‘Opinion’ is our latest addition to The Hub. This is a space where writers can share their personal opinions about topical issues. In today’s article, a current PhD candidate* discusses her experience of becoming pregnant during her lab-based PhD. Should PhD candidates be treated as students (tax exempt stipend, no benefits) or staff (pay tax on salary, employee benefits e.g. maternity pay)?
I’ve been contemplating this post for a while – to write or not to write, to share or not to share. After careful consideration, I believe the story should be shared so that this issue can be debated by and with a wider audience. Perhaps this post can resonate with the collective experiences of others who found themselves in my position.
Women’s rights, equality for women and now promoting more women in science are hot topics today. But is it just another tick box exercise or an honest quest for change? What is the reality on the ground?
In 2005, the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) established the Athena Swan Charter to – ‘encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research’. A statement on the ECU website reads: ‘We support universities and colleges to build an inclusive culture that values the benefits of diversity, to remove barriers to progression and success for all staff and students, and to challenge and change unfair practices that disadvantage individuals or groups’.
Since its inception, many universities have signed up to adopt the charter and have put measures in place so women in the profession are better supported such as flexible working hours, Job shares and scheduling events during core hours (10 am – 4pm).
I believe however that there is a shortfall in the measures being put in place to challenge and change unfair practices as stated in the charter. A shortfall I’ve recently encountered and had to survive the hard way and here’s why.
Four months into my PhD I fell pregnant. The timing couldn’t have been worse. I was struggling to settle into the first year and I was just starting to find my feet. I pushed my positive test results to the back of my mind and just got on with things. After my first scan, it all suddenly felt real. The ‘bun was in the oven.’ I had to talk to someone. Being so early on in my PhD program I didn’t feel my supervisor was the best person to talk to at the time and the headlines of ‘women crying in the lab’ didn’t help either, so I made an appointment with my personal tutor. She was very helpful and reassuring. She told me that a lot of students had babies during their PhD and advised not to lose sleep over it, plus “you’ll never find the right time so enjoy your pregnancy.” She also shared how she found herself having a baby at 45 because the timing was never right, as she progressed from a PhD, to a post doc, to a fellowship etc.
But what got my attention after the reassuring speech was that fact that the institution did not offer any financial support during maternity. After doing some research, I realised that apart from some key funding bodies like research councils, for the most part, there was no financial support for PhD candidates during maternity.
So here I was, just when I thought my hysteria over being pregnant in year 1 had been resolved, and I now had to deal with the fact that there would be no maternity support.
To think, I had left a well-paying job to do a PhD. As I contemplated what to do, I came across other women who had found themselves in a similar situation with no financial support.
One of my colleagues shared her story of how on breaking the news of her pregnancy, she was told by her head of faculty that her time as a PhD student is supposed to be a period of celibacy. Another colleague was told her project had to be completed within the funding period as no long breaks were allowed in reference to her query about her maternity options. These events were fairly recent.
Thankfully in my case where finances are concerned, I have a partner who earns enough to cover the cost and a supportive family I can fall on if need be. Having said that, a dip in any income especially as we already have a 2yr old would not be without challenges. If like me the household income is above the threshold of what HMRC supports then you get no assistance from the government either unless you work at least 16 hours a week.
How many Science PhD candidates can hold down a job and still be efficient in their research? This discovery got me thinking, what about all those other women out there who were not as fortunate as I was. What is the point of Athena Swan if it does not factor women undertaking PhDs? Is that to say that as a woman, you are not allowed to conceive during your PhD?
Some may argue, ‘don’t have a child if you can’t afford to look after them.’ Affordability is not the issue here. A PhD is a job in itself and if workers get maternity support, why not PhD candidates? My PhD ‘student’ status has been put on hold while I am on maternity and with it my stipend. This will be reinstated upon my return and yes, the university did not offer any financial support.
If institutions and funding bodies want to continue displaying their commitment to Athena Swan, then it’s a case of ‘drink deep or taste not.’ Yes, although you are considered a student during your PhD, it’s no secret that you’re in a full time job and working overtime for a token. It is only fair that barriers to Women in Science as declared in the Athena Swan charter be removed and this includes support for women PhD students.
In my opinion, if institutions are going to boldly display their commitment to Athena Swan then they need to make the bold decision of making it a requirement for funding bodies including University sponsored studentships, to make provision for pregnant PhD students in their awards. `
*We would like our writers to feel free to express their thoughts and will respect their right to post anonymously as long as we can independently corroborate their facts.
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Athena Swan at the department and Institute where I work was ridiculous and entirely corrupt. The two female leaders of the action simply supported themselves via Athena Swan and even became members of the executive commitee at the Institute. They suppressed relevant information of known discrimination of women. Several female researchers contacted Athena Swan without any response or action. This action seems to be fake and entirely corrupt. We would really like to know who is behind this. Disgusting.
Thank you for sharing your story. It resonates my own experiences a little over five years ago, when I found myself without any income while home with a baby and writing up my PhD. My PhD fellowship was terminated as I was on maternity leave, and thus not officially enrolled, and then never reinstated as I had gone over the 3 year maximum funding period. As I was nearing submission time we were completely broke. Husband worked part-time (30 hours) so that he could look after our baby while I was writing up. His part-time salary barely covered rent and utilities and I was writing like a maniac trying to finish and get a Postdoc Position before we had no more money in savings (meaning no more money for food). We sold everything we had, our old car, bikes, books, clothes just to keep afloat and it was the most stressful time of my life. Needless to say, I got very sick during my Postdoc period and we are still recovering financially from the experience.
Dear OH. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I can only imagine what it must have been like during that period. We aim to take this conversation forward and hope that changes can be made. More support is definitely needed. Thank you again, sending e-hugs your way for your courage in completing and persevering. Your story inspired me.
I am an international student in the second year of my PhD and find myself in a similar situation. This is discrimination to say the least. my university is reciting the same gibberish to me. Unfortunately there’s very little room for positive outcomes when one student decides to go against the big fish
Thanks for sharing Akosua. What suggestions do you have that could make this fairer to female students? If you had the power, what would you change?
Thank you for sharing your story. I would go so far to say that in 10 years the Athena Swan awards have achieved little then, as this is just another example of gender inequality that exists within universities and the science profession as a whole.
Its a shame that these gender equality business are just lip services. I think this is an issue which Universities needs to address but it appears they are trying to avoid it. However, spare some thoughts for the international student (without support) who gets pregnant while doing her PhD in UK.
This is a big issues indeed. Its not all transparent. Hers was the case of funding. International student being self funded are not asking for financial assistance but we ask to be given the right to decide where to spend our maternity leave and raise our child. For those who are not aware, international students are made to apply for suspension of studies should they request for a maternity leave longer than 3months. In that case, you are required to return to your home country for the period of time and reapply for a new Visa when you are ready to go back to school”after your so-called maternity entitlement”. This is Social injustice and has to be stopped too.