Spanish scientists women propose ten measures to avoid abandoning the academic career


The challenges of motherhood often lead women to leave academia after their first child. In fact, studies in the United States suggest that around 50% of women scientists in the US leave science after motherhood. To address this problem, a group of Spanish women scientists, who are themselves mothers, propose ten urgent measures that academic institutions should adapt to create a friendlier environment to prevent women from leaving academia after motherhood.

These guidelines cover a range of issues, from support during pregnancy to work-life balance, including career advancement opportunities. They propose measures such as support during pregnancy, childcare and breastfeeding and the school phase, actions aimed at organising, making research and teaching activities more flexible and equitably distributed, and measures for the career advancement of mothers, thus combating mental health problems, discrimination and harassment.

This work, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology under the title “Ten simple rules for a mom-friendly Academia”, highlights the need for greater representation of women in science, including mothers, because equality is a fundamental right and, in addition, there are studies that certify that diverse work environments are more productive and innovative.

The article, led by researcher from the Department of Ecology at the University of Alicante (UA) Esther Sebastián-González, includes Ana Sanz-Aguilar, from the Department of Ecology and Evolution of the Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Studies (IMEDEA, CSIC-UIB); Eva Graciá, from the Department of Applied Biology at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche (UMH); Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, from CREAF-Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF-Centre  for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications); Irene Pérez-Ibarra, from the Agri-Food Institute of Aragon (IA2), a joint centre of the University of Zaragoza and CITA of Aragon, and Mar Sobral, from CRETUS-Interdisciplinary Centre for Research in Environmental Technologies of the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC).


Acordingto Esther Sebastián-González «the benefit of implementing many of these ideas will not only be for trans mothers and fathers, but also for parents, carers of dependents, women, and even the academic community at large. It is imperative that academic institutions take proactive steps to promote gender equality and empower all people, including mothers, in the development of their scientific careers.»

Among the measures proposed by this group of women scientists is technical support for pregnant women for field and laboratory work, as well as policies to facilitate flexible working hours and remote working. Another point highlighted in the article is that maternity and paternity leave should be taken into account in selection processes and in eligibility criteria for grants and research positions. They also call for the creation of crèches and breastfeeding centres at work and at scientific meetings, flexibility in working hours and location, and giving priority to parents with children in the selection of teaching hours during school hours.


To support the career advancement of mothers, the authors raise other issues such as extending the eligibility window for fellowships and grants for scientific mothers to at least 18 months per child, waiving the geographical mobility requirement for fellowships and grants for scientific mothers and creating specific grants after long career breaks. They also propose to create, disseminate and enforce anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies in all research institutions and to reduce women's unpaid and unrecognised work, such as membership of hiring or thesis committees, and equalise this administrative burden to that of men.


Description of the measures proposed by Spanish women scientists

Figure: Ten ideas for a more mother-friendly academic world.


The following is a description of the ten measures included in the article "Ten simple rules for a mom-friendly Academia":


1. Support during pregnancy:

Institutions should provide comprehensive support systems, including resources, guidance and accommodations, to help women during the pregnancy process. This support should extend beyond physical considerations and address emotional and professional aspects as well.


2. Flexible parental leave policies:

Advocate for implementing paid parental leave that is flexible and respectful of individual choices. These policies should also foster a culture of inclusion and support for all caregivers.


3. Childcare and breastfeeding facilities:

Establishing childcare facilities and dedicated spaces for breastfeeding or expressing milk allows mothers to continue their academic work while caring for their children. These facilities should be easily accessible, promoting seamless integration of work and family life.


4. Organise departmental activities during school hours:

Whenever possible, department meetings or activities should be held during school hours to facilitate the attendance of mothers and fathers. Allowing online participation in seminars and meetings is also a way to help with work-life balance.

5. Flexible working hours:

Offering flexibility in working hours allows for effective management of professional and personal responsibilities. This flexibility can include remote work options, part-time arrangements or adjustable schedules to accommodate the diverse needs of working parents.


6. Adapting teaching practices:

Adapting teaching practices to support parents with young children promotes inclusion and ensures that mothers can actively participate in their academic commitments. Providing alternative teaching assignments, recorded lectures or asynchronous learning opportunities benefits both mothers and other students with diverse responsibilities.


7. Supporting career advancement:

Implementing positive actions to support mothers' academic careers is crucial to address the career penalties associated with motherhood. This can include mentoring programmes, funding opportunities and tenure extension policies specifically designed to support and retain talented women in academia.


8. Prioritising mental health:

Establishing comprehensive mental health programmes and resources is essential to address the unique challenges faced by academic mothers. Providing access to counselling services, stress management workshops and work/life balance initiatives promotes the overall well-being of academic mothers.


9. Combat discrimination and harassment:

Disseminating and enforcing anti-discrimination and harassment protocols is crucial to creating a safe and inclusive environment for all researchers. Academic institutions should actively promote a culture of respect, equality and zero tolerance for any form of discrimination or prejudice based on gender or maternity.


10. Equitable distribution of workload:

Ensuring a fair distribution of workload and responsibilities avoids overburdening women and promotes equal opportunities for career advancement. Academic institutions should strive for transparency and fairness in the allocation of tasks and ensure that the workload is balanced among all researchers.


Sebastián-González E, Graciá E, Morán-Ordóñez A, Pérez-Ibarra I, Sanz-Aguilar A, Sobral M. 2023. “Ten simple rules for a mom-friendly Academia”. PLOS Computational Biology (2023).