A third of new mothers quit science

A third of new mothers quit science

"What is this?" A male hand reaches out and pulls a leaky container from my bag. "Breast milk." He makes a face. "Tasty and nutritious", I counter.

I'm at Newcastle Airport, on my way home from a conference. At snail's pace, about 30 such containers are fed through the scanner. My two PhDs look on, somewhat embarrassed. I am a professor-mother, or mother-professor: a rather rare combination, as it turns out.

In early December, the Dutch National Network of Women Professors presented new figures. The proportion of female professors has grown to 27.6 percent. However, that growth – which was already minimal (just 1% each year) – is slowing down. Women students are in the majority, but with each step on the academic career ladder the percentage of women drops. There is some good news, though: the members of the old boys' network are retiring, and the pool of associate professors (one step below full professor) is bursting with top female talent. So now is the time to turn the tide! But merely appointing more women professors will not be enough: the figures also show that the proportion of women who quit their hard-won professorships is high, especially among mothers.

Last November, the nonprofit organization Mothers in Science presented the figures for four groups of scientists: fathers, mothers, and male and female academics without children. In addition to the obstacles faced by many women in science, such as gender stereotypes, discrimination, and sexism, mothers are penalised even more severely than the rest. They are the most likely to suffer a burnout and/or to leave science; the least appreciated and lowest paid; and the most likely to have a temporary contract. They receive fewer promotions, and seldom hold leadership positions. Strikingly, however, mothers publish more scientific articles than men and women without children. Other striking findings include that it is fathers who have the greatest output, and that mothers work as much overtime as the rest. The data show that it is not parenthood in itself that is the problem: mothers are every bit as competent and ambitious as fathers or childless men and women. No, it must be something to do with motherhood.

To explain what, let me take myself as an example. Four years ago, I fell pregnant. My sleep was disturbed due to various discomforts, and I went around like a bit of a zombie. At 35 weeks, my son was born, and both of us had to stay in hospital for a while to recuperate, after which I succumbed to postnatal depression. After four months, I took my tiny little son to daycare and picked up my old role. But I felt like an actress 'acting the scientist'. A year and a half later, I had a miscarriage, and it took me a long time to recover. My third pregnancy, which led to the birth of my second child, was marked by stress and physical complaints. A year later, I'm busy juggling, just trying to keep all the balls in the air.

I am fortunate, with two healthy boys and a partner who has one day a week off. The children go to daycare three days a week, and my parents help a lot. Despite these relatively luxurious conditions, the constant broken nights leave me feeling exhausted. And my schedule is less flexible. If there's an event late in the day, I have to give it a miss, because the kids have to be collected from daycare. Other people's assumptions don't help either. Data from Mothers in Science show that these assumptions have it that women are seen as less competent, ambitious, and employable after childbirth. This is familiar to me, for example from people's surprised reactions if I turn up at a conference with baby and babysitter in tow, or bring along a breast pump and a cool box.

Actions speak louder than words
Universities are responsible for ensuring the high quality of science, and diversity and a diversity of perspectives are a major contributory factor. Talk the talk, walk the walk. If universities want to stem the outflow of valuable scientific talent, they must not be content with fine words about gender equality; they must put the words into action by making concrete adjustments to a culture and structures that have been built up over the centuries for and by men, and are seriously in need of an overhaul. An all-important first step is to listen to the group of mothers in science and to identify and remove the obstacles that lead to inequality. Ensure that policies are really designed to provide the same opportunities for everyone, whether male or female, parent or childless.

The current policies are unfair. To give one concrete example: Part of the time I spend on research alongside my teaching duties is paid for by research grants. This funding covers the costs necessary to carry out a research project for which clear goals must be achieved within a set timeframe. Maternity leave, and breastfeeding or expressing breastmilk during working hours, all eats into this time, while the amount of research work to be done remains the same. The Dutch national insurance agency UWV compensates universities for maternity leave, which makes it possible to hire in additional research assistance, for instance, to help the researcher meet goals. However, this compensation does not cover all the costs, and often ends up in the university's general coffers.

Give mothers back the time they lose. Reduce their teaching load so they can work on the research output that is all-important for their career prospects. Give them extra travel funding to attend conferences and maintain contacts. And above all, give them more female role models to show that with a little extra support, it is indeed possible to combine motherhood and science in a healthy and sustainable way.