Shelley Adamo: The State of Support for Mothers in Science

Having kids and maintaining a career in science can be hard. So what are some practical solutions that universities and other research institutes can implement? (Image Credit: Maj. Michael Garcia, DIMOC, Image Cropped)

During her recent visit to the University of Arkansas (you can read our first interview here), I took the time to sit down with Dr. Shelley Adamo and talk about the state of support for women in science with children. Shelley has spoken about this issue before, and you can see notes from her previous talk in the link at the end of the article.

In this interview, we discuss practical solutions to the family/career conundrum in science, how to trigger prompt action, and whether it’s possible to have a family and be a highly successful scientist.

Adam Hasik (AH): Can you take us through the current state of support for women in science with children?

Professor Shelley Adamo, Invertebrate Behavioural Physiology, Dalhouse University (SA): It’s mixed, but unfortunately the women who are the least protected are the ones we should be nurturing the most, that is our trainees – our graduate students and post-docs. They get very little in the way of maternity leave. They are also not well paid so it’s hard for them to purchase high quality childcare. Their positions are not permanent; therefore, they are also dealing with insecure employment. Without added support, they can see that their productivity will decrease after the baby is born, and that will reduce their ability to get a tenure track job or their goal job.

So for them it’s hard. But at the faculty level in Canada, women have a lot more support. And policy seems to be successful – women and men are getting tenure at about the same rate, according to NSERC, which is the Canadian version of NSF. Faculty women can also stop the tenure clock during maternity leave. So women, once they get the job, if they need to take a little longer to build up a tenure-ready package, it’s ok. The NSERC grants that fund them can be extended a year to two for every maternity leave. The grant committees that award the money are told explicitly told not to count maternity leaves when calculating the number of years of funding. Therefore, primary childcare givers aren’t penalised for those years that they’ve taken. But we need to be more supportive of our trainees.

AH: Building on that, what are some practical solutions you believe can be implemented?

SA: The difficulty with providing better support for trainees is that it costs money. Trainees need the same kind of maternity leave I get. As faculty, I’m given one year of paid leave per child. Graduate students and post docs should receive the same. I’m given an extension on my grants. If grad students and post docs are on scholarship, they should also be given an extension of their scholarship. Because they make less money, they should also have access to subsidised daycare, so that they can feel comfortable when they go back to work. It’s difficult to go back to work when you’ve got a little person who is relying on you and you are not completely comfortable where you’ve left them. You are not going to be able to be really focused on what you’re doing. Ideally, the day care centre should be on campus, so that you can go and visit in the middle of the day, just to say hello and see how your little one is doing.

AH: So you don’t need to make a choice between career and children.

SA: Exactly, as long as supportive policies exist. We do it for faculty members, even though many said it wouldn’t be possible because it was too expensive. So I think it’s time we do it for our trainees.

AH: There are a lot of these practical solutions that you’re talking about, but lots of universities seem reluctant to implement them. How can we trigger prompt action?

SA: Some universities have much better policies in place than others. For example, the University of Berkeley does have a policy of subsidised daycare for their graduates according to their website. So maybe that is something that people should consider when applying. If it is clear that having these policies is an important recruiting tool, the administration is more likely to come onboard.

Faculty are also going to be key here, because faculty can push harder than graduate students and post docs. Graduate students graduate and move on, and they don’t have a lot of traction with senior administration at the university. It’s harder for them to mobilise. Graduate students and postdocs could also unionise and put pressure on the university. Then, getting these benefits could be one of their demands. So it will take both grad students and faculty to push for these changes.

AH: Related to work-life balance, whenever I bring this up with other scientists, they say it’s possible in theory but it’s impossible if you’re an accomplished researcher.

SA: I think it’s a myth that it’s impossible. However you do need a little help from your friends. One of the key things to be successful as a scientist and as a parent is to find other people who are in the same position as you and you need to share the load. My department chair had an epiphany at one point. When he and his partner were a little older, in their 50s, they ended up raising a child. And suddenly he was much more responsive to these concerns. So he allowed us to have a room in our department where we could put some toys and look after each other’s kids. So we took turns looking after each other’s kids when the schools were closed.

So having people to help out is key. Having support in the department is also important. The other thing I would say is that in science, although you’re supposed to be productive, it is quality over quantity. Producing a lot of minor papers is not impressive as being able to publish a smaller number of important pieces of work. So maybe that’s what parents need to do, is focus their energy on the science that is really important, and they might even be more successful.

You can find Shelley’s notes on her talk on Science and the Work/Life Balance here.

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