Maternity, timelines and seeking a career in Academia: An overview and 10 action items


A woman in Academia* with her Little One

The path to a tenured faculty position, the first point in the academic career at which you can feel real stability, is arduous and fraught with potential for getting off track.  The process also takes a long time:

Process Years
Undergraduate Degree 4
Master’s Degree/ Other Experience 2
PhD 5
Postdoc 3
Pre-tenure period 6
Sum 20

If you begin as an undergraduate at age 18, then you will finish this process at approximately age 38.  Perhaps one could quibble with some of the details; however, an estimate of 20 years as the length is about average, and going significantly faster than this is unlikely.  So, this is a long and difficult process for anyone; however, it is particularly challenging if you have, or are planning to have, offspring.  When in this process is a good time to have child(ren)?  The only choices are (a) before starting the PhD, (b) during the PhD, (b) during the Postdoc, or (d) during the tenure process.

The timeline is tricky for any potential parent in academia, fundamental differences between being a partner to a woman having a child and being the woman going through gestation, birth and the postpartum experience, make this a unique challenge for a female academic.  Women experience physiological changes during the 9 months of gestation, and sometimes these prevent a full work load.  These changes are separate and apart from the time spent breastfeeding, diaper-changing, keeping them from cracking their heads on the table edges, and all the things partners can help with.  Thus, to achieve a “level playing field” for women in science means, necessarily, creating opportunity for maintaining career momentum while supporting leave time during pregnancy.

Not all parents have partners and not all single parents are female.  There are myriad potential parenting situations, including grandparents taking over primary responsibility for raising a grandchild, adoptions by both heterosexual and same-sex couples or by a lone individual. 

In any case, if you have child(ren) during the the time leading up to tenure there is a chance of reduced productivity in relationship to potential competitors without children or with mates bearing the primary biological or caretaking responsibilities.  Because only women get pregnant and, in general and historically, women have carried the majority of childcare responsibilities, there has been a systematic disadvantage for women in Academia.  A recent article from Slate outlines this very clearly.

So what is to be done?

 Action Items:

(1) Health insurance for graduate students including dependent coverage.

Many universities provide health insurance options for graduate students, and in some cases this includes coverage for dependents.  There is a lot of ongoing change in health care related to The Affordable Care Act and other socio-political forces and we don’t know all of the implications for academics having children.  Whatever the case may be with national policy, we strongly urge all universities to ensure that graduate students have health insurance, including maternity coverage and coverage for dependents.  University administrators: Stop talking about how you value diversity in hiring until you remove this kind of basic barrier for women to enter and succeed in academia.  Graduate students: it is entirely appropriate to ask about health insurance prior to joining a university graduate program!  Faculty: find out for yourself what health care options exist for graduate students and be prepared to present that information to students you are recruiting.

(2) Maternity leave for graduate students.

Graduate students should/must be given maternity time off.  We would imagine in many programs there is enough inherent flexibility that maternity time can be assimilated into the program without particular rule changes; however, some policy statement of support could and should be adopted by graduate programs.  Graduate Program Chairs and Faculty Mentors should be ready and willing to help graduate students modify their projects to accommodate leave time.

(3) On-site child care or child care stipends for graduate students.

Once maternity leave is over there are many more years in which child care is a necessity.  It is a tremendous burden to find child care that is acceptable, psychologically difficult to drop off and leave your little buddy; and, it is absurdly expensive if you are living on a graduate student stipend.  Many graduate students have traveled far from their families (many international students are, literally, oceans away) so informal support is lacking.  These barriers to professional success are unique to those who have children, and most of the time women disproportionately bear these burdens.  For this reason, one action that would help equalize the “playing field” for women in academia is institutional support for child care. This policy is also very basically “pro family.”  Support for child care could take the form of on-site subsidized child care or a stipend for off campus services.  Indeed, we recommend that if a particular university cannot provide on-campus child care, they establish relationships with off-campus operations and provide aid for students in finding quality child care. 

(4) Time-line assistance for post-docs (grant extensions, university support).*

A postdoctoral appointee is usually categorized as a full-time “staff” member and will typically have access to health insurance and leave policies that are provided to all other full-time employees.  Even so, a postdoc almost always depends on the availability of grant funds to cover the salary and fringe, and the money itself nearly always has an end date within about 3 years.  Universities and funding agencies need to recognize this reality by adopting maternity leave policies that address these timeline issues.  One straight-forward action would be for major grant funders to create timeline extension policies for grants that include a postdoctoral associate.  Indeed, NSF now requires a postdoctoral mentoring plan be included in grants that seek funding to hire such a person, so infrastructure is in place for: (a) identifying grants that include postdoctoral funding and (b) assessing the quality of mentoring.  A simple additional step is to include a maternity contingency agreement between the award winning faculty and the granting agency.  We further recommend that large granting agencies set aside special funding to help bridge project delays associated with maternity leave.  For instance, any grant that includes postdoctoral funding can promise 6 months additional salary and an automatic one year extension of the grant to cover maternity leave if needed.   

*Thanks to Natalie Wright for bringing this issue into focus for us.

(5) Maternity-related leave and tenure-clock flexibility for tenure-track faculty.

Regardless of industry or occupation, women should get time off to have a baby and be home in the early days.  So it should be a normal expectation that women in academia are offered at least one semester leave from *all* university-related activity as “maternity leave.”  In combination with a summer either prior or following that semester this constitutes a strong maternity leave period.  We further recommend that this policy be extended to include post-adoption periods for new parents.

Some (most?  all?) universities provide faculty with the opportunity to negotiate tenure timelines in response to the development of unique and potentially problematic circumstances.  For instance, if you typically come up for tenure in your 6th year and some significant event occurs, you could argue for a one year delay on the decision and instead come up in your 7th year.  We propose that this be an automatic “offer” that accompanies maternity.  An extra year, with no change in criteria, simply provides for parity in candidate bids for tenure.  Moreover, having it as a built-in policy would remove any “stigma” of having to petition for extra time.  That extra time could be declined by the candidate if pre-tenure reviews indicate success is inevitable, or taken to bolster the case for tenure.  We further recommend access to this policy for anyone involved in a new parenting situation (including adoption).

(6) University-level support for departments to cover maternity leave.

With an obligation to provide one semester leave for maternity and new parents (as proposed above), departments need institutional support to cover the missing activities.  For example, funding to hire instructors or other staff to fill in this gap should be provided.  If it is not provided, and the department is left to bear the burden of the missing faculty member, the pressure will inevitably shifts back to the parents involved because it will be strongly in the best interests of the Department to have the Faculty member decline the offered leave.  This would de facto invalidate the leave policy.

(7) Research assistant support for tenure-track women on maternity leave.

If the new parent is in a research heavy department with high expectations for publication and grant writing, the idea of leave seems absurd…because absence from the research endeavor kills momentum, endangering the program and, thus, the upcoming tenure bid.

This one is extremely hard to manage from an institutional/policy perspective as nothing the university can do can fully replace the research activity of the person on leave.  One thing that may help would be institutional support for a research assistant for the maternity leave period.  Again, that person cannot possibly replace the function of the PI; however, it may be a way to create a bridge.  For instance, it may enable the faculty member to retain a finishing PhD student in a 6 month post-doc position who could get some papers out and maintain lab momentum while that parent is snuggling and sleeping with the new little one (which she should feel free and happy to do!)

(8) On-site child care or child care stipends for faculty.

See the above argument for grad student child care.  Of course, faculty members have a much stronger financial base than graduate students for paying for child care, and yet, the basic issues remain.  It’s very expensive, time consuming, psychologically draining, and logistically complicated to land a child care scenario that works for parent and child.  Universities should seek to develop on-site options and support for faculty in finding child care outside the university if necessary.  If no child care options exist on campus, we suggest universities create a stipend program to cover child care for parents in academia that is separate from salary and a set of relationships with off-campus providers.

(9) Mentoring programs for tenure-track faculty

All faculty need tenured mentors and advocates in their program that can help them navigate the tenure process, especially in cases that involve the maternity experience.  Departments need to make sure this support is available.

– – –

**We realize these 9 action items address but a small part of the social infra-structure that has yielded a male-dominated academy.** 

Even so, we feel strongly that they are structural components to a long-term solution.  Further, these basic items are not only pro-women, they are pro-family, and, to that end, are in everyone’s interest.

One final item that we recommend (10) is that everyone involved in mentoring in academia take part in creating conversations around the issues of gender equity and balance, and parenting in the Academy.  Getting these issues on the table in front of both males and females, starting during the undergraduate experience, will help transform discourse and policy in the future.

This post was co-authored with *Amy L. Goff-Yates, PhD


3 thoughts on “Maternity, timelines and seeking a career in Academia: An overview and 10 action items

  1. Pingback: Women in Science- fundamental issues, resources and action items – The McEwan Laboratory

  2. “A postdoctoral appointee is usually categorized as a full-time “staff” member and will typically have access to health insurance and leave policies that are provided to all other full-time employees.”
    One important caveat is that staff often need to work 6 months or a year for full benefits, including maternity leave, to kick in. Given that postdocs tend to be short, this means there’s a good chance the person will not have been at their current institution long enough to qualify for any or full leave. We need to come up with better solutions for dealing with this.

    Thanks for highlighting this issue!

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