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The Black Hole

Reflections from a male scientist on parental leave


My 3.5 months of parental leave recently finished and I’m back in the lab. It’s been a fantastic experience overall – I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed my time. The lab did not fall apart (phew!) and the physical removal from the day-to-day of running the group has cleared my head.   I’ve also interacted with large numbers of academic parents in Cambridge (mostly mothers I must admit) and these parents worry regularly about their chances of staying competitive.

Some try to maximize the amount of work that they can get done while on leave, many return to work early despite having the option of longer leave and many have extremely well planned strategies for their leave – virtual meetings, meetings at home, partitioning workload such that experiments get done before and analysis gets done after. Grants get planned and written during nap times. We’ve had bloggers share their experiences before and it’s a hard road.

There may be differences between fields (I’m in medical science and many of my colleagues are too) and it may be that people feel compelled by other factors to put on an “I always think about my work” face to their colleagues. It may also be that the people who try to “do it all” make the road incredibly difficult for others because they set the expectation of doing work while on leave.

What is clear though, and more common than you’d like to imagine, is that a successful academic career is often supported by international relocation of grandparents, a partner with a part-time (or no) job, and the employment of child-minders and/or cleaners on top of crippling nursery costs.  Sometimes I feel that we send the message that if you can’t do these things (go broke, lean heavily on family that is far away, have your partner quit their job) you can’t have children and “make it” as a scientist.

Now that I have some sense of what it is like to be primary carer, cook, and cleaner, I also have a new appreciation for how much harder the road is for women who have to carry and physically bear the child on top of these duties.

Some important qualifiers about my situation:

1) My parental leave took place when my child was between five months and nine months of age. In no way does this compare to a mother’s childbearing nor the first months of having a new child in one’s life. I also recognize that many of our readers (especially in North America) do not have the option of taking paid leave beyond 12 weeks. To those mothers, I can only apologize for what might sound like a patronizing story from a position of extreme luxury.

2) I know that I am in a position of privilege to be able to take parental leave (the UK has a fantastic new shared parental leave policy), to be able to write about the leave, and to be able to continue my research career as an independent scientist. I also realize that this privilege (and writing from that perspective) may offend some people who have struggled much more than I have. My partner is also a full time scientific researcher and I see daily that the obstacles and pressures she faces are much greater.

Qualifiers aside, I still think it is important for men to talk about taking leave – if we don’t share the experience, it’s as if we’re not doing it. And if we’re not doing it, then why would men in the future do it? I want to encourage more men to take leave and in order for change to occur, the practice needs to be normalized. I hope these reflections will be taken in that spirit.

What was my parental leave like?

First and foremost, I have enjoyed and will always treasure this time – forging a bond with my child, watching him grow and develop on a full-time daily basis and supporting my wife in her own academic journey are each important and rewarding in their own ways. Priorities (life and work) are altered as a result in a way that I feel might not have happened if I only had time before and after a stressful work day to spend with him.

Secondly, the parenting job is much bigger than I ever imagined. While I was prepared for feeding, changing and playing with my son, I underestimated the other jobs. No single task was particularly cumbersome (laundry, cooking, bottle sterilizing, etc), but together they can certainly fill the day and then some. After a few weeks, it became much more manageable as I developed systems that worked for me, but the initial phase was difficult.

That said, I also feel that my partner accomplished much more for the household on her leave than I could manage (things like organizing/storing clothes of the wrong sizes that I didn’t always think about). She also accomplished much more during my leave in this respect than I did when she was on leave and sometimes it feels like I’m not a particularly good parent by comparison!

But I think the most important experience gained as a male scientist on leave is a better appreciation for what it takes to be a good parent taking leave. Through this, I can (at least partially) understand the toll that parental leave can take on one’s career development path and hope this will improve our fight to make things better. Overall, I believe (and studies in Sweden support this notion) that systemic change will only come when both sexes understand at least some component of the process – weep with jealousy at the 10 things that make Sweden great for parents, where 25 percent of all parental leave is taken by men.

The most acute problem in academic science is that funding agencies, universities, and employers have failed to recognize that the human resources have shifted to the point where people are having children at precisely the time when their career is most precarious – no wonder swathes of female postdocs and young group leaders are fleeing science.

So what can be done to improve the situation?

1) Get longer (paid) leave time sorted out in places where it does not exist. This is a battle that extends across society, but we need to start somewhere and funding agencies and universities seem a reasonable place to start since their policies can gold-plate a national minimum.

2) Encourage more men to take periods of leave (policies like those in Sweden where men have a use-it-or-lose-it three months are a neat example) – ask your male friends who are expecting children how many months of leave they are taking (men need to ask/support other men too!).

3) Establish rules in research grant/fellowship competitions that recognize that the parenting struggle is borne mostly by mothers. The European Research Council Starting Grants have a fantastic model here – women get 18 months extended eligibility for every child they have irrespective of leave taken and men get the actual number of months they are primary carer as their extension.

I hope that people in CIHR/NSERC/SSHRC and senior university administrative positions are reading this. There are several approaches that cost nothing and can only help in retaining female researchers:

  • CVs of female researchers with children should be able to report six to seven years of important research contributions instead of the standard five years.
  • The eligibility definition for young investigator awards can be adjusted in accordance with the ERC example above. The same can be done for fellowships and scholarships that have an age/year component.

We’ll see how fast things progress, but slow progress is better than no progress – my fingers remain tightly crossed.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Jaewoo Kim / November 2, 2016 at 15:17

    Great article. Certainly more parental/maternity benefits would be beneficial, and better perceptions are needed at universities and funding agencies to set the standard/tone for the wider communities in Canada.

    To clarify, there are parental/maternity benefits offered to PhD students and post-docs from NSERC, as I have taken them as a male student/post-doc. Although I agree more is needed to attract and retain talents in Science as benefit/pension/employee status are troubling issues for graduating students, early career researchers such as post-doc, part-time/adjunct scholars, etc.

    Below is a link from NSERC regarding parental/maternity leaves:

  2. Karine / November 4, 2016 at 13:00

    Nice post, thank you very much for covering this topic.
    However, as a female academic, I have to mention that as far as I experienced it myself, the core of the issue regarding women, parental leave and academic performances is not that much on the side of grant agencies: NSERC, for instance, has some policies for women returning from a parental leave, so their contributions are actually extended to 2-3 years back, depending on the duration of the leave.
    Actually, the issue is mostly within selection committees for academic positions. Indeed, women that took their parental leave after their PhD or had their children during their postdoctoral years are not much competitive on these positions. This is were the culture needs the most to be changed. Yet, can we blame selection committees to select a candidate based on his current records, rather than choosing another one based on its “record to be”?
    At the end, this questions the whole “publish or perish” system we live in that is, overall, detrimental to women in academic research.

  3. A / November 4, 2016 at 13:46

    Interesting article. I am a big proponent of paternal leave and supporting women (& mothers) in the workplace. However, your point about female researchers with children being able to report an additional year of research on their CVs was interesting. How do you balance the rights of parents with those without children?
    As a nurse I work in a female dominated profession and in my region everything is based on seniority (based on years worked). Our salary increases and more job opportunities are available with more years of seniority. Nurses on maternity leave accrue a year of seniority while they are away from the workplace. While this is beneficial for these mothers, for those staff who didn’t have children (either because they chose not to or were not able to) it can seem somewhat unfair. One of my colleagues who couldn’t have children remarked on this stating that she sometimes got frustrated as from her perspective parents were given many more benefits (more likely to get Christmas off than New Years, more sick days to accommodate sick children, etc.). In addition, when preferred job postings were available her years of work experience were viewed equally with someone who had taken maternity leave(s) despite her having more years of true work experience. This might be simply a problem of/in my region/profession but I wonder if the solution is not quite as simple as suggested. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • David Kent / November 4, 2016 at 13:59

      Thanks for the comment – the biggest difference that springs to mind is that the career prospects of a young female academic are much more fragile. The field changes rapidly, experiments can rarely be stopped/started with a seamless transition and grants/promotions are often decided on very finite windows of “productivity” (e.g., 5 years) – if you’ve had two babies in those five years and your job applications are going in, it can be a real struggle.

      It would be great to hear what other readers think though.

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