Woman work/life balance family life

The secret to making family life compatible with an academic career

Starting a family has less influence than before on the pursuit of an academic career for researchers

The German language has a term to describe mothers who go back to their career, after having children: Rabenmutter (raven mother). Indeed, until very recently, it was far from being socially acceptable for women–be it scientists or in other professions–to go back to work after having children. Previous studies have suggested that women, in particular, tend to drop out of the academic system after they have started a family, as they devote their time to taking care of children.

So what makes young researchers stay in research after they start a family? The German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) has recently published the results of a survey performed among 4,900 doctoral and postdoctoral students – both men and women, with and without children–exploring this question. Their objective was to identify what determines professional and family-related aspirations among the researchers surveyed.

Finger on the pulse

The majority of respondents to the survey is currently working on their PhD thesis. Men and women are represented equally in the sample. The average age of respondents is 34 years old, and most have not started a family yet. The survey showed that male postdocs work full-time far more often than their female colleagues; particularly when those men have children. By contrast, women, who balance family and career, usually work part-time.

The survey found that more and more women – and men – do not wish to put their family goals on hold because of their career. The reverse is also true: young female researchers – and exceptionally female postdocs – who have already started a family want to stay in academia to follow their career ambitions. They know what it takes to balance the high demands of work and family life. But they are willing to accept this challenge.

The survey also highlights that not only women, but also men, are confronted with personal and other challenges, related to the way they organise their life. They have to balance their personal drive with the structural pressure to gain better qualification and climb up the research ladder, while also having children and living in a partnership.

Recipe for balanced life

The researchers who took part in the survey point to several factors as influencing their decision to pursue their career after having children. These include self-determined working hours and a flexible workplace as well as the existence of a long-term professional perspective. Young researchers with children also rely on their partner’s commitment for a shared parenthood to be able to pursue their own integration in the scientific community and to take the next career step.

Parenthood is a factor that appears to have a smaller influence on whether to pursue an academic career than expected. Of much higher significance is whether young researchers believe in their own potential and abilities. Thus, it is not surprising that more and more young researchers support the idea that having children will not automatically end their academic career. The survey results also point to a new type of positive parenthood among young researchers that actively promotes the recognition of family and care work alongside a dedicated academic career.

Bigger picture

As long as the academic career path–towards a professorship–with its high degree of temporary employment remains as uncertain as it is today, most young researchers will continue to leave academia – whether they have children or not. While differences in the employment levels between men and women seem to persist, the goals of both genders appear to be shifting towards a common goal centred around a better work/life balance. Parents, between them, seem to have taken on the challenge of creating a family-friendlier academic system.

Although most universities have implemented some sort of family-friendly policies, the success of those policies to date is insufficient. Nor does it meet actual needs. The conditions in the workplace are unlikely to change for those raising a family in parallel until administrators and senior staff have a crucial change of attitude; especially male professors and female professors without children. As it is quite unlikely that those groups will profoundly change their ideas about family and career, a fundamental shift in attitude can only be achieved in the long run when the next generation academics comes through the ranks.

Thorben Sembritzki and Ramona Schürmann

Both authors are researchers at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) in Hanover, Germany.

Featured image credit: geralt via Pixabay

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