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Women who take extended maternity leave face a tougher return to work

For many, leaving academia to start a family is a one-way trip – a derailment condescendingly referred to as “the mommy track.”
NOV 27 2019

Women who take extended maternity leave face a tougher return to work

For many, leaving academia to start a family is a one-way trip – a derailment condescendingly referred to as “the mommy track.”


Tara Martin seemingly had it all. She had shattered the glass ceiling. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, she rose to the position of principal research scientist with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, founding a team pioneering a new area: conservation decision-making. In a leadership role that included creating opportunities for graduate students, her encouragement to her female students was, “you can do it all, it’s possible.” All the while, Dr. Martin felt pressed to bear the additional load as female team members had babies and took maternity leaves.

Her position came with a high personal cost, too. Turning 40, “I was at the top of my game,” she says. “I had a brilliant group of students in my lab, wonderful colleagues, a beautiful home. I had it all. But I was utterly miserable, because the thing that I wanted most was actually to have a baby. … Because I’d been so focused on my career, that opportunity had eluded me.”

Dr. Martin couldn’t see any available avenue, institutionally and personally, to make the leap to parenthood. As she rose in her career, “when I looked at my female mentors, none of them had children, and that was quite telling to me,” she says. Many of her male colleagues did have children. All had partners at home tending to them. Faced with the dilemma many other women have encountered – whether motherhood is tenable alongside a professional career – she quit her job.

Moving back to Canada, with family nearby, she began a new relationship. In the four years between leaving her tenured position at CSIRO and landing a professorship in the faculty of forestry at UBC in the summer of 2018, she had two babies. “So, it’s worked out. But it might not have. I might have been one of the statistics on this ‘leaky pipeline,’” she says, referring to the term used to describe the steady attrition of young women as they enter into potential research careers only to drop out at various stages along the way.

Dr. Martin is not alone as a professional woman taking an extended career break for child-rearing. What’s unusual is her successful return to the tenure track. For many, leaving academia to start a family is a one-way trip – a derailment condescendingly referred to as “the mommy track.” The academic environment, though slowly changing, still lacks a reputation as a flexible, family-friendly work environment.

Read more: Students with kids press universities for more support

In her 2013 book, Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, co-authored with Nicholas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden, Mary Ann Mason at the University of California, Berkeley, highlights lower and later birth rates amongst female professors compared with women in medicine and law. What’s more, the authors found that women academics who are parents have lower odds of securing tenure-track jobs compared to male colleagues who are parents.

Despite the fact that women have long outnumbered men at the undergraduate level in Canada, and now surpass men at the master’s level and comprise nearly half of doctoral students, substantial leaks in the academic pipeline continue to appear for women, primarily around the postdoctoral stage. There, the gender ratio bifurcates from parity and the numbers accelerate towards a pronounced male bias in tenured professors. Many of these leaks in the pipeline of female academics occur when the tenure clock conflicts with the biological clock. After leaving, very few return.

Successful returner programs in other professions and other countries suggest it doesn’t have to be this way. “Despite very strong progress at earlier career stages for women, some important barriers remain, suggesting a glass ceiling in the highest levels of academia,” concluded the 2012 Canadian Council of Academies report, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension. The report revealed that gender bias in faculty composition increased with seniority, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Institutional inflexibility around the still female-biased workload of parenting, a workaholic culture, and a paucity of financial and logistical family-friendly support structures, remain key hypotheses for why women leave academia. For the sciences in particular, a study by Elaine Ecklund and Anne Lincoln published in PLOS One in 2011 concluded that “family factors impede talented young scientists of both sexes from persisting to research positions in academic science.”


Change is underway. In Canada, procedures to assist women or men returning to academic careers after parental leaves of typical lengths include pausing the tenure clock, offering pre- and post-leave support, and providing family-friendly workspaces upon their return.

As well, some funding agencies provide extensions to research grants for maternity or parental leave. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, for example, offers a funding extension of up to two years, allowing for research continuity by covering certain expenses during the grant holder’s absence, such as the salaries of staff or students providing administrative support for the research projects. “If a recipient has a grant of $30,000 a year for five years, a two-year extension increases the grant from $150,000 to $210,000,” explains Martin Leroux, senior communications advisor at NSERC.

Dominique Bérubé, vice-president of research programs at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, says applicants for SSHRC funding opportunities can choose to include information on career interruptions resulting, for example, from maternity, parental, medical or family leaves. Peer reviewers are advised to consider these legitimate prolonged career breaks during adjudication to ensure applicants are treated equitably and not penalized for gaps in their productivity, she says.

As well, the 2019 federal budget extended the duration of paid parental leave coverage from six months to 12 months for students and postdoctoral fellows who receive funding from the three federal granting agencies. Extending the duration of paid parental leave “will provide more flexibility to reconcile research training with family responsibilities at the time of the birth or adoption of a child,” says Ms. Bérubé.

These accommodations ease the return to academia after traditional maternity leaves. But what about accommodating leavers who assessed that academia is an unsupportive and inflexible work environment in which to parent? Given the right support structures, might some of these highly educated women, after an extended career break and now with older children, choose to come back?

“If there are resources out there to help one navigate back into academia post-breeding, I am not aware of them,” says UBC’s Dr. Martin. She attributes her successful return to academia to sheer determination and working, mostly unpaid, while birthing and caring for two babies. Other sources contacted for this article – the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology; NSERC’s Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering program; the Canadian Association of University Teachers; the writers of the Hook & Eye blog, among others – were unaware of any academic returner programs in Canada. Yet the disproportionately few Canadian women progressing to the senior academic ranks, and low birthrates among those that do, suggest that returner programs might help repair some of the leaks in the pipeline.

Read more: Could parental leave actually be good for my academic career?

Anuradha Dugal, director of community initiatives and policy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, notes that the structural roots of academia trace back to all-male institutions attended by monks. As universities diverged from strictly religious entities, the expectation was that professors with children had a partner shouldering family and domestic duties. She notes that affordable childcare, something she’s fortunate to have in Quebec, is a huge issue in academia and elsewhere. On-campus daycare, though available, is often oversubscribed. Students, postdocs and faculty can spend years on wait lists for limited spots.

McMaster University’s faculty of engineering is a notable exception to the paucity of programs catering to extended leaves. Their Engineering Life Event Fund (ELEF) was born from faculty brainstorming after a colleague’s difficult pregnancy and premature birth.

“When someone goes on leave, whether it’s for health, pregnancy or family care, we have policies that will relieve them from their duties … but it’s still a hit to one’s professional career,” says McMaster’s dean of engineering, Ishwar Puri. The ELEF was conceived to at least dull the blow.

The fund allows recipients to hire a postdoc or research associate to run the lab, mentor students, help write papers and organize proposals in their absence. It is often women who take up the opportunity to access the ELEF. “Women should not be burdened by life events more than men are,” says Dr. Puri, who notes that promoting gender equity was another motivation for the fund.

Over the last five years, 10 faculty members have made use of the fund, an outlay of over $500,000. But the returns on investment in terms of retention, reputation, productivity and attracting talent “is immeasurable,” says Dr. Puri. Asked if he’s heard of similar programs in Canada, he says no.

But, other examples do exist, albeit elsewhere. The U.K.-based Daphne Jackson Trust offers fellowships to women to return to academia after an extended career break of more than two years. The trust’s namesake, Daphne Jackson (1936-1991), the United Kingdom’s first female physics professor, is alleged to have said, “Imagine a society that would allow Marie Curie to stack shelves in a supermarket simply because she took a career break for family reasons.”

The fellowships involve a research project and provide mentoring, support and guidance for up to three years. Fellows work part-time, which allows them “to reintegrate themselves back into the workplace and still manage their work-life balance very well,” says Katie Perry, the trust’s chief executive.

The trust matches fellows with a host – usually a university or research institute – and a sponsor that pays a fellow’s salary and other expenses, and contributes funds to the trust. The trust offers up to 24 fellowships per year exclusively to returners and predominantly in academia. “We have a good success rate because we’re really thinking about the people and what they want to do moving on from their fellowship,” says Dr. Perry, adding that, “returners are such an untapped pool of talent.”

The re-entry grants are only available to residents of the U.K. However, there is an opportunity, specifically for physicists, in the U.S. and Canada wanting to return to research careers: the American Physical Society’s M. Hildred Blewitt Fellowship. The fellowship consists of a one-year award of up to $45,000 U.S. to enable women to return to physics research careers after an extended interruption.

One made-in-Canada resource outside academia is the Work Re-Engagement Program of the Alberta Women’s Science Network. The program is designed to assist female STEM professionals in the province to return to work after an absence of two years or more. “If we’re losing women in STEM, it’s because they’re not finding their place,” notes geologist Alicia Bjarnason, who co-authored the guide explaining the program. She adds that returning after a career break may require a new direction, noting that, when it comes to career paths, “We’re on a jungle gym here, not a ladder.”

Within government, Janice Zinck had difficulty finding examples of Canadian programs to assist those returning from extended career breaks, so her agency, Natural Resources Canada, designed its own. Ms. Zinck, director of the department’s Green Mining Initiative and lead of a STEM diversity program, says “we realized there was really a big gap in terms of re-entry opportunities.”

Tapping into a demographic of educated, enthusiastic and available talent, the group secured funding and launched a pilot project this past February, seeking women and Indigenous STEM-educated individuals who have been outside the workforce for five years or more. Of 145 applications, five were funded. With applicants working remotely from their home location, the program “provides as much exposure and experience as possible to be able to help ease them into more permanent employment,” says Ms. Zinck.

In the corporate world, U.S.-based iRelaunch began in 2007 as a program supporting women re-entering mainly business careers following an extended leave. In Canada, there’s the Back to Work program offered through the Initiative for Women in Business at U of T’s Rotman School of Management. The program provides a supportive peer and alumni network, coaching and modules to retrain women for re-entry to the business world, says Linda Torry, the manager and a graduate of the program. Catering to mid-career women with advanced degrees, it’s in its 10th year.

The 2012 CCA report concluded that, “Because of the lack of flexibility within the academic system, women researchers appear to be changing their life courses to fit the institutional structure, whereas men do not appear to be constrained by these considerations in the same way.” But, as seen from the various examples of programs that help women to traverse their career gaps, it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of expecting women academics to alter their life course to fit a rigid institutional structure, what if the institutional structure modernized to fit today’s diverse workforce? Support programs to help women re-enter academia following extended career breaks could provide a valuable backstop to the leaky academic pipeline.

Lesley Evans Ogden
Lesley Evans Ogden is an ecologist-turned-freelance science journalist based near Vancouver. She’s on Twitter @ljevanso.
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  1. Helen / November 27, 2019 at 12:38

    The increasing trend of reliance on contract positions to fill teaching needs at universities makes it so much harder to plan and have a family while working in academia. Given that undergraduate degrees take 4 years, Masters degrees take 2 years and PhDs take 4 (I’m being conservative on this last one) to complete, women are already well into declining fertility by the time they’re eligible for teaching and research positions at most universities. In spite of all the narrative out there about inclusion and diversity, leadership is making it harder and harder to achieve. Nobody wants to bring a child into a life characterised by precarious employment. With more years of post-secondary education than many physicians, we need to treat early career academics with more respect than that.

    • Leah / July 2, 2023 at 18:10

      I’m a grad student in civil Eng. Working on a project with 3 male students and 2 female students. Two of the 3 men’s partners have had a baby during their time as grad students on this project. With things like chemicals and heavy lifting it doesn’t seem like an option for me.

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