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As a postdoc, you could have a big problem if you get pregnant

Franciska de Vries,
17 januari 2023 - 09:00

In the current social climate, you would think that every effort would be made to remove barriers for women scientists so that they would be retained for science. Forget it, writes Franciska de Vries.

The list of biases and barriers for women in science is long. With the same resume, male candidates are seen as more competent than women. Students give female professors structurally lower ratings than male professors. Male researchers mainly publish with other men, and women receive less credit for their role in scientific studies. Women earn less than men in the same position. When women have children, it has a strong negative effect on their careers - an effect that is absent when men have children.



You would think that we are doing everything possible to remove barriers and retain women in science. And yes, diversity is considered in hiring, and there are positions and fellowships specifically for women scientists. We are bombarded to death with women's networks, unconscious bias workshops, inspiration meetings. But rules and provisions that ensure that women are not at a disadvantage in their careers compared to men? There is much room for improvement here.


This became painfully clear to me last year when it turned out that we could not extend the contract of a postdoc in my research group for the duration of her pregnancy, childbirth, and parental leave. This female postdoc had been appointed within an externally funded project on a temporary research contract. After a year and a half, she became pregnant and took sixteen weeks of maternity leave, supplemented by accrued vacation, and then took one day per week of parental leave. All in the full belief that her contract would be extended by this taken leave, and the "lost" time could be put to use at the end of the project. We were also told this repeatedly by the HR department: it would be standard procedure to renew the contract with the leave taken.


Flex Law

But after eight months of delay and uncertainty about a contract extension, we finally ran into a wall. As a result of the flex law, employees are not allowed to be on temporary duty for more than four years. There is no exception for maternity leave. It took us a long time to figure this out. Too long, especially since this appears to be a well-known problem, even within the UvA.


This problem was solved way back in 2017 for PhD students, but not for postdocs. Back in 2017, unions and employers urged the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment to amend the law so that extension during maternity leave is not a problem for postdocs, either. It is now five years later, and this has still not been resolved.


For my postdoc, this means that she cannot finish her research as planned and has to look for another job a lot earlier. For my project, it means that the promised work cannot be done. It means stress and sadness for us and the team. Stress and sadness, but most of all, anger.


Anger, because it means that postdocs who become pregnant (or adopt) are directly disadvantaged. Anger, because this loss of work and contract time will carry over into their subsequent careers in an extremely competitive field of work. Because it means that work promised to outside backers cannot be performed. Because it means a loss of time and money, two things that are extremely scarce in science. Because it means a loss of talent, especially female talent - directly, through the effects of this scheme, but more importantly indirectly, through loss of motivation and confidence in a career in science. A career in science that requires extreme intrinsic motivation and is known to be difficult to combine - especially for women - with having a family. Anger because, and this is the worst thing of all, this might mean that employers are less inclined to hire a female postdoc. And anger because this is a well-known, concrete, easily solvable problem that still hasn't been dealt with.


Collective salary negotiations have now begun. To avoid penalizing postdocs who become pregnant, it should be possible to extend a contract beyond the four-year limit mandated by the flex law, as has been previously regulated for PhD students.


Franciska de Vries is professor of Earth Surface Science at the UvA. This column previously appeared in a slightly modified form in the Dutch version of Science Guide.