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Female Researchers Who Have Kids Lack Support Necessary to Maintain Their Workflow

Becoming a mother can negatively impact a woman’s career in numerous ways, often because there’s a lack of support in male-dominated work environments. A new study finds that this problem also limits female researchers and academics.

Published in the journal PLOS One, the study, which looked at mothers in Australia, found that caring for children was associated with reduced research output and collaboration. Why? Having to care for children decreased their networking opportunities, which in turn can prevent women from meeting potential research partners or contacts who can fund their work.

The study was conducted by Dr. Adrian Barnett and Lauren Sewall of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. They randomly selected 95 women who were the first author of a paper published in one of three prominent Australian journals between 2007 and 2015. To analyze the effect of childrearing on research, Barnett and Sewall looked at the number of publications and citation counts for each of the women over their entire career.

The findings showed that there was a small increase in publication counts after the first child that appeared to reverse after the birth of a second child. The average number of citations decreased after having children, particularly after a second child.

“There is emerging evidence that women who care for children collaborate less with their colleagues, which could be a result of commitments outside of work like greater child-caring responsibilities,” Barnett explained in a statement. “These factors need to be considered when research output is assessed for the granting of funding. It is not enough to view research performance only in the context of reduced hours.”

Barnett also suggested that the two primary Australian agencies that award research funding exacerbate the struggle mothers face. Critics have called them “old boys’ clubs” because they seem to prioritize research quantity over quality when determining who gets financial support.

“[Both agencies] allow applicants to detail career disruptions which may have impacted on their research performance, including child birth and carer responsibilities and assess outputs relative to that,” Barnett said. “But it is unclear how that is achieved.”

One of the authors’ solutions is that institutions offer financial aid to cover childcare costs for mothers interested in attending conferences — as it could help widen their research network. Another recommendation was that institutions using publication and citation numbers to decide on promotions adjust their standards to be more inclusive of women who’ve been the primary caretakers of their children.

Overall, Barnett noted that it’s difficult to track exactly how childrearing affects a woman’s career and that the “results revealed a complex picture.”

“Individual cases need to be looked at because caring for children can affect different women in different ways,” he added. “A single parent with limited family support will most likely find it harder to attending important networking events and collaborate with peers compared to someone with access to childcare and a supportive partner.”

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