Parents in Science: Discrimination or strategic hiring?

This guest post is written by a scientist who has asked to remain anonymous. I respect her wishes and thank her for sharing her story. It is a story that unfortunately may sound familiar to many, and one that I hope will open constructive discussion. 

When I was pregnant with my second child, I saw an advertisement for a postdoctoral research position that I was really keen on. At the time, I was between positions (aka ‘freelance’), so I wasn’t going to stop applying for jobs just because I was pregnant. I applied and got an interview. Then, I was faced with the dilemma of whether to mention my pregnancy. I was about 5 months along, but they decided to do Skype interviews; they wouldn’t be able to see that I was pregnant. I had long discussions with colleagues and friends, and decided that I’d rather know whether I could get the position based on my abilities without my pregnancy being considered. So, I didn’t mention it. Afterwards, I felt very guilty because I prefer to be open and honest. I hadn’t lied but I had omitted, especially when asked how available I was: “Very available in the immediate term…”.

I got an email about a week later saying that I had been second choice. I was sad I didn’t get the post, but was pleased I was so close to getting it. About two months later, I got a call out of the blue saying their first choice was leaving and offering me the post. I immediately said I was interested but now very pregnant. I’d only manage a month of work before having to go on maternity leave. I was asked to email my suggested work plan, including how long I wanted for maternity leave and if I would want to return to full-time or part-time employment. I wrote the email, asking for 6 months leave and to return to work initially 3 days a week, ramping up to full-time. I waited. Eventually, I received a response saying they had offered the post to someone else.

Right or wrong? By law, as far as I understand, it was wrong. I was very angry at the time. However, I knew that the post had a scheduled end date and was only for two years. Did it really make sense for them to employ someone who would promptly go on maternity leave? They’d have to get a replacement for me until I returned, and then it would take a while for me to come up to speed, only for the project to end within a year. I think their decision was the right one – they couldn’t take me on. It would have been to the detriment of the project. In hindsight, I wish I’d discussed my pregnancy from the outset. It’s clear I would never have been offered the post, even if they are not supposed to consider such factors in hiring. But my field is a small world; it’s better to be open and honest. And I still believe it’s a good organization and a good bunch of people.

It is difficult as a parent of young children to maintain a career in science. You can’t put in the same hours as a similarly qualified person with no young children. For example, I had to take large blocks of time off this winter to look after the kids while illness after illness plagued our house. But I also realize how difficult it is for those who are employing you to do the research. They receive pressure as well – from university officials and funding agencies – to produce and to justify the money they are spending. Why should they hire us? I hope it’s because I’m worth the investment. But the returns on that investment may materialize more slowly. What could higher-ups and funding agencies do to help? I’m not sure what the answer is. One possibility would be to allow time extensions on projects that employ academics with children. This type of flexibility is encouraged by schemes like the Athena SWAN Charter in the UK, which recognizes and awards higher-education institutions that implement hiring and employment practices to increase the representation of women in STEM fields.

Looking ahead, there are newly advertised positions I am going to apply for, and this time I’m going to be completely open. I will list in the chronological history of my CV the time I spent on maternity leave to help explain my situation (slow publication rate, etc.). I will be honest in my interviews. As a female tenured scientist said to me, “Why would you want to work in a place that discriminates against you?”. I’m not quite sure I agree with her fully on this – the desire for tenure is too strong, and with family and a partner’s career to consider as well, things aren’t quite as simple as that. But I would agree that honesty gives you the best chance of finding a position that is the right fit.

One thought on “Parents in Science: Discrimination or strategic hiring?

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  1. actually, it makes really no sense to apply for a two year position if you want to have a break of 6 month and then to start working half-time. and to work one month before maternity leave. it would make more sense to apply for a position which starts when the baby is 6 month old.

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