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Women in Science

Many of the senior women who we talked to in this study had children, with family sizes between one and three children. The word that they used most often to describe how they and their partners managed childcare, work commitments and travel to conferences was ‘juggling’.

Almost all the women with children returned to work within a few months of giving birth, although recent parents had sometimes taken the longer parental leave to which they are entitled. Several had a husband or a partner who took equal responsibility for the children or had the major role in child care.

Sharing Responsibilities

Portrait of Prof. Eleanor Barnes© Women in Science

Eleanor’s partner shares responsibility for the children, and does his fair share in managing the home, planning meals and organising after school clubs.


These men were often academics who also had flexible working hours which meant that between the couple one could go into work early and pick the children up in the afternoon, while the other could do the morning ‘shift’ with the children and then stay at work later in the evening. Having a partner who works in a similar field also means that they should understand the challenges and pressures of scientific research (for more see ‘Taking parental leave’). Fran was invited to present her first ‘pivotal clinical trial results’ at an overseas conference when their twins were ‘very, very small’. Her partner took over the childcare while she was away. She feels that he understands what is important to her because he is a scientist too.

Portrait of Irene Tracey© Women in ScienceIrene explains that her husband, who was also an academic, did 'the lion share' of child care in the early days with the kids, and that without him she would not have achieved her success.


Click for Katja's interview© Women in ScienceKatja’s husband is also an academic. He stayed at home for two days a week to look after the baby and the other three days the baby went to a nursery.


Persephone Borrow© Women in SciencePersephone’s husband also had a research job with flexible hours, so he was able to ‘share everything equally.’ Child care needed a lot of organisation.


Click for Angela's interviewAngela found having shared parental leave and a partner who was flexible was particularly helpful when they had two children.


Lucy’s husband is a self-employed journalist which made it relatively easy for him to share child care equally. Lucy said that they always did everything 50:50 and that without his help she couldn’t have managed her job. Krina’s husband works freelance and full-time but can set his own schedules, which helps them to plan. Women in research posts with a partner who is a clinician remarked that the clinical work was ‘completely inflexible’ so they were unable to adapt in a crisis. Interestingly, Catherine remarked that in a clinical environment where a lot of the staff members were women they would often cover each other’s shifts if a child was ill. Molly doesn’t have children but had heard from colleagues that the only way to keep a career going and to have children was to choose a husband or partner who would share family duties.

Portrait of Molly CrockettMolly said that the idea of having children and working as a scientist was ‘terrifying.’ She has been encouraged by mentors who had successful careers and partners who shared child care.


Other women we interviewed said that their husbands were very ‘supportive’, but that when plans had to be made, such as new childcare arrangements, they took the main responsibility for those decisions.

Portrait of Anushka Soni© Women in ScienceAnushka’s husband is very supportive, and for a while was the main person dropping off and picking up their children from nursery, but Anushka took responsibility for organising child care.


Career Breaks

A few women said they had chosen to take main responsibility for their children when they were small. Sally took a career break and looked after her three children for nine years, which, she says, might have had a negative effect on her career (For more see ‘When is the best time to have children?’ and ‘Changing the culture in science’). Catherine stressed that it was her decision to have children and to be the primary carer. Marian also said she was glad that she spent time with her children when they were tiny. She took several months off work after they were born and then worked three or four days a week for a while (For more see ‘Taking parental leave’ and ‘Part-time and flexible working’).

Portrait of Prof. Marian Knight© Women in ScienceWhen Marian’s children were small she wanted to be their main carer. Now that they are older she and her husband ‘juggle’ what has to be done between them.


Couples sometimes find that they don’t end up sharing childcare as equally as they thought they would when planning their family. Jane M, a hospital consultant, felt that she had had to do more than her fair share of child care. She said that other women were in a similar situation.

Portrait of Jane Moore© Women in ScienceWhen Jane had children she hoped that her husband would share child care responsibilities 50:50 but that is not what happened.


In the 1990s her boss arranged for her to have a laptop so she could work from home – this was an ‘ideal arrangement’ and a ‘real credit’ to him.

Many women reflected that it was more acceptable to have a career break and that this should be accepted – and not judged negatively – when accounting for career progression, publications and grants. Some women found that sharing the parental leave with their partner had also helped to change attitudes.

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.


Help from Relatives

Several women said that relatives took a major role in child care. Anushka, for example, said that both her mother and her husband’s mother travel quite a long way to help with the children, which allows her to work full time ‘without too much guilt.’ Many years ago Kay’s parents used to come to stay when she needed to travel for work and looked after both her child and her husband.

Portrait of Helen McShane© Women in ScienceHelen’s mother helped her a lot when the children were small. They also went to a privately run nursery, which worked well.


We talked to several women who had worked in other countries with different expectations about working families. Persephone had benefitted from 6 am to 6 pm nurseries when she lived in the USA and found it difficult to adjust to shorted hours when she came to the UK. This was difficult when she needed to finish a long experiment in the laboratory. Katja explained that in Germany there is 14 months shared leave which either parent can take, or they can share equally. Some take seven months off together as a new family. In Holland it’s common for men to work one day less each week to look after their child(ren). The Chinese women we interviewed seemed to have particularly good support from their children’s grand-parents, both in China and in the UK.

Portrait of Xin Lu© Women in ScienceXin explains that when she was growing up in China it was normal practice for women to take their babies into work place nurseries.


Portrait of Prof Tao Dong© Women in ScienceWhen her children were babies Tao received a great deal of help and support from both sets of grand-parents. Later her children attended a nursery.


Flexible Hours

Women often said that flexible working hours had made their careers possible (very few women we talked to had ever worked part-time). Under the provisions of the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 (as set out in Section 9 of the Children and Families Act 2014), any employee with 26 weeks service has the right to ask their employer for a change to their contractual terms and conditions of employment to work flexibly (see In addition there are many informal arrangements.

Click for Tamsin's interviewTamsin thinks the flexible nature of academic work should be stressed as a positive to women considering a career in research.


Portrait of Blanca Rodriguez© Women in ScienceBlanca stressed the need to make it clear to women returning from maternity leave that they can work from home and have flexible hours.


Click for Amy's interviewAmy finds that she is able to work remotely when needed, such as family emergencies.


Portrait of Prof. Marian Knight© Women in ScienceMarian believes that flexible working hours, trust from her line managers and persistence have made her career possible.


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


Click for Kristina's interviewKristina commutes from France and is in Oxford two days a week – she finds the time away from home benefits both her work and her relationship with her children.


Click for Hazel's interviewHazel explains how she manages to work part-time (80%) and how this has changed over the years as her children grew-up.


Nurseries, Child Minders & Nannies

Many women used a nursery when they returned to work. They included University nurseries (, hospital nurseries, and private nurseries. Some women had found it hard to find a place in a University nursery or had had to wait many months on a waiting list. When babies or school children were ill they had to stay at home and someone had to take time off work. Lois and her husband are both clinicians and she said that ‘clinical medicine trumped’ so that if someone had to stay at home with an ill child it would be the one who didn’t have clinic that day. Her ‘anti-social’ hours in emergency medicine work quite well with his more predictable hours as a GP.

The location of nurseries and schools in relation to the parents’ workplaces has considerable influence on who is able to drop the children off and collect them. Having child care on the same site as work gave parents flexibility, enabled the mother to breastfeed and to be there quickly if there was an illness or crisis. In contrast a couple who lived in the London suburbs, where her children were at local schools, had a 90 minute journey to work which was very difficult if the school telephoned to say that a child was ill and needed collecting.

Portrait of Samira Lakhal-Littleton© Women in ScienceSamira applied for a university nursery place as soon as she was pregnant. She thought that the university nursery had very high standards.



Some women had nannies when their children were younger and described a combination of supportive partners and a nanny. Alison E used a combination of after school clubs and an au pair for childcare. She would work in a concentrated way until 7pm and then focus on the children. As her children have grown older she has found they don't need (or want) such direct attention. Hazel similarly said that now her children were teenagers they were able to look after themselves.

Other women felt that older children needed more attention than babies, who could be carried around in the car or cared for in the nursery. Very small children can be quite flexible but Alison B said that life got a lot more complicated when her two children were at different schools which meant that both parents needed to be involved in the school runs. ‘After school clubs’, child minders or au pairs helped to care for children until a parent could get home.

Portrait of Jane Moore© Women in ScienceJane’s children are 16 and 18 and still need care and support. Jane thinks that society is ‘selling a myth’ about family responsibility only lasting until the child starts school.


Child care at home has numerous benefits – especially when a child is unwell, or during the school holidays, but it is more expensive than nurseries. Elspeth shared a nanny with two other friends who lived locally. She said that that worked ‘brilliantly’ because the children had three sets of toys and due to flexible working hours and careful timetabling the nanny only had to look after two of the children at once.

Portrait of Prof Maggie Snowling© Women in ScienceAs a single parent Maggie said that she couldn’t have managed without a nanny. She took the view that it was quality time with her son that mattered more than quantity.


Portrait of Barbara Casadei© Women in ScienceWhen Barbara’s daughter started school she employed au pairs to help with child care. She strongly recommends this type of support at home.

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