Justice for mothers in university research

Ms Stanicuaski, there are fewer women in leadership positions in the natural sciences at universities and research institutes around the world than would be expected based on the proportion of female students. They believe that discrimination against mothers is to blame. What does an academic work environment that treats mothers fairly look like?

We need a profound change in our academic culture: academia must recognize and respect that life and career trajectories are different. Flexibility, especially towards mothers with young children, is essential. This also means that engagement and productivity can be expressed differently than in the number of posts, and that success stories don’t always follow a straight line. A truly fair academic environment takes into account the needs of mothers, offers supports such as on-campus childcare, flexible work schedules or mobile work, and promotes understanding of the situation of parents. This goes beyond superficial commitments to diversity; institutions must actively promote them.

Fernanda Staniscuaski, a molecular biologist at the University of Rio Grande do Sul, launched the “Parents in Science” initiative.

Fernanda Staniscuaski, a molecular biologist at the University of Rio Grande do Sul, launched the “Parents in Science” initiative.

Image: Gustavo Diehl

As a professor of molecular biology at the University of Rio Grande do Sul, you founded the Parent in Science network after having had children and having experienced all the difficulties that mothers face in universities. What obstacles did you encounter? And are these particularly high in Brazil?

They are similar to those in many parts of the world: there is a lack of support mechanisms, no strategies to retain mothers in universities and few opportunities for women to continue a career with children. Funds for research or scholarships to return to work are often lacking. Furthermore, mothers’ commitment and capabilities are often questioned.

“Parent in Science” has been around for six years. What have you achieved during this time?

The work of our initiative has been crucial in ensuring that regional and national policy in Brazil addresses mothers in science and research. This is reflected in better working conditions, more opportunities for financial support and more career options for scientists with children. We are promoters of positive changes that make the experience of mothers in science more valued.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused regressions in equality: women were forced to take on more childcare tasks and publish less. Has that changed again?

The pandemic dealt a hard blow to the fight against discrimination. The scientific community has not yet fully recovered from this, despite some progress. But, in particular, the lack of publications will influence career paths for a long time. Especially when scientific institutions declare that the consequences of the pandemic have been overcome and ignore the difficulties that have arisen for mothers, there is a risk that inequalities will become permanently entrenched.

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