Professor Dorthe Kirkegaard Thomsen: I am tired of reading AU action plans that do not address concerns that are important to me and the younger researchers I mentor

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DEBATE. Dorthe Kirkegaard Thomsen is a psychology professor at Aarhus University. She writes about her experience of being a woman and mother in academia.

2020.11.29 | professor Dorthe Kirkegaard Thomsen, Institut for Psykologi

Here are some snapshots from my work life:

I was interviewed for a position as PhD student on an externally funded project and had decided to tell the project group about my plans for having a child during the project period. I had talked this over with my partner. He thought it was career suicide to tell them. However, I felt it wasn’t fair not to let them know, as my maternity leave would subtract resources from the project. Much to their credit, they employed me anyway and the project leader (a man) even went the extra mile of convincing me to accept the position when I was considering backing out. I never regretted it. I handed in my dissertation several months before the deadline. The funding was running out (partly due to my maternity leave) – and I had my five papers ready anyway.

Assistant professor, mom - and abroad

I was an assistant professor and one early morning I sneaked in to my daughter’s bedroom to say goodbye before my one-month stay at a US institution. She was sound asleep and I felt so bad about leaving her. However, letting my family remain at home was the best solution my partner and I could come up with at the time, given his job (where his old-school boss had frowned when my partner took paternity leave). I needed this stay abroad because I didn’t go during my PhD. The visit I had originally planned for my PhD felt impossible for me at the time, because I had just given birth to my son. Taking my baby and husband to New York to visit a high-impact research team seemed insurmountable: I was lacking sleep and being a loving mother felt somehow incompatible with the visit. So I stayed at home and wrote my papers. Thankfully, the stay I did go on as an assistant professor worked well and I created a long-lasting and productive collaboration with the professor I visited (a man). Later, at home, I proudly talked about my stay and a colleague (a woman) commented that it wasn’t really that long. I agree, it wasn’t a long stay, but it cost me sleepless nights, much negotiation with my partner, and a sore conscience to make even that work. 

I chose the best candidate for the position

I was an associate professor, deciding which candidate to employ for an externally funded research project. I chose the best candidate for the position, although I strongly suspected she would take maternity leave during the project. When she took her leaves, I realized that the expenses were somehow covered by the university, or was it the faculty? Although I am very grateful, I had a vague sense that I owed someone somewhere for supporting the project financially. When my PhD student came back from her second maternity leave, she asked to work reduced hours. Her husband was a doctor in training, working long hours. Moreover, he had been informed that if he took more days off due to ill children, his placement would not be approved. I fully supported her request and wrote a letter to the graduate school that from my perspective, it was a good solution for her and the project. However, her application for reduced hours was rejected by the graduate school. I still don’t know the reasons.

The role as mother sometimes clashes with a career in research

As is clear from my stories, the role as mother sometimes clashes with a career in research. I feel privileged to have an abundance of supportive colleagues, at AU and internationally. I love my job, the freedom, the challenge, the creative process of designing and writing up studies, and the possibility of making a difference for the better. Had I been less lucky, with more conflicts and less support, I might have leaked out of the pipeline. The experiences described above signaled to me that being a mother made me a burden to the system, somehow second rank, since I did not happily embrace travelling across the globe for my research. So on the one hand, universities are hoping to make more women stay in academia – on the other hand, funding bodies and universities still signal that if you are a woman who wants to be a mother, you are a problem.

The proposals for change that I suggest may also benefit men

Some may argue that men are hit just as hard by parenthood and as such being a mother does not explain the leaking pipeline. Indeed, men who are fathers may share some of these experiences. However, the problems illustrated in my stories combine with other factors to make the average woman (who is a mother) experience them more than the average man (who is a father). For example, studies consistently show that women take more parental leave and tend to be more involved in childcare. Furthermore, women find partners and have children at a younger age than men, increasing the likelihood that motherhood begins during early academic positions where selection into the system is most heavy-handed. Still, I know from some of my male colleagues that they have had experiences similar to mine and the proposals for change that I suggest below may also benefit men.

If you want to be in research as a woman, you can’t also be the super-mom who always picks up early and bring homemade cakes for festivals in the kindergarten. I know this, because I spent about a decade of my life negotiating childcare tasks with my partner: Who would take the day off when the children were ill, who would buy birthday presents, and who would take them to leisure activities. We reduced grocery shopping to weekly trips and started cooking two-day meals to save time on household chores. We called in my mother when we ran out of other options. 

In other words: I did my part and I know my women colleagues do so too. The universities and the funding agencies could start doing their part. Here is what I suggest they could do if they wish to signal that women are welcome in academia, even if they want to be mothers:

1.     Extended abroad stays:

  • A. Consider alternative routes to internationalization than extended stays abroad during the PhD and international postdocs (which require the researcher to spend most of the period abroad, and which is currently the sole source of postdoc funding for some agencies). I know this is almost taboo and I too identify strongly with internationalization. We want to be among the world-leading researchers in our respective fields. So reducing the focus on internationalization is not an option. However, there are other paths: Inviting researchers, organizing workshops, attending conferences including social and networking events, and going on shorter visits to different research groups. The internationalization effects of all these tools can be amplified through digital media. Depending on what the need is (learning a method, developing collaboration, and/or increasing visibility), these other options may work as well or sometimes even better than one extended stay abroad. Ask PhD students and their supervisors to prepare a plan for internationalization based on professional and personal needs, employing the tools above and whatever else they find useful. Don’t make women researchers feel second rank by requiring them to ask to be exempted from an extended abroad stay. 

  • B. When women with children plan to go on an extended stay abroad, provide adequate financial support for childcare. 

  • C. Ensure possibilities for stays abroad at later career stages by protecting sabbaticals and providing flexible funding. Research careers are not made between the ages of 25 and35. As researchers, we continue to develop our ideas and it extended tays abroad may fit in better when children are older. Think internationalization as a lifespan task, not a youth task.

  • D. Create a CV category of “internationalization” which counts a variety of experiences (collaboration, briefer visits, hosting international colleagues, organizing conference symposiums, etc.). Assessment committees should then look at what the researcher has achieved from the internationalization experiences in terms of publications, citations, collaborative grant proposals etc.

  • E. Run analyses on international postdoc funding to examine whether it is gender-biased. If it is, change postdoc funding to include other internationalization tools.


2.     Full funding of maternity leave from funding agencies:

Maternity leave should be fully covered by the funding body (as some agencies already do). That would signal to both junior researchers and project leaders that parenthood is supported, not an unwelcome obstacle. As a next-best option, if funding bodies shy away from their responsibility, the universities could create a shared parental leave fund. The point is that the financial cost of leave should be as far removed from the involved people as possible in order to prevent a sense of being a burden. 

3.     Allow reduced work hours for reasons of family welfare:

  • A. Applications for reduced work hours should be granted for reasons of family welfare. If a researcher applies for reduced hours, she/he has good reasons. I know this idea clashes with the ideal of the hard-driven, ambitious researcher. A young woman with two children working 30 hours a week evokes associations incompatible with this ideal. However, being a mother (or father) who asks for reduced work hours when the children are young is not a signal that she/he is not ambitious, is not hard-working, or does not prioritize research highly. The decision to work reduced hours for a period may well be based on other equally important, but presently less celebrated, values: The possibility to be thorough and creative, which do not sit well with squeezing in work hours late at night after the children are in bed. A few years of reduced work hours will cost little in terms of research impact, considering that we work until age 70. 

  • B. Ensure that reduced work hours (and parental leave) do not cost on CVs by developing a standard tool to calculate PhD age while subtracting parental leave and years of reduced work hours. Instruct applicants to report the corrected PhD age and assessment committees to use it when evaluating productivity etc. 

I am not claiming that motherhood is the only or the most important explanation for the leaky pipeline

There are other demands and experiences that send the signal that women researchers who are mothers are a burden and second rank. Sighs and raised eyebrows when we postpone deadlines due to ill children, do not work on weekends, and leave meetings early. However, I am not claiming that motherhood is the only or the most important explanation for the leaky pipeline. As always when human behavior is at stake, explanations are complex. However, I am tired of reading AU action plans that do not address concerns that are important to me and the younger researchers I mentor.  

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