09/05/2022 02:32

Does being a mother mean perishing in academia?

  • Blog Fundamental Science

How motherhood affects the careers of scientists in Brazil

Art: Lívia Serri Francoio

By Rossana Soletti 

It is only 7 o’clock in the morning, and instead of having a quiet breakfast, I turn on the computer with a cup of coffee next to me so I can get on with my work. After thinking for a few minutes and writing the first two sentences of a text, one daughter wakes up hungry. I stop everything, go to the kitchen, prepare breakfast, talk a little and go back to work. Ten minutes later, the second daughter wakes up, and the whole cycle begins again. From then on, the interruptions to meet the intense demands of two young children do not stop. It is difficult to even produce a text about the difficulties of being a scientist working at home while taking care of my kids.

I think that by this time, my male colleagues and my childless female colleagues have already held meetings, written articles and started many other activities, while I’m still trying to finish the first paragraph of a text. “They are choices,” many will say. In some cases, they may be, but not always. In our country, half of the pregnancies are not planned. As if that were not enough, women work approximately 10 more hours per week than men in household chores and in the care of children and relatives.

The Parent in Science Movement, of which I am a member, studies and discusses the impacts of parenting on the scientific career. According to data from the group, more than half of all female scientists in Brazil are the only or main caregivers of children, and before the pandemic, 45% of them said they could not work at home. Since the advent of social distancing and remote work, this scenario has intensified: only 47% of female scientists with children were able to submit the scientific manuscripts they had planned before the start of the pandemic, compared to 76% of male scientists without children. Even when considering only male and female scientists with children, the overload on women was evident: only 28% of mothers of children aged between 1 and 6 years were able to submit their manuscripts, compared to 52% of male scientists who were fathers of children in the same age group.

In academic life, men and women, white and black, with and without children, may be able to compete from a position of equality (following the same selection criteria) but not of equity. Maternity leave, for example, which is so necessary and hard-won in the academic community, may end up harming women. This time of pause to care for children is not taken into account when evaluating the performance of scientists: when submitting a project proposal requesting funds for research or when applying for a job, everyone will be evaluated according to their publication record in the last few years. Consequently, women who put their careers on hold after becoming mothers will be penalized in this evaluation. This is one of the reasons for the difference in the number of women in the highest ranks of the academic hierarchy.

Women represent the majority of undergraduate scholarship awardees in Brazil. However, they account for only about 25% of research productivity fellows at the highest career level in Brazil. Of the Nobel laureates worldwide, only 6% are women. In addition, black and brown women with doctorates represent less than 3% of teaching scientists in our country. And who remembers the name of a female Minister of Science and Technology? Well, we have had none. This underrepresentation of women throughout the academic career path brings many obstacles to the scientific and technological development of the country, but a science with more diversity is also a more just and efficient science.

Considering the period of maternity leave when evaluating the productivity of scientists is only one of the necessary measures on the path to equity. As long as we cannot overcome the barriers of academia and promote cultural and social changes, such as the equal participation of men and women in childcare, the system that promotes the rise of scientists throughout their careers needs to change.


Rossana Soletti is a professor at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and a member of the Parent in Science Movement.

This text was originally publicated on Serrapilheira’s Ciência Fundamental blog on Folha de S.Paulo

  • Topics
  • Motherhood
  • Women in Science