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Organisational support for female academics in the UK while on maternity

Anmol Abbott Joel (2019) Organisational support throughout the maternity journey: the perceptions of female academics in selected UK Universities, Salford Business School – University of Salford.

This piece of research, carried out by Anmol Abbott Joel in the framework of doctoral studies at the University of Salford, explores the perceptions of UK female academics on the organisational support offered (or not) to them during their maternity journey, whilst working for UK universities. Overall, the research finds that each phase of the maternity journey brought issues of concern for the female academics, due to a culture of inflexibility and presentism, in addition to several other organisational factors that affected working mothers such as part-time working, a lack of role models, pressure to publish, and unmanageable workloads. This resulted in most female academics experiencing stagnated careers, with several women ultimately being put-off from having another child.

Even though women represent nearly half of all higher education academic staff in the UK, according to the author, women continue to be significantly underrepresented within more senior academic positions, in particular professorial roles. With this in mind, the workplace barriers that this group faces in pursuing a traditionally successful academic career have been analysed in depth revealing that the decision to have children can act as the primary barrier for career progression. Where balancing motherhood and an academic career are addressed, the focus is mainly on the organisational barriers women face, such as managing work-life balance, and difficulties with part-time and flexible work.

The study shows that female academics have consistently faced challenges as a result of organisational deficiencies in the provision of support, and that throughout all stages of their maternity journey. For example, during their pregnancies the interviewed female academics perceived direct and indirect discrimination, insufficient arrangements made prior to maternity leave by the organisation, different expectations of communication, and negative perceptions towards adoption. In turn, during the maternity leave the female academics’ experience was heavily dependent on the immediate department, for instance, colleagues and the HR department, and there were related instances of planning an ideal academic baby due to the lack of a phased return. When returning to work both tangible (physical facilities e.g. childcare, breastfeeding) and intangible support (psychological support e.g. with miscarriage, post-natal depression) were essential aspects post return, but there was a general lack of awareness and acknowledgement of intangible support.

Generally, organisational agents seemed to be driven by wider economic and organisational imperatives relating to performance management and to which everything else was subordinated. They lacked training and were ill-equipped to understand the issues and act in a genuinely sympathetic fashion in their provision of support for maternity leave. During this process, both parties appeared to want to pass on the main responsibility to the other, and in their defence,  they also pointed to inadequacies in broader university and higher education policies that establish the framework within which they operate.

Taken as a whole, the research shows that organisational support throughout an academic’s maternity journey remains largely underdeveloped, and that this requires further attention, both in theory and practice in order to ensure that more suitable support is extended to working mothers in academia.

Salford University