When I was a 20-something year old starting out on my academic journey, I had an odd conversation about babies. In it, a Professor bemoaned a female colleague as "one of those feminist-types” insistently vocal about the difficulties of combining motherhood with academia. "Good scientists", he commented, "would just get on with it and let their own merit speak for itself". I don't think I had much of an opinion back then, but I didn't stick my neck out and disagree. These days I find myself "one of those" and like so many merited females that have bumped along this unmetalled road, am having a hard time leaving it to my merit to do the talking.
HESA's 2016/17 figures suggest that while a sizeable 46% of all academic staff in the UK were female, something was still disproportionately preventing them or dissuading them from making it through the system, with only 25% of professors being women. Why? A study by Georgina Santos in 2019 found a negative link between being a woman and the likelihood of being employed at a senior level within Russel group universities, irrespective of childcare responsibilities. The gender gap is real and still to be bemoaned but research also shows that mothers (both inside and outside academia) tend to be seen as less competent, less committed, less likely to be hired and often have lower starting salary recommendations compared to non-mothers (Corell, Benard, and Paik 2007; Cuddy, Fiske and Glick 2004). Add to that the “career scar" encumbered from not having the time to apply for grants and fellowships, the penalties of lower productivity in terms of publication rate; the much decreased access to networks, collaborations and new discoveries bound into the childcare-conference conundrum and the decreased mobility that limits access to the hyper-niche job market that is international science. Suddenly, the price of parenthood, of part-time work and maternity leave seems intimidatingly steep. Indeed, a number of studies have found that academic women and women in science are more likely to be successful if they strategically delay or forgo marriage and children. Data from the US suggests that only one in three women who accepts a fast-track university job before having a child ever becomes a mother (Williams and Ceci, 2012) and among tenured faculty, 70 percent of men are married with children compared with 44 percent of women (Mason, Wolfinger and Goulden, 2013)
I was neither savvy nor strategic about children. My timing was terrible and I find myself in the quagmire of these apparently insoluble issues. I struggle to keep my head above the academic water which, in science, flows fast and cares not that I am temporarily weighted down by 3pm pickups and night feedings. I have had to stomach colleagues “borrowing” my scientific ideas and running with them whilst I am incapacitated by the stringent time-constraints of tiny children. I have had to dispense with ego and pride and perfectionism. And because my planning was bad, I have found myself in limbo, too senior to apply for 99% of grants, still too precarious not to. But motherhood has taught me valuable lessons contrary to all the assumptions bound into our unconscious bias. Motherhood in all its wonderous, exhausting manifestations has schooled me in fortitude, patience and resilience. It has, with exquisite clarity, revealed my ability to endure more shit (metaphorically and literally) than I ever imagined possible.
You can load me high and heavy with deadlines and the bottomless neediness of tiny humans and, while I might be a little less fleet-of-foot, I generally won’t let you down. I have learnt to be 100 times more efficient in my meagre work hours than my former self. I have learnt that you can deprive me of sleep for days, weeks, months on end, suck every last ounce of solitude and social life out of my chaotic existence but I will steadfastly continue to deliver food, silliness and love to the living room, papers to the publishers, data to the desks that need it and lectures to the teaching rooms. You can watch me squeeze the work of 2 full time jobs into a precarious part-time post and still make it to the nursery gates on time. You can judge me, exclude me, laugh at me if you like, god help us if we can’t find the funny side of life with tiny, unreasonable humans. There will never be another point in life where so many people have asked so much of me. Nothing you can throw at me in the workplace will ever be harder than these few years spent spinning 1000 plates whilst walking the tightrope across toddlerdom to reclaim the identity of the woman I left behind. Like so many other mothers negotiating work life in ‘the hood’ I have learnt the hard way what resilience really means. I have learnt that efficiency and empathy, competence and warmth, are not mutually exclusive. It seems to me that when mothers do finally return to the workforce full-throttle they are more, not less, valuable than their non-parent colleagues and, it turns out, I’m not wrong. In a study of over 3000 women and men across a diverse employment landscape, women appear to contribute 10% more than their male colleagues. A separate study found that over the course of a 30-year career, mothers outperformed women without children at almost every stage of the game. In fact, mothers with at least two kids were the most productive of all.
These problems are not unique to academia or to science, but these are industries at the forefront of forging the minds of future generations, it matters that we get this right. Despite the progressive, pioneering position academia makes claim to as it strives to solve the biggest of societies problems, it is struggling to resolve its own hang-ups. The attitude of that Professor, now rarely uttered out-loud, is deeply embedded within the institutional infrastructure. Manoeuvring one of the worlds most intensely competitive systems towards a framework that allows time-out without penalty, will not be easy. As a community we have already recognised that motherhood knocks huge holes into the research-professor pipeline, that the difficulties faced when raising young families ‘drive women out of scientific careers for which they are trained and in which they would be as successful as men were they to make the choice not to have kids’ (Williams and Ceci, 2012). But I still don’t see the part-time Associate Professor jobs. There is little in the way of substantial policies and funding for women to ‘catch up’ when they return to work. I don’t know of a single job-share academic post in my field despite the benefits to retaining women in senior leadership roles.
From a personal perspective, one thing is clear, wherever I choose to go next, know that I will not sit quietly with my merits. I know their strengths, they are many, and when I’ve crossed this tightrope they may speak for themselves again but until then, I’ll take the risk of being judged to shout loudly from the highwire in the hopes that things might be different for my daughters.
 Higher Education Statistics Authority
image from here
My hand is being ever-so-slightly electrocuted by poorly-earthed taps as I fend off my daughter from the broken shower cubical with my foot. She slides around the floor adding a good coating of wet bathroom grime to her layers of dust and stuck on food. She has sand in her mouth and grass in her hair. Her clothes are filthy. I too am covered in dust and dried on sweat. My hair, which I have failed to find time to wash, has semi-solidified into a permanent pony-tail. Fieldwork in Botswana has challenges. Attaining any sense of cleanliness for more than a few minutes remains one of them. Add a 10 month old baby into the mix and you may as well give up on ever being clean. Still, we at least have running water, something that in field seasons pre-baby would have been a luxury. And, thanks to a ‘returning carer’s’ fund from the University, I am not in a tent.
Combining baby rearing with saltpan-drilling in Africa is not entirely without risk and in a moment of weakness, two days before we left the UK, I was genuinely considering next day delivery on ‘snake repellent’. Through suburban Oxfordshire tinted spectacles, the Kalahari is chock full with dangers. There are scorpions in the wood she likes to throw about, venomous spiders in the little holes she loves to poke her fingers and a lot of chat about widespread outbreaks of Malaria after a particularly wet year in Botswana. But I am lucky to be surrounded by friends (most of whom have small children) who not only live perfectly safe, happy lives amongst the mosquitos, snakes and dust but who thrive here on the space and the sunshine and the proximity to wildlife we just don’t have the privilege of being around in our very dull, very English little village in Oxford. Their children grow up culturally colour-blind, unafraid of bugs and beasts, of getting grubby in the dust and mud. They watch crocodiles and hippos from their gardens and somehow the inherent understanding that we are part of that big beautiful ecosystem that spreads out into the distance from their garden gates seeps into their little hearts and stays with them forever. It is a life I aspire to. And so we ignored the comments, left the largely useless snake repellent in the online shopping trolley and arrived in Botswana with enough stuff that we could probably have kitted out a small army of Botswanan babies for a year.
From my daughter’s perspective, this world is magical. In the mornings we watch the dog chase the village chickens, she plays drums on the camping tupperware with the University of Botswana students and digs endless holes in the sand with her hands. We hang out with habituated meerkats, watch the bushbabys leaping through the trees before bedtime and if we’re very lucky we meet big grey elephantine giants munching their way through the Mopane. Some days she stays with Unami, our nanny in the local village, and some days she comes into the field with us where she rearranges the sampling tubes and reads the Munsell colour chart upside down and backwards over and over again. When I’m busy working, colleagues take it in turns to sing and read with her and, mostly, she loves it – babbling and giggling, pointing out birds and trees and trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to be helpful. There are tears too of course – the burning sun and spikey Kalahari grass mean she is confined to the covered area we have rigged up between two trucks. She’s always been unimpressed by incarceration of any kind and sometimes, the days are just too long for a tiny, teething human.
The trip is not without its emergencies – I lost the charger to my tablet and in my world long car journeys without the Teletubbies rank alongside extreme psychological torture. She hates the car and lone, long-distance driving around Botswana without Tinkywinky, Dipsy, Lala and Po filled me with fear and dread. Two of my colleagues drove several hours to search the electronic junk shops in Nata for a replacement charger – I will forever be eternally grateful.
It’s hard to be a fully functioning part of the team – some days we must, frustratingly, stay in the village whilst the others go out into the field to overnight in less travelled corners of the Makgadikgadi. I am snot-green with envy but, at least I am here and I am able to bounce ideas back and forth with them when they arrive back from their adventures into the unknown. On other days I was unglamorously confined to the back of the truck with a bottle and breast-pump as we bounced somewhat comically over beach ridges arguing about how the landscape evolved to the melodic hum of a Medela milking machine. My contribution to cooking and washing up this year was also woefully non-existent as I battled to get my daughter fed, cleaned and asleep. Sometimes I never made it to dinner at all. But to my relief (and perhaps surprise) no one ever made me feel like a burden or an inconvenience. No one raised their eyebrows or whispered under their breath. In truth, I think even the least likely of the team seemed, in the end, to quite like having a small dribbling, giggling midget around, lowering the tone and generally keeping things real.
I’m sure there are other scientists out there who might have to take their kids on fieldwork or to conferences to keep doing their research. I hope their colleagues and institutions can be as positive and supportive as mine. It is tough enough to be a scientist and a parent – the nights are long, the workload is large and the days between nursery drop-offs and pickups are short. To be further isolated from the rest of the scientific community is enough for many brilliant young women (and men) to lose the momentum and the motivation to carry on. I am certainly not sure if I will make it. I hope by the time my daughter grows up there will be more money in the University pots to offer the practical and financial support to keep women scientists in the career they chose. In the meantime, it helps a lot if you just manage not to raise your eyebrows and tut under your breath.
I am extremely grateful to my family (especially Andrew), my friends and my colleagues in Botswana and Oxford for helping me get back out to the field. You all rock. Long may our adventures in science continue.
Sallie is a Quaternary Scientist, National Geographic Explorer, Trapnell Fellow of African Environments at the University of Oxford and a mum; though not necessarily in that order.