Women in Science
Part-time and flexible working
Almost all of the women we interviewed were working full-time, although many benefited from the culture of flexible working at Oxford (For more about flexible working see ‘Child care’). Some had worked part-time for a while when they had had their children, but this usually meant at least four days a week. They gave a number of reasons for their decision to work full-time.
Credibility as a part-time scientist
Firstly some said that they didn’t think that other people in the scientific community would take them seriously if they worked part-time. They commented that it is normal in research to work weekends and evenings anyway. Women also thought that funding bodies might query their commitment to science if they worked part-time and might not understand why they had fewer publications than someone working full-time.
However, there are signs that things are gradually changing. Increasingly, fellowship applications now ask about career breaks which should be taken into account when assessing someone’s CV. Some fellowships, such as the Royal Society’s Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships are specifically designed to support a period of part-time working. Women are increasingly agreeing arrangements to phase in their return to work after maternity leave. All staff have the right to request flexible working and requests can only be turned down for clear operational reasons.
One woman we talked to said that she has decided to work part-time, but she is concerned that colleagues will think she is ‘less committed’ to her work.
Whether or not part-time working is successful may depend on the type of research that people are doing. Part-time working poses particular problems for lab based scientists because their experiments often need daily attention. This was the second reason that many women thought that part-time working was a problem for scientists.
Some women pointed out that having a good technician in the lab to help with experiments may make part-time working possible or that in some circumstances job sharing might be possible. However, Tao suggested that it is difficult to work part-time, or to job share with someone, because different people do experiments in different ways (she pointed out that it’s not like ‘washing dishes’). She also said that an experiment is not just a technique but it also involves ‘mind’ and ‘knowledge’.
Some forms of clinical work can require continuity of care on the ward. Eleanor had always done at least four clinical days a week for this reason. Alison H, a vascular surgeon, pointed out that it would be very difficult to do her job part time because 40% of her work is emergencies.
Research involving patients may also be difficult if the researcher decides to work part-time. Anushka, who is a clinician, came to this conclusion after finishing her project.
Full-time work for part-time pay
A third reason that women we interviewed did not like the idea of part-time working was that in their experience those who work part-time end up doing full-time work for part-time pay.
Interest and excitement
A fourth reason given for preferring to work full-time was that science can be so exciting and interesting that anything less than full-time work would be boring. Tao said that going to work for her is like going on holiday and that she really enjoys it.
A few of the women we interviewed had worked part-time and had found it worked well for them. Marian, for example, an epidemiologist, found that part-time work was helpful because she worked on rare diseases and could collect data for longer. Jane L has a large enough lab that she can offer technical support to part-time staff.
Marian’s research was funded for four years instead of three because she worked part-time. This was an advantage. She thinks that even in labs part-time work should be possible with the right teamwork.
At one time Elspeth was employed part-time to be a technical manager, looking after new X-ray equipment used for protein crystallography. She was employed by a man who wanted someone to work full-time but when she met him she told him that he would have ‘part of her time but all of her brain’. She got the job and was paid for two-thirds time for the next 12 years. In practice this meant working 40-50 hours a week, but she felt that her part-time status gave her more flexibility to look after her children and her mother-in-law.
Irene R said that she knew people who managed to work part-time partly because they didn’t regard certain days in the week as sacrosanct.
Several women we interviewed had worked four days a week (at 80% pay) while their children were young. Sally stretched a four year grant over five years so that she could work at 80%. Like Elspeth, they said that they probably did a full-time job but because they were only paid 80% they felt that they could work more flexibly than they might have done if they had been paid for five days a week. They often worked in the evenings or weekends. Today, flexible working is more acceptable, even if people are on a full time contract, so perhaps fewer people will work part-time for this reason (for more see ‘Child care’). Parents who share child care sometimes develop a pattern where one does an early ‘shift’ at work and then collects the child(ren)at the end of their day while the other parent stays late in the evening.
Perhaps partly as the result of Athena SWAN, heads of departments are trying to make it easier for people to work part-time. Maggie, who is a Professor of Psychology, thinks that more radical solutions, such as job sharing, are needed to make it easier for everyone to work part-time.
Fran thinks that every effort should be made to make part-time working easier. University and funders’ regulations also need to be quite clear.