Women in Science
When is the best time to have children?
There are many factors that affect if, and when, women have children. The women we talked to discussed the influence of the ‘biological clock’, their career stage, availability of maternity leave and pay, workplace support to keep their career, projects and publications on track, the need for an understanding and flexible boss and other role models as well as being in a relationship with someone with whom they wanted to have a child.
The 'Biological Clock'
Given that so many factors needed to be considered we were interested to find out that so many of the senior researchers and clinicians we interviewed have a family. Marian, a Professor of Maternal and Child Population Health, pointed out that it is important to have children earlier rather than later.
Catherine also advised other women not to ‘leave it too late’ to have children. While everyone knows that conception is more difficult for older women, she also pointed out that looking after children is tiring. Catherine thought that a good time for doctors to have a child might be when working as a hospital registrar. This is when a qualified doctor is working as part of a speciality training programme in the UK and is of a lower rank than a consultant.
Alison W was also given good advice that if she wanted to have children she shouldn’t wait too long. Several women mentioned that if there are going to be problems conceiving it’s best not to leave it until you are nearly 40 to find out.
Careers, Parental Leave and Support
All new parents on maternity or shared parental leave can make use of paid KIT (Keeping in Touch) or SPLIT (Shared Parental Leave In Touch) days to help maintain their careers, should they wish to do so. Women who had supportive colleagues and who used their KIT days sometimes found that they were able to avoid a dip in their publications (see ‘Taking Parental Leave’). But some women were understandably worried that they would find it difficult to catch up after having a baby. Marta, Tamsin and Alison N were the first women to go on maternity leave in their departments. All three described it as stressful at the time but think things have moved on substantially now.
Some of the younger women we interviewed wanted to have children at some stage in their careers, but were concerned about timing and finance.
Christine said that as she understands it, maternity leave and pay is better in the University than in the NHS and that a research environment may be more flexible about working hours and more ‘family friendly’ than some clinical environments. [All women are entitled to take up to a year’s maternity leave, but the University offers enhanced maternity and shared parental pay schemes, which are the most generous in the sector: http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/personnel/during/family/] Helen A talked about the very supportive mentor she had while an ACF (Academic Clinical Fellow).
Sally told us that in the 1990’s she decided to have a career break and to have her children before she set up her own lab. In those days statutory maternity leave for women was not so good as it is now (see https://www.gov.uk/maternity-pay-leave/overview) and Sally didn’t see how she could run a lab and look after young children at the same time (For more see ‘Taking parental leave’).
Some of the other women explained why they had planned their families in the way that they had. One woman, who had qualified as a doctor overseas, wanted to pass a key exam, which she had to take in order to register in the UK, before starting her family. She had married quite young so felt she could delay having her children until she had passed her exams. Another doctor, Eleanor, said that she would have found it very difficult to have had her children when she was working on a liver transplant ward, because working there was very intense. During her career she has either worked as a clinician or in research. She has rarely tried to do both at the same time.
Helen B had her first child when she was on a fellowship which meant she 'couldn't just pick up sticks and go and collaborate with someone on the other side of the world'. Angela spun her second company out during her second maternity leave. She said, 'It worked out well in the end!'
Making the Decision
The women we talked to agreed that deciding if and when to have a child is a very individual matter. It is life changing and may not be plannable. Several of the women had male partners who were either younger than themselves or, for some other reason, had not felt ‘ready’ to have a child at the same time. This required discussion and compromise. Other women decided to have children somewhat independently of other considerations, like Julia who said, “and that was that”.
Thinking about how helpful her own parents had been in looking after her child when she needed to travel for work, Kay reflected that couples who have their children at an older age, may be less able to rely on the grandparents to help. She said, ‘Sadly when my son has children I’ll probably be too busy or too old to look after them for him.’
Several senior women said they were very encouraged to see that younger couples seem to be approaching parenthood in a more equal manner, sharing the child care and deciding between them how and when a family would fit with both their careers. This is easier when both partners are working close to home and each other and if at least one of them has some flexibility about their work hours (for more see ‘Child care’).