On the hidden opportunity costs of maternity leave in academia

I’ve been back to work 6 months since the end of my maternity leave. I’m up to full speed, resumed normal duties including teaching, even taken on more than I had previously. In general, its all great. I’ve followed with interest the many discussions that have been taking place about the effect of having babies on academic careers, and how much leeway someone should have for, example, submitting things to the REF if they have had a period of maternity leave, but mostly I find I’m in a good place. I publish, I have published, I will publish. I have ongoing and new research projects. I have plans (oh boy, do I have plans) and I hit the ground running when I came back to work. And on top of that, academic flexible working hours! Days working from home! Plenty of time to see the boys! Academic motherhood FTW!

But something has come up once or twice lately which has made me think about the impact of maternity leave, and having babies, on an academic career, which I thought it worth mentioning and adding to the discussion.

Academia is a long-term game. The conversation you have in passing with a colleague in the corridor may end up in being a joint funding bid a year later, with actual funding a year after that, and research outputs – the stuff we’re all judged on, such as papers, conference papers, etc – emerging one, two, or three years down the line. What happens if someone becomes pregnant in that time? What is the opportunity cost – the thing foregone – if you are part of a research team, and a research project?

For me, opportunity costs started weeks after I became pregnant. Because it was my second pregnancy, and because it was twins (twins!!!! surprise!!!!), it was obvious to the world what was happening before I was even ready to tell colleagues. I made it clear that because it was a high-risk pregnancy, even though I was pregnant with twins didnt mean I would actually have twins. But still, the word was out. I was dropped from research projects, funding bids, project meetings without even being consulted. I can see the logic in this: she’s going to be away on leave when this project is happening! But the fact of the matter is, that should have been my decision, and although I probably would have come to the same conclusion myself, if I had had the chance to react, I should have been asked. It is thoughtless and rude, at best, and actually illegal under UK and EU law to exclude someone because of pregnancy. Never mind, I thought, suck it up. The opportunity cost of pregnancy- all being well – is that you wont be included on things, wont be present to take part in things, because you’ll be on leave with your child. It was my choice to have another pregnancy. But I didnt foresee the hidden opportunity cost: it’s not just the time you are on leave, but for the months – in my case 5 months – before that others will decide you should not be included, consulted, kept in the loop.

What has made me think of this now? Because, after all, my employer was very supportive of a difficult, high risk pregnancy, that thankfully had a happy outcome. Well, in the last wee while I’ve had various different things fly in on email for me to have a look at and comment on, before it was submitted to conferences, or journals, etc. Things emanating from projects that I was heavily involved in, and continue to be heavily involved in, and plan to be heavily involved in – but I was on leave for a year (technically, 9 months) while the project was ongoing. It doesnt matter that I bust a gut to keep on top of email when I was on leave, and contribute where I could to ongoing projects, even in cases dialing into meetings, or commenting on drafts of papers, etc. My name isnt anywhere on the research outputs, the things upon which I will be judged. I’ve even had to ask, in some cases, to be included in a footnote, when I was central to the project becoming established.

This is the real hidden opportunity cost of maternity leave in academia. Its not the 9 months you take off on leave, its the months before where people exclude you, and the months after where people say “She was on leave for that period. She doesn’t get to be an author on this”. My 9 months of maternity leave has actually meant a two year CV hiatus, for some projects I was – am! – involved in. (The flip-side, of course, is that on some projects, I’ve been included on everything, by very kind and supportive colleagues. But should I have been?)

I should say that this isnt a passive agressive post. I’ve said loud and clear to colleagues “Hey, I noticed I wasnt on the author list for this, and thats ok, I was on leave. But from now on, given I’m part of the team, I want to be kept up to date with the project, and included on outputs”. I’m a confident adult and perfectly capable of speaking up. I know it’s difficult, and that most colleagues have done their best to navigate the fact that I was on leave, even though it may have sometimes meant more work for them. I understand that I wasnt around for a while, and I accept that. But its been six months since I came back from leave, and I feel I am actively contributing to various ongoing projects. When will the hidden opportunity costs of maternity leave in academia stop?

One thought on “On the hidden opportunity costs of maternity leave in academia

  1. Thanks for this post Melissa! Its really valuable to share experiences relating to maternity cost issues when working in academia. This is something that we will all benefit from encouraging more open discussion about individuals' experiences.


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