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Women in Science

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

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. Marta said she never considered part-time work 'partly because I'm ambitious and I was concerned about he effect this would have on my career progression'. Other women said that part-time work was not an option when they had their children. Alison N said there was no obvious model of how to work part-time so she focused more on working out how to manage working full time with a baby.

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.

Portrait of Irene Roberts© Women in ScienceWhen Irene had young children she was running a clinical service so couldn’t work part-time. She was advised that if she worked part-time she wouldn’t be taken seriously.


Portrait of Kay Davies© Women in ScienceKay thinks that even today some funders may assume that a person working part-time is not a serious scientist.


Portrait of Jane Moore© Women in ScienceJane says a culture change is needed so that families are not only seen as women’s responsibility and so that part-time and flexible work isn’t seen as ‘disruptive’ but normal.

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.

Click for Angela's interviewAngela says that women should not be ashamed their CV has a few less publications because they took a career break to have children.


Maintaining continuity

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.

Portrait of Fran Platt© Women in ScienceFran explains that scientists have to manage time carefully to run lab experiments if they work part-time. They might have to enrol support from colleagues in the lab.


Portrait of Samira Lakhal-Littleton© Women in ScienceAfter Samira finished her maternity leave she decided that she didn’t have enough support in the lab for her to work part-time.


Click for Alison's interviewAlison said the lack of precedence for working part-time and the need to return to her research duties were important in her returning to work full-time, but she does not regret the dip in publications during her maternity leave


Portrait of Bryony GrahamBryony explains why people who work part-time may feel under pressure to finish projects faster than is possible in the circumstances.


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.

Portrait of Anushka Soni© Women in ScienceAnushka’s research involved following patients through an NHS treatment path. If she had worked part-time it would have had a negative effect on recruitment.


Full-time work for part-time pay

In their experience those who work part-time end up doing full-time work for part-time pay.

Click for Katja's interview© Women in ScienceKatja felt that if she worked part-time she would still be trying to get the work done for less money.


Click for Alison's interviewAlison was worried part-time work would mean not being paid for the research she wanted to do.


Click for Julia's interviewJulia felt that as a research she would fill all her time working, so could not work part-time


Interest and excitement

Many women described how important their work was to them. They found it so exciting and interesting they wanted to work full-time. Tao said that going to work for her is like going on holiday and that she really enjoys it.

Click for Alison's interview© Women in ScienceAlison does not think that working part-time is attractive to scientists because they are emotionally involved in their work.


Positive Experiences

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.

Click for Hazel's interviewHazel thinks working part time is ‘not as impossible as people fear that it is’


Portrait of Prof. Marian Knight© Women in ScienceMarian’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.


Portrait of Jane Langdale© Women in ScienceJane has a postdoc who is doing a project that involves long term experiments so Jane thinks that her career might benefit from working part-time.


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.

Portrait of Irene Roberts© Women in ScienceIrene thinks that part-time working might be possible if people are flexible and if necessary work on days when there is an important meeting or a key experiment to run.


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.

Click for Helen's interviewHelen found that attitudes to part-time working have changed between having her first and second child.


Click for Tamsin's interviewTamsin has found that attitudes to flexible and part-time working have changed for the better over the years.


Portrait of Helen McShane© Women in ScienceHelen felt she did a full-time job and often worked in the evenings, but she was only paid for four days a week. She liked this arrangement because she felt free to spend a day at home.


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.

Portrait of Prof Maggie Snowling© Women in ScienceMaggie thinks that academic job sharing should be possible. She thinks that departments need to be more creative about making those kinds of opportunities available.


Fran thinks that every effort should be made to make part-time working easier. University and funders’ regulations also need to be quite clear.

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