Work-life balance: A female scientist looking at a planet created in a laboratory (artistically altered)

Family Friendly Research to boost Science Careers of Women

This article is part of a Special Issue highlighting sessions held at ESOF 2018 Toulouse (9-14 July 2018) and proposed by the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) members.

Attend this session on 13th July at 10:15.

How to address work-life conflict and balance professional and personal life in career development in research

The balance between professional and personal life plays a key role for successful careers of European researchers, especially for women scientists. As far as employment and reconciliation of work and life are concerned, female employment rates remain low especially in Southern Europe and East Europe and in general even more for women with low education. Antidiscrimination laws have been adopted, but gender gaps are still large. Lack of child care services and care facilities for the elderly combined with rigid work arrangements make it hard to reconcile work and family life.

Since 2016, Europe has intensified the elaboration of several acts – resolutions, recommendations, and directives – to improve the conditions for employment and careers of women through work-life balance measures. The same European Pillar of Social Rights (March 2017) is acting as a compass for a new convergence process towards better life and work conditions in Europe: gender equality and access to the labour market rank high among the principles of the Pillar. Moreover, the European Parliament discusses important proposals to balance professional and personal life, which encompasses maternity leave, paternity leave, parental leave, leave for caregivers and flexible working modes.

In a world of science that is now completely international modern communication technologies allow for a more flexible integration of work and family roles than ever before and thus can help to boost scientific careers independent of gender.

We aim to share our personal experiences with work-life balance and underline the current state of art of work-life balance in Europe in our session at ESOF 2018.

Although today the contributions of the women to research are acknowledged, it is still true that women scientists have to work harder than their male colleagues and still have to overcome many prejudices. Almost always, the limited female presence in the higher ranks of science jobs is attributed to child care, and to the difficulty of reconcile work and family. The return to work after maternity is a most critical moment for women researchers, with the risk of possible mobbing, if not a definitive induction to leave work. Even those women researchers or teachers who in theory can use the instruments of work-life balance, such as maternity leave, often renounce to use them pressure as they feel to be hyper-present and available in order to avoid professional marginalisation.

Several studies carried out in the European Union context make clear that the difficulty to balance professional life and family life result for women in scientific and technological research more than in other sectors to deep psychological and organisational conflicts. They have in fact in most cases the choice between renouncing or delaying maternity or slowing down their own professional activity, compromising often in an irreversible way their possibility to reach excellence levels. Sometimes they even face abandoning a scientific career. Downsizing expectations and adapting to “reduced careers” lead to female researchers not realising their full potential [1]. Such elements of discrimination are still deeply rooted and prevalent in working contexts and the European Commission, even if they are high on its agenda, could do still more.

It is necessary, most of all, to understand that work-life balance is a fundamental right recognising on the one hand the social value of maternity and on the other the idea that care tasks are not just for the female gender.

To free the female potential and to exploit the energies and competences of women requires putting in place an integrated system and interventions to favour work-life balance. Also, different ways of organising work are needed with more flexibility and larger emphasis on results rather than on presence. Instruments that encourage a better work-life balance and welfare measures need to be introduced by research organisations and companies.

Clearly the European Institutions are working hard on these issues witness the many directives and resolutions [2]. Indeed, in all official European documents [3] equality features prominently but in practice it requires creating the conditions which allow both women and men to make their own choices about maternity/paternity and work. The proposal of European Parliament Resolution (2014/2251(INI)) of 20 July 2015 on the professional career of women in science and academia and on the “glass ceilings” encountered clearly refers to statistical data and various studies that women are underrepresented in most scientific, engineering and management positions.

On that basis the European Parliament asks for more flexibility in working conditions for researchers of both sexes to facilitate reconciliation of work and family life and also urges to eliminate the pay gap between men and women. Guaranteeing full gender equality in all sectors including science, technology and innovation is an essential condition for global economic development and meeting the objectives of Agenda 2030 for sustainable development [4].

Giovanna Avellis, MCAA (Marie Curie Alumni Association) and ITWIIN (Italian women Innovators and Inventors Network) President

Serenella Molendini, CREIS (Centro Ricerca Europeo per l’Innovazione Sostenibile – European Center of Research for Sustainable Innovation)

Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

[1] S. Molendini, “Conciliazione vita lavoro: le donne nella ricerca” in Empowerment e orientamento di Genere nella Scienza (Cherubini, Colella, Mangia), ed. Franco Angeli, 2011.

[2] Resolution of the 13th September 2016: Creating labour market conditions favourable for work-life balance (2016/2017(INI)).

[3] See the The European Pillar of Social Rights (2017) and the new directives on parental leave (2017/2018).

[4] UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 https://n.unesco.org/unesco_science_report

Go back to the Special Issue: ESOF 2018

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