Walking the career-family tightrope


Katja, Narges and I are catching up over coffee. We’re talking about my current sabbatical position, which is a cover for someone on maternity leave. “It’s funny,” I start, “when I was telling people in the US that I was taking a maternity cover position, they looked at me with blank expressions, because they didn’t know what I was talking about. Here in the UK, everyone just nods and says ‘How nice – perfect for your sabbatical’”. I am, of course alluding to the fact that there is no maternity leave in the US – you can take short-term disability leave for 2 months if you have insurance and your employer allows it – whereas in the UK you get 26 weeks with the option to extend to 52 weeks. “In Germany, you get 1 year, which you basically have to take because there is tremendous social pressure on women not to come back to work too early,” Katja informs us. “It often feels like mothers who want to work sooner are labeled as bad mothers.” This is, of course juxtaposed with the system in the US, where most women have to return to work within 2 weeks of giving birth, and where taking more time is sometimes frowned upon. “And it seems that no matter how much or little time you take off to be with your baby, most women’s careers seem to suffer from it, and some never catch up compared to their colleagues,” Katja concludes.

This gets us thinking. I have had many friends talk about their experience of coming back to work after time out to have a baby, both in the US and in Europe. Irrespective of the amount of time taken, the general consensus seems to be that most women feel like their careers have been interrupted and that they are at a disadvantage. It seems as if they’re always catching up, and no longer are as competent as others who haven’t been away from their job for a while. “Hmph,” is Narges’ disgruntled comment, “just because people take time out doesn’t mean they are less competent or less capable than they were before! And if you’re efficient and get the work done, it shouldn’t matter whether you leave on time or stay late”. Katja and I couldn’t agree more. “I think we have two very different examples here, both of which actually have positive and negative sides to them,” Narges remarks.

We discuss the pros and cons: The German system is good because of governmental financial support, the option for paternity leave up to 14 months if both of the parents stay home for at least 2 months, and the fact that (in theory) both women and men can take time to be with their children without having to worry about losing their jobs. On the other hand, there is a lot of social pressure on women against going back to work sooner and wanting to continue your career at the same pace as before you had your child, and some employers will even be reluctant about hiring women in their 30’s for fear they’ll get pregnant immediately and be out for at least a year. Meanwhile in the US, there seems to be less hiring bias against ‘women of childbearing age’, since everybody knows they’ll return to work after 2 months, and there is less social pressure from peers to stay home. This, of course, comes with the disadvantage of having to go back to work when your baby is very young, needing to find – and pay for – childcare, and the worry that you might lose your job if you don’t perform at pre-baby level immediately. Add to that that some women feel pressured to go back to work even if they had the means not to, as giving up your job to be a stay at home mum is seen as a failure to be able to do both. “So basically, whatever you decide to do, and whichever system you live in, it seems women feel pressured and disadvantaged in one way or another,” I deduce.

“My ideal situation would be 1 year government funded ‘parental leave’ where the mum stays home for the first 6 months, the father for the next 6 months, and at 1 year of age, the child goes to daycare and both parents back at work,” Katja tells us. “That way, both parents get to spend time with their children, social pressure is lessened, and both parents need get back into their careers, leveling the playing field somewhat”. Narges and I agree that this would probably be a great scenario for lots of people. “What you’d need for this to happen are a willing mother, a willing father, a willing employer, and a willing government,” Katja concludes. Wouldn’t that be nice…

Christine-palmerMy name is Christine, and I am an immunologist. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for my PhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for a second postdoc. Six years later, I’ve made Boston my permanent home, but I am currently on an 8-month sabbatical back in London, where I am learning new things at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before returning to Boston. In addition to doing research, I write a series of blogs about conversations and discussions I have had with other scientists, with topics ranging from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technologies and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments. You can read my other blog posts here.