "Can Parents in Academia “Have it All”?"

This is an important issue and I am happy to see it discussed in such a widely read blog as The Scholarly Kitchen. However, the article overlooks one of the most important aspects of this complex issue: the entrenched idea that mobility is required for career enhancement in academia. Academics desiring to have a family are often faced with the uncomfortable choice of delaying having or adopting children, or starting a family while living abroad with little support. Additionally, uprooting an entire family for a professional move can be very difficult for spouse and children. Even moving between institutions or cities within the same geographical area can be difficult once schedules and childcare solutions are established.

Yes, that’s an excellent point. This issue isn’t confined to academia alone. Mobility can be challenging in any field, especially once a child’s schedule is established. Relocating to a new city becomes difficult, though not impossible, and moving between institutions can disrupt routines to some extent. This is likely why many people find the work-from-home model more flexible. In my experience, having recently moved myself, it is challenging but not impossible. Children adapt to these changes much faster than we often realize.

As a mum of 2 working in scholarly publishing, with my husband a dad in academia, I relate to much of this. Your comment ‘the time spent away from my son during work hours became a catalyst for increased productivity. Every moment away had to count or it was pointless’ resonates with me, but I do think we need to be careful to avoid the burnout you mention later in your post. If I could give advice to new parents, I’d say that sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to breathe, reflect and go a little slower to maintain the energy and drive that allow us to be the best colleagues and parents we can be year in year out.

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