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Ten measures to avoid leaving an academic career after motherhood

Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, CREAF researcher at the time of the study, is currently a researcher at the University of Bern and the University of Lausanne.
Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, CREAF researcher at the time of the study, is currently a researcher at the University of Bern and the University of Lausanne.

The challenges related to motherhood often lead women to leave academia after their first child. Studies conducted in the United States indicate that around 50% of women scientists in this country leave their scientific careers after motherhood. To address this problem, a group of Spanish women scientists, who are also mothers, propose ten urgent measures that academic institutions should implement to create a friendlier environment. The article has been recently published in PLOS Computational Biology. It has been led by the Department of Ecology of the University of Alicante (UA), with the collaboration of CREAF, among other research centres.

"The benefit of implementing many of these ideas will be not only for trans fathers and mothers but also for all caregivers", explains Esther Sebastián-González, researcher at the Department of Ecology of the University of Alicante (UA)and the first author of the article. 

The guidelines proposed in the article cover various aspects that seek to improve work-life balance or career progress opportunities. For example, enhancing support during pregnancy, breastfeeding or childhood care, actions aimed at making a more flexible working life and contributing to fighting against mental health problems, discrimination and harassment. Moreover, the article highlights the need for more representation of women in science, including mothers, because “equality is a fundamental right and, in addition, there are studies that prove that diverse work environments are more productive and innovative,” points out the authors.

"Equality is a fundamental right and, in addition, there are studies that prove that diverse work environments are more productive and innovative," points out the publication's authors.

The article was led by Esther Sebastián-González, a researcher at the Department of Ecology of the University of Alicante (UA) and also included the participation of Eva Graciá, from the Department of Applied Biology of the Miguel Hernández University of Elche (UMH); Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, a researcher at CREAF at the time of the study, who is currently working at the University of Bern and the University of Lausanne; Irene Pérez-Ibarra, from the Agri-Food Institute of Aragon (IA2), a joint centre of the University of Zaragoza and CITA in Aragon; Ana Sanz-Aguilar, from the Department of Ecology and Evolution of the Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Studies (IMEDEA, CSIC-UIB), and Mar Sobral, from CRETUS-Interdisciplinary Center for Research in Environmental Technologies of the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC).

“Diversity of ideas is one of the key pillars that has made science progress to the present day. Implementing measures that promote a more equal academic system where women have the same representation and voice as men is key to advancing towards a more holistic knowledge of the world and a fairer society. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that the system has a bottleneck in the progression of women’s scientific careers. Addressing this problem involves implementing measures decriminalising women’s decision to be scientists, mothers, or caregivers”.

Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, CREAF researcher at the time of the study, is currently a researcher at the University of Bern and the University of Lausanne.

Ten key measures

The study highlights the following points:

1. Support during pregnancy:

Institutions should provide comprehensive support systems, including resources, guidance and accommodations, to help women during pregnancy. This support should be beyond physical considerations and address emotional and professional aspects.

2. Flexible parental leave policies:

Advocate for implementing paid flexible parental leave policies. These policies should also foster a culture of inclusion and support for all caregivers.

3. Child care and breastfeeding facilities:

Establishing childcare facilities and dedicated spaces for breastfeeding allows mothers to continue their academic work while looking after their children. These facilities should be easily accessible, promoting seamless work and family life integration.

4. Organise department activities during school hours:

Department meetings or activities should be held during school hours to make parents’ attendance easier. Allowing online participation in seminars and meetings is also a way to help with work-life balance. 

5. Flexible work schedules:

Flexibility in work schedules makes it easier to manage professional and personal responsibilities effectively. This flexibility can include remote work options, part-time arrangements or adjustable plans.

6. Adapting teaching practices:

Give parents with underage children priority to pick teaching slots during school hours.

7. Supporting scientific career advancement:

Implementing positive actions to support mothers’ academic careers is crucial to addressing the career penalties associated with motherhood. This could include mentoring programs, funding opportunities, and tenure extension policies designed to support and retain talented women in academia.

8. Prioritising mental health:

Offering mental health programs and resources is essential to addressing the unique challenges facing academic mothers. For example, workshops to better manage stress.

9. Fighting against discrimination and harassment:

Disseminating and enforcing anti-discrimination and harassment protocols is crucial to creating a safe and inclusive environment for all researchers. 

10. Balance distribution of workload:

Ensuring a fair distribution of workload and responsibilities avoids overburdening women and promotes equal opportunities for career advancement. Academic institutions should strive for transparency and fairness when allocating tasks.

“The benefit of implementing many of these ideas will be not only for trans fathers and mothers but also for all caregivers. Academic institutions must take proactive steps to promote gender balance and empower all people, including mothers, in developing their scientific careers,” explains Esther Sebastián-González.

Source of the press release: University of Alicante.

Reference article: Sebastián-González E, Graciá E, Morán-Ordóñez A, Pérez-Ibarra I, Sanz-Aguilar A, Sobral M. 2023. “Ten simple rules for a mom-friendly Academia”. PLOS Computational Biology (2023). https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article/metrics?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1011284

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