Empower, don’t discourage parents in science
It’s okay to have kids
Once you become a mother, you’ll underachieve. At least: compared to other scientists. That’s what Rifka Vlijm’s male colleagues told her when she let them know she wanted to have kids.
‘What they meant was that academia is a very competitive field’, the assistant professor of molecular biophysics says. ‘So I would be compared to those who work under “better conditions”.’
It stressed her out a little, she admits, although she didn’t let that stop her: she is now the mother of two. Still, she says, ‘women often hear negative comments from people who don’t even realise their impact.’
Loredana Protesescu was almost dissuaded from pursuing an academic career by that same attitude among her peers. She obtained her PhD degree at 27, shortly after giving birth to her daughter. And even though she graduated summa cum laude and won several awards for her thesis on functional inorganic materials, she still felt that ‘having a baby on board’ meant she couldn’t make it in academia.
She told her supervisor that she would have to switch to a job in the industry, ‘because I couldn’t work as many hours as before’. Luckily, ‘he understood that I just needed some time to get adjusted to my new status’ and offered her a postdoc position.
It’s the rush hour of your life
These days, she’s an assistant professor of chemistry. ‘Without my supervisor, I could have been on a different path’, she says. ‘It’s clear that you need support from the university, be it extra time or daycare facilities.’
Cristina Paulino, assistant professor of structural biology and membrane enzymology, agrees that women should get substantial compensation. ‘Carrying a child for nine months and delivering it constrains your physical abilities for quite a long time’, she says. ‘And after childbirth, you’re still recovering and in most cases not able to do the extra work that you could do before.’
That’s not the only thing that puts mothers at a disadvantage. The Dutch Research Council (NWO) grants extensions of eighteen months to new mothers who want to submit a time-bound grant proposal, but for the other parent, that extension is only six months. That shows the system favours the woman as the primary childcarer, says Shirin Faraji, associate professor of theoretical and computational chemistry. ‘Fathers would be applying for the grants first, because the mothers can apply for a longer extension later.’
For women at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, where male scientists outnumber the women in all academic positions, gender inequality is a pressing issue. According to the 2019 data, women at FSE accounted for 38 percent of PhD candidates and the share of female professors stood at just 19 percent.
‘The time when you can have children coincides with the time when you have to prove yourself and build a reputation: that’s the rush hour of your life’, says Paulino, who became a mother at 37. ‘We have to acknowledge that people feel overburdened if there is no support.’
A survey by WISE, a networking group for Women in Science and Engineering at the UG, found that being an international complicates things even further. ‘Often, both members of the couple are working in academia, so they both have very intense schedules’, says assistant professor of theoretical physics Anastasia Borschevsky, who, like Paulino and Faraji, is a board member of WISE.
Often, both parents work in academia
In addition, it takes extra effort for internationals to wade through the ins and outs of the Dutch childcare system. ‘The UG could really improve on that by creating a guideline for international parents’, says professor of information systems Dimka Karastoyanova. She had to gather information on maternity leave regulations by contacting several people at various departments, which took weeks.
She was surprised to find out that paid maternity leave in the Netherlands is only sixteen weeks, whereas in Germany, where she worked before, you get up to fourteen months. ‘You always feel guilty leaving a five-month-old baby at daycare.’
Lack of local family support is another complicating factor. Karastoyanova, whose husband is also an academic at the UG, had to figure out how to raise two kids in a new country during the lockdown, when daycare centres closed. ‘We joke that only one of us can get ill, so the other one can take care of the kids.’
But it’s not easy for Dutch parents to juggle being a parent and a researcher, either. Vlijm managed to arrange an exemption from teaching in the evening after she had her child. Still, she wouldn’t have been able to pursue her career without her husband’s help, she says. ‘He is extremely flexible to take over.’
Molecular biology PhD student Lisa Hielkema’s husband decided to cut back on work when they became parents. Nevertheless, she’s worried about the effect having kids may have on both her career and that of her supervisor. ‘I feel responsible, because she’s also on a tenure track, so she depends on me.’
What these parents really want is support from their employer: a clear signal that it is okay to have kids.
Leiden University has its own childcare centre, but a programme that offers childcare services for employees who have to go abroad – like there is for visiting researchers – would be a start. ‘When my husband went abroad for a conference, I had to invite my mother to come over from Bulgaria to help me with the kids’, says Karastoyanova.
People assume you’re not good enough
According to HR policy advisor Frank Nienhuis, it’s on the UG’s wish list to come up with a solution to provide emergency childcare that’s allowed by the tax authorities, but that hasn’t happened yet. ‘We can, however, advise on the existing childcare facilities in the Netherlands.’
Having flexible and extended childcare on campus can be about more than just solving practical issues, says Paulino. ‘There’s also a psychological component to it: parents would feel supported and empowered to have kids and more fathers might contribute to childcare, or take over.’
It is fundamental that researchers are allowed to choose their own balance between work and life, says professor of physics Beatriz Noheda. ‘People assume that if you haven’t become a professor by a certain age, you’re not good enough. That needs to change, so that we can look at our careers as a whole: a few years of lower performance shouldn’t make a big difference in the long run.’
She had her kids at the age of 40 and 43, but not everyone is so lucky, she says. She knows female scholars who couldn’t have children by the time they considered themselves established enough. ‘It’s important that the research environment doesn’t discourage scientists from creating a family’, she says.
Because even if mothers need some extra time to adjust, they do not lag behind, Vlijm says. ‘I was way more efficient in my research experiments than people who didn’t have children, because I had to leave in time for daycare, so I made sure everything was ready.’
Noheda agrees. ‘If your manager would tell you not to worry and to go and have kids, we would gain from that, because parenthood gives you tools that may make you a more capable person.’