Could Parental Leave Actually be Good for my Academic Career?

Author: David Kent
Original: University Affairs | The Black Hole


Last autumn, I started my research lab at the University of Cambridge’s Stem Cell Institute, but this coming summer I’m doing something completely different – I’m taking parental leave with my first child. I must admit that at least some inspiration came from my brother, who took a term off with his second child and said it was one of the best decisions he’d ever made.

It’s been a tough journey to get a group leader position – 11 years of intense research-focused time, most of which were spent in a complete black hole of uncertainty with respect to my future career. And now, I won’t be in the lab for 14 weeks – we’ll see how it all works out.

Reaction to my decision amongst non-academic family and friends was pretty much universally positive, but reaction from academic colleagues was highly variable – a substantial number of whom think I’m absolutely crazy to take off so much time within the first year of my research lab’s existence. I wasn’t too surprised by this, having emerged from the North American system where parental leave is much less generous than in Europe. What I didn’t expect were the other reactions …

In November, I was at a national cancer conference and at one of the evening receptions I spoke with a female scientist from another U.K. university about women in science. Over the course of the discussion, I mentioned that my partner and I would be taking advantage of the U.K.’s new “Shared Parental Leave” policy, with my partner taking 8.5 months of leave and me taking 3.5 months. She said she was shocked and surprised that a brand new group leader would take the time off, but also said “good for you.”

The next evening is when things really hit home though. After the conference dinner I was on the dance floor and a complete stranger came up to me and asked, “Are you David Kent?” I assumed she had seen my presentation earlier in the day until she continued, “the David Kent who is taking parental leave as a new group leader? I just wanted to say thank you.” We chatted a little and it was as simple as this: a male group leader taking parental leave was just not that common, especially not a 3.5-month block of time. The professor from the other night had clearly gone off and told her colleagues and word had spread.

Here I was being showered with praise for taking 3.5 months off work and feeling pretty good about my decision until I did a quick comparison to my partner’s situation, also an early career scientist. Not only would she be taking nearly three times the amount of leave, but she’s also been carrying a baby around for eight months whilst undertaking world-class research. Is there a small fan club of approving academics lined up to congratulate her on the brave decision to spend time with her child? Not that I’ve seen.

So, in effect, my taking a short block of parental leave has boosted my profile in the eyes of some academics and her taking a longer block will put her in the challenging position that so many young female academics find themselves in: trying to play catch-up and pretend that children haven’t impacted their careers (many do not acknowledge children on CVs, job applications, etc., for fear of being viewed unfavourably). The science community needs to embrace rather than shun such individuals.

Overall, if universities want more women in science, then the way we handle babies and families needs to change – men need to be as “risky” to hire as women. But change does not come overnight and it does not come easy. As a start, more countries (and institutions) need to have “use it or lose it” policies, such as exists in Quebec – the father is given a block of time that the mother cannot use. Universities and individuals need to fight for this. Countries such as Sweden have seen incredible results from such policies and are amongst the world leaders in having women in senior positions. For science specifically, granting agencies need to behave like the European Research Council with respect to eligibility windows and like EMBO for postdoctoral fellowships – creating small allowances for young parents that make the journey just a little bit easier.

Or perhaps we should just force them all out of science – that seems to be the way things are currently set up and it makes me worry for our future science workforce.

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