The parenting penalties faced by scientist mothers

From Nature Careers

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Yhasmin Moura’s research was not the only thing on her mind in 2017 when she was considering postdoctoral positions in the United Kingdom and her home nation of Brazil. Moura was pregnant at the time, so parental-leave policies were a top concern.

Even though it meant moving far away from her extended family, Moura chose a placement at Lancaster University, UK, largely because it offered a full year of paid maternity leave. The Brazil placement would have given her only four months of unpaid maternity leave. “The pregnancy defined my position and determined a completely different future for me,” says Moura, a geographer and remote-sensing researcher who is now a postdoc at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

For many scientists, the transition from a PhD to a faculty position often happens when they are starting or building families, Moura says. It’s no wonder, she adds, that many early-career researchers make crucial, life-altering decisions based on institutions’ policies and attitudes around parenthood.

Moura was among 176 attendees from 46 nations at a virtual conference organized in May by Mothers in Science (MiS), an international non-profit organization that aims to boost recruiting and retention of women in science careers. The conference highlighted the well-documented ‘motherhood penalties’ that mothers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) face as they try to build their careers. Scientist-mothers face discrimination1, drops in productivity2 and inequities in wages and promotion3,4, all of which contribute to them dropping out of the full-time STEM workforce5. The conference also pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the stark pressures on mothers in STEM and highlighted the practices and policies that can help people to balance research and motherhood.

To better understand the penalties and barriers of motherhood, MiS conducted a survey in 2020 of nearly 9,000 people from 128 countries. The respondents came from all sectors of STEM careers and fields, and comprised 58% mothers, 22% women without children, 13% fathers and 7% men without children. Among the preliminary results presented at the conference, more than one-third (34%) of mothers in full-time careers in STEM globally had left those positions after their first child.

A separate study5 by US-based researchers Erin Cech and Mary Blair-Loy found that, in the United States, where family-leave policies are often sparse or absent, the proportion of mothers in full-time STEM careers who leave after their first child is as high as 43%. As a result, scientist-mothers are under-represented at the topmost levels of academia in that nation and elsewhere. Women comprise less than one-quarter (24%) of the top earners at elite US universities, according to a 2021 study by the American Association of University Women.

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