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Women in Science

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Interview excerpt: Persephone wasn’t eligible for maternity leave. Now that she is running a research group she is aware that generous arrangements for maternity leave can be seen as difficult and disruptive.

What would happen in that situation now if somebody became pregnant and wanted to have six months off? Would their research just go on hold?

Oh, this happens all the time. I think almost continuously for the last ten years, I have had at least one person in the group who has been off on maternity leave, and it is something that is very, very difficult. So I see both sides of this because obviously having been through it all myself and not had maternity leave either time, because even though my second daughter was born in the UK, because I was already three months pregnant when I moved back to the UK and took up the job, I wasn’t eligible for maternity leave then either.

But now people have much more support at the time, when they are pregnant. They have much more generous arrangements for maternity leave which is great. So on the one hand, I think this is fantastic and I’m really glad that all of that system exists. But obviously as somebody who is running a research group, you can also see how this does impact on everything that is going on, because obviously there is one person, who is working in that area, who has got all the expertise and is taking that project forward. They may also be supervising a student or have other people in the lab who are dependent on the work they’re doing. And then the person is pregnant and some people cope with their pregnancy very well and remain a hundred per cent productive, you know, through the pregnancy. Other people have more health issues. Everybody’s more tired and I think that definitely some people’s work suffers during that time and this is unavoidable. Then people will commonly take, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone take less than six months, I think people commonly take nine months and some people take a whole year off at that point. So now the person who has all that expertise and who was supervising that student and who was integral to these three other projects is suddenly not there anymore.

You can hire a maternity cover person, and that is helpful but to be honest, it doesn’t really solve the problem because what it then means is that, you know, you’ve got to bring in somebody who doesn’t know the project, who doesn’t necessarily have all the right expertise, and that really, really, it is very, very disruptive.