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Heather Handley: An Academic Mama

Posted by Capstone Editing on 22 November 2018

Heather Handley: An Academic Mama

Posted by Heather Handley on 22 November 2018

Heather Handley is an Associate Professor of Volcanology and Geochemistry and leads the Volcanic and Magmatic Research Group in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Macquarie University. She strongly advocates for Women in STEM and is Co-Founder and President of the Women in Earth and Environmental Science Australasia Network (WOMEESA). Heather is also passionate about science communication and outreach; she regularly writes for The Conversation and has given more than 30 television, radio and print interviews. She is the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship (2012–2018) and the AIPS NSW Tall Poppy Award in 2014.

Navigating academia while parenting

The last five years of my life, navigating academia as a primary carer of two young children, have been the most personally and professionally challenging, but also the most fulfilling and rewarding to date.

My daughters were born in August 2014 and December 2016 and thanks to a very supportive and flexible employer, I have taken over two years’ full-time equivalent of parental leave (paid and unpaid). I’m currently on parental leave two days a week and will return to full-time employment when my youngest turns two, in just over a month’s time.

In this blog, I share a few of the main challenges and issues I have faced that might assist other carers and also help employers understand what they can do to support future academic parents.

The job that never stops

A career in academia is a privileged one, but also one that never leaves your side. The independent and specialist nature of the career makes it almost impossible to pass on your job to anyone else.

So what do you do when you need to take extended time off to care for a baby or young child? I had no idea when faced with this question in 2014.

I felt lost prior to going on parental leave and realised that although I had a great mentor at the time, he was male who never had young children, and couldn’t relate his experience  to the situation I was facing.

It was very hard to find a pathway because there are few academic women in senior positions as role models and even fewer that have children.

In hindsight, it never occurred to me to pro-actively find other women that had gone through a similar situation and see how they managed it. I think it would be beneficial for academics planning to go on parental to, through their employer, connect with others who can share their experiences.

I knew that with several PhD students reliant on me, and with funding and other looming deadlines for things starting a year in advance, it would be hard to close the door to ‘the office’.

With my first, Sienna, I took three months full-time parental leave and then the rest of my parental leave part-time until her second birthday. I never realised though how tired I would be when, during the first year, I was awake every two hours breastfeeding and then resettling her.

So, with my second child, Isabelle, I took seven months full-time parental leave, while still working every spare minute I had,  and then part-time parental leave, working three-days-a-week.

My husband— an academic in my department—and I, made the most of our employers’ flexible work arrangements in Isabelle’s first year. My husband also shared my parental leave, taking one-day-a-week for a few months to look after her. This was very beneficial in supporting my return to work and enabled father and daughter to have time and space (without mum around) to develop a strong bond.

Trying to build and maintain a research group and a career, however, meant that work never stopped; for example, reading through a PhD student’s soon-to-be submitted thesis within 24 hours of Isabelle’s birth. I was doing more than a normal full-time job with strict part-time hours during the day.

Trying to keep my career running through parental leave came at a severe cost to my wellbeing and resulted in long-term chronic fatigue. I now try to limit how many late nights I work, so that when I’m woken up throughout the night by the children, I can still get enough total sleep on average per week.

Should I have to work out-of-hours? No; but, ultimately, it’s my choice. To be successful in academia, most people would acknowledge that only working the 35 hours you get paid for will not get you there, and this a big problem with the system and definitely disadvantages time-restricted carers.

Onsite childcare is critical

Like many academics, my husband and I have international backgrounds and have no family support network in Australia that could help care for our children.

We were extremely fortunate to get both of our children into childcare on campus at Macquarie University, in one of the three onsite centres. This enabled me to return to work and to continue breastfeeding Sienna several times a day, even though she started childcare at only five-months’ old.

I was unable to express sufficient milk for her, and thanks to the university’s breastfeeding policy, I could go when needed to feed her.

As a PhD student and post-doctoral researcher, the parental leave policy of my employer or the initiatives they had in place to support the return of primary carers to work was, quite naturally, never on my mind. However, the policies have turned out to be crucial for me not becoming another of the steady drip of women from the leaky STEM pipeline.

Unquantifiable impact upon an academic career

The impact of having a family on my career has spanned a much greater period of time than that I have taken as official parental leave, which usually is what is taken into account by funding bodies and award panels. The interruption is also very different for the parent carrying the child, compared to the one that is not.

From the moment we began trying for a child, I had to limit my lab work as it involved handling radioactive and hazardous chemicals, so my data output and research productivity slowed prior to parental leave.

I also lost a pregnancy before Sienna and another before Isabelle, which expanded the career interruption timeframe by more than five months. This impact remains invisible unless I share such personal information with  funding and award decision-makers.

Pregnancy also limited my ability to conduct fieldwork in remote places and be absent for any period while breastfeeding (the first 13 months for Sienna and first 11 months for Isabelle). This also made attending conferences difficult unless we travelled together as a family.

So how do you measure the impact of the data that could not be collected in the lab or field and turned into publications? The missed opportunities that would have arisen from networking opportunities at conferences that I couldn’t attend? or other opportunities I had to pass on?

I think it is hard to quantify the true impact, but there is a lot that employers can do to support primary carers, such as conference-carer support grants, parental leave fellowships, and mentoring and networking opportunities at work.

A supportive employer makes all the difference

Despite my struggles, it would have been much harder if I didn’t have such a supportive employer. I’d encourage others to look at what Macquarie University has in place to support primary carers and their families as I think they are leading the sector. Some of their great initiatives include:

  • A Primary Carer Conference Support Grant to assist academic staff who have primary carer responsibilities to attend and present at academic conferences
  • A Faculty of Science and Engineering Parental Leave Research Fellowship to provide up to $60,000 to assist in maintaining research performance and trajectory
  • Access to 26 weeks’ full-time paid parental leave (if you have worked longer than 12 months for the university) at full or half pay, which can be shared by both parents if both are employed
  • Access to 4 weeks’ paid and an additional four weeks’ unpaid partner leave at the time of birth for a staff member whose partner is pregnant
  • Unpaid parental leave until the child’s second birthday
  • Two days’ paid personal leave to attend routine medical appointments or prenatal classes held during working hours
  • Access to flexible work arrangements
  • Breastfeeding/expressing breaks and facilities
  • Three onsite childcare centres.

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Heather Handley: An Academic Mama