Two weeks into my first postdoc I fell pregnant.
I was on a twelve-month fixed-term contract and felt a huge amount of pressure to get my contract extended so that I would have a job to go back to after maternity leave. I needed desperately for my supervisor to like me and find me indispensable. I said yes to absolutely everything and became to go-to person to get things done. I was Superwoman. Spinning so many plates it felt impossible to put any of them down, surely everything would collapse without me?
As I approached the third trimester, I was given a range of advice from other academics.
- “I got a full-time nanny two weeks after my first child was born as I had to return back to experiments for my fellowship.”
- “I wrote my fellowship in the first twelve weeks after my baby was born. They don’t do much for the first few months.”
- “Focus on papers and grants and make it look like maternity leave never happened on your CV.”
It left me feeling that I really should be doing something productive with my maternity leave. All thoughts of coffee and cake play dates were banished in favour of work.
Honestly, it was five days after having a one litre haemorrhage during the birth of Oscar that I felt compelled to start emailing the European project consortium to coordinate the impending end of year report. No time to baby gaze or be truly present. My head was full of deadlines and financial discrepancies and worrying that I was dropping the ball.
Then I refocussed my attention on a fellowship application
We had just moved house, I sat with bikes and boxes lined up in the dining room and Oscar asleep in his bouncy chair next to my feet. I stared at the computer screen, brain not fully functional when punctuated with three hourly feeds day and night. The only chemistry I could see a clear pathway forwards was a few steps beyond my PhD which didn’t relate to my postdoc at all. Then the thoughts started,
There’s no such thing as a part-time professor, how will you balance family life?
As I shut down the computer, I closed down that chapter of my life.
When I started out as an undergraduate in chemistry, 43% of our cohort were women. I didn’t even notice there was a leaky pipeline until I reached the final year of my PhD. I had just got married and was looking to define the next steps in my career. I searched and found five female academics in a department of over two hundred and only two of them had young children. That was the first time I really noticed, there weren’t many women in senior academic positions and there was certainly nothing that resembled a part-time professor. This cast severe doubt in my mind. Was this a good choice? If it was, wouldn’t there be more of us doing it?
One thing that I know for sure is that representation matters
If you can see it, you can really believe that you can be it. According to the EPSRC InclusionMatters2020 projects EDI policies favour black men. The Athena Swan Charter disproportionately benefits white middle class women. There’s no one silver bullet when it comes to stemming the haemorrhage of women leaving the STEM pipeline. One solution in one area is not enough, it’s a coping mechanism. There’s room for multiple solutions, ‘the silver umbrella’.
First and foremost, we need more people to care, if we had enough people that cared already then, we would have gender and diversity parity and we do not. I wasn’t always an advocate for women in science but when I noticed the problem, I needed to be part of the solution.
About the author
Dr Hannah Roberts is a career coach and professional skills trainer. During her extensive academic and industrial career, she took research from concept to start-up. Since 2018, she has been a qualified and regulated coach; trained in Talent Dynamics profiling. Specialising in team dynamics, career planning, online networking and social media skills, research planning and funding, commercialisation and management tools. Hannah has a particular passion for diversity and inclusion and women’s leadership development.
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