The parent "penalty" in academia

Posted on 23/06/2022


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The struggle of balancing work and childcare tend to push new parents working in science out of the academic field: "Nearly one-half of new mothers and nearly one-quarter of new fathers leave full-time STEM employment after having children", "Parenthood is an important driver of gender imbalance in STEM employment, and both mothers and fathers appear to encounter difficulties reconciling caregiving with STEM careers." (The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM, PNAS).

Specific struggles for STEM Parents

Genome Biology interviews of parents in science and PhD student Sheena Josselyn’s  testimonial for SfN Neuronline, actually shine a positive light on being a STEM parent wherein the work schedules are more flexible than one’s average desk work. However, their testimonials also show that they had to strategically plan their pregnancy based on their career path: either between post-doctoral positions or once a stable position was secured.

This would mean that becoming a parent as an early-career scientist implies taking a risk on your career path. In the book Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, the authors reviewed the literature and discussed The Mom Penalty in STEM: "Our most important finding has been that family negatively affects women's, but not men's early academic careers"," for men, however, the pattern has been either neutral or even net-positive."

Childcare policies and gender gap

A strong critique on childcare policies, an article appearing in EuroScientist entitled "Inadequate Childcare Policies Affect Scientists' Careers" reports that "the most crucial components of leave policies are the length of leave, payment levels, flexibility, eligibility rules and coordination with childcare services.". For example: "In Sweden and Germany, the system is very generous as long as you stay home until the kids are one year old. But as a scientist you cannot take a year off, as you would be getting off from research". The Gender Equality Index 2019 EIGE reports in detail the diversity of childcare policies in Europe. Usually, when formal childcare is not available, relatives and trusted friends can help and support parents. But in a STEM career, you are expected to move internationally, and this model of informal childcare is not an option.

Travelling parents and accommodation in conferences 

A strong component of a scientist's life is attending conferences to share their research findings, gain visibility and increase their network. The collection of testimonials in eLife Science, The Scientist and ScienceMag details the many logistic and financial challenges encountered by STEM parents wanting to attend a conference: "It is easy to see why some parents may decide to just skip conference travel altogether, especially when many academic parents are early-career researchers, who often have limited financial resources."

Fortunately, researchers like Dr Rebecca Calisi with her website Parents who Science and the opinion piece How to tackle the childcare–conference conundrum (PNAS) are helping to amplify the voices of STEM parents. This is evidenced by solutions suggested in the articles New initiatives offer childcare solutions to traveling scientists (ScienceMag) and How conferences are getting better at accommodating child-caring scientists (Nature). Affordable childcare services can be provided at the conference site and a framework of childcare grants can be established to help parents pay for their childcare solutions

Given that most conferences have gone virtual in the current pandemic situation, conference travel is not the main issue anymore. However, the pandemic has given rise to other persisting difficulties for the scientific community. Learn more in our article "The impact of COVID-19 on Women and Minorities in Science".


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