Holiday babies, post-tenure pregnancies and “May” children. These are some of the labels that get attached to women in academia who plan on having children. Many women in academia share a common burden of scheduling their maternity plans: to survive and advance through the faculty ranks, they tend either to give birth during vacation time (which starts in the month of May for a lot of universities). Or they postpone their motherhood status to the end of their probation period, once they have achieved tenure.

There are a few institutions, however, that offer more generous maternity benefits. By comparing the benefits offered by different institutions, it’s clear that the better the package, the better it is for the career paths of female academics. This, in turn, helps close the salary gap between male and female academics.

By contrast, poor maternity pay leads to an under-representation of women in higher academic positions, lower salaries, lower research outcomes and promotion, as well as lower fertility rates and higher rates of family dissolution.

Breaking down the data

In a recent study looking at 160 UK higher education institutions, my colleague Mariaelisa Epifanio and I found that contractual maternity pay varies widely. Several universities (15) only offer statutory maternity pay – 90% of net salary for six weeks, plus 33 weeks at a flat rate of about £140 per week. More universities (38) offer eight weeks of full pay plus the statutory pay. And just seven universities grant 26 weeks of full pay.

The difference in the effect of theses policies is significant. Universities with a very generous occupational maternity pay package on average double the number of female professors compared to institutions with minimal maternity benefits (though the effect is much stronger for research intense institutions than for primarily teaching ones).

More generous pay allows young mothers to take enough time off from non-research related duties such as teaching and administrative tasks and enables them to stay in touch with and conduct research in their field. This in turn helps avoid a gap in research productivity once they return from maternity leave.

One of the main contributing factors for promotion and salary is research productivity. Plus, generous maternity provisions are usually a good proxy for a generally more supportive environment.

It was the more research intense universities that offer more generous maternity pay. This is likely because they screen academic candidates very thoroughly when hiring and invest a great deal of resources into their academic staff. Once they have invested in highly productive female academics, they face strong incentives not to lose them when they become mothers by providing more generous maternity packages.

In addition, 74 universities provide on site childcare provision. This increases the share of female professors by up to a third. In terms of salary, the results suggest similar, albeit weaker patterns. More generous maternity leave provisions lead to a higher share of female academics with an income in the highest salary bracket.

The global gender income gap is widening
Image: Quartz

Fixing the leaky pipe

Whether more generous maternity provisions impact career paths of female academics seems to be an incredibly important question that has serious policy implications. As with other professions, academia has a leaky pipe problem – at the early career level, there’s a fairly even gender split, but very few women stay the course. Only 20% of professors are female.

The experience of men who have children in academia is very different. Family and children generally have either no impact or even a positive effect on the patterns of men’s performance in the academic ranks. So motherhood and professional achievements appear to be conflicting goals in an environment that is usually praised for its flexibility in terms of working hours and family friendliness.

Generous maternity schemes impose a cost on university budgets. But if the academic community, and more broadly society, is interested in generating equal opportunities beyond just window dressing and enabling talented women to stay in the workforce, we have to ask ourselves how we can generate an environment that allows for this.

Our research does not necessarily support the idea of infinitely long maternity leaves. But it is in line with previous results on the trade-off between length and generosity. Our findings suggest that more generous maternity benefits coupled with institutionally provided child care might help to fix the leaky pipe.

Higher education also offers some lessons for the wider economy. The UK suffers from a productivity gap when compared to other highly developed economies and it ranks very unfavourably both in terms of generosity of statutory maternity pay and public spending on parental leave provisions compared to other EU and developed countries.

There is certainly room for improvement. More generous parental leave policies could help close the productivity gap and so pay for themselves in the long run.