Can we do more to help academic parents?

Annie Hughes and her son, Tomas. Credit: Elizabeth Tasker

The youngest attendee at a conference on the ‘Regulation of Star Formation in Molecular Gas’ this June was Tomas, the one year old son of Annie Hughes, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Astronomy, Heidelberg.

Sitting at the back of the meeting room with his mother, Tomas attended many of the week’s sessions. He offered little verbal feedback, but was seen reaching for a (fortunately empty) mug of beer during one of the discussions, making it clear he had all the makings of a great scientist.

From the point of view of the other conference attendees, Tomas’s presence made no difference to the flow of the meeting. He always appeared cheerful, either sitting on his mother’s knee or being held during coffee while Annie discussed the latest presentations with her colleagues. However, this picture of easy infant caring came at high price for Annie’s own involvement in the conference.

“I attended about 40% of the talks,” she said. “But I was only able to give my full attention to about 20%.”

Annie had tried to get childcare for the duration of the meeting. Initially, it had looked promising, since the Max Planck Society offers financial support to its employees for exactly this situation. But in the end, Annie found herself thwarted by the rule book.

The meeting was held in Ringberg Castle, a beautiful conference facility owned by the Max Planck Society that overlooks Lake Tegernsee in Bavaria. The building and scenery makes this a popular destination for conference attendees, but its isolated location results in it being less than family-friendly.

The level of childcare support offered by the Max Planck Society amounts to six euros per hour for up to six hours per day. This amount was far short of the sum needed for a nanny to come and stay in the castle, which tallies to over 100 euros a night for bed and board before any wage is even paid.

Despite the nearest creche being a 30 minute drive away, Annie did try to secure Tomas a place outside the castle. In this, she was simply unlucky: the creche who agreed to take Tomas had two staff members become sick and had to cancel. The upshot was Annie had to care for Tomas herself during the conference.

“Everyone individually wanted to help,” Annie said as she described the assistance she had received from the conference organisers in trying to circumnavigate these problems. “But the system was very inflexible. It’s a ‘one rule for everyone’ and that doesn’t really work because everyone’s situation is different.”

Annie points out that this raises a rarely considered issue when organising a major scientific meeting: is it best to select an impressive location or one that is family friendly?

This problem of organisations meeting parents only a quarter of the distance needed is one with which Annie has become unpleasantly familiar. Since moving to Germany two years ago, she has found the system willing to help in principle. But the actual support available is limited because of unintended gaps in services or over-demand.

For example, on a full time contract, Annie was able to take one complete year for parental leave. To help mothers back to work, Germany also offers a heavily subsidised kindergarten place to any child over the age of three.

But what about the two intervening years?

There is limited childcare support for infants aged one to three years old, making it immensely difficult to return to work after parental leave for at least another two years. While paid childcare is an option, it is often prohibitively expensive and still oversubscribed.

Being forced to take such an employment gap has both career and financial implications, with the former perhaps being no less marked than in science where your recent paper count dictates your academic status.

Even for parents with older children, the difficulties do not stop at age three. Annie has an older son, Martin, who is now five. When the family arrived in the country a year ago, they tried to get Martin into kindergarten, claiming the place to which the German government says he is entitled. However, while everyone agreed Martin had a spot, there were none free in any of the local preschools. Annie hired a nanny for six months at the cost of roughly half her salary.

There is also the additional problem of your family care rights depending on your job status. Annie’s generous 12 month parental leave is only offered to those classified as ‘public servants’. Many postdoctoral fellows in Germany are employed on stipends which offer far fewer benefits.

All of this results in a system that wants to help, but doesn’t yet have the full infrastructure to do so, or the flexibility to work around the holes. Yet, when it comes to help for young parents, Germany is still ahead of many other countries.

“I did consider not coming to the meeting,” Annie admitted. “But unless people see parents with children, they won’t remember that this is a problem that needs to be considered.”

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