Are women with kids struggling more under lockdown?

Let’s be clear about this: a lot of people are struggling during these trying times, and for a variety of reasons. Many people worry about the health and wellbeing of themselves or their loved ones, about keeping their jobs, and about paying their bills.

I have a permanent position in academia, which means that I am in the very fortunate position of not having to worry about losing my job. Universities might be hit in the long term, but there are little immediate consequences of the corona crisis for their economic viability.

But academia is infamous for its high workload. A recent survey under Dutch academics indicated that they work on average 36% more than their contractual hours a week. It’s also known for its persistent bias against women. Only 23% of Dutch full professors are female (not to speak of women of colour!). In addition, there is a motherhood penalty: women who have children are disadvantaged in their career even more than those that don’t have children, while men that have children are not disadvantaged at all. Continue reading

I’m quite busy

I have been neglecting my blog. I have done this in the past, but it’s never been this bad. I wrote my last post in December 2014. What has changed then? Well, it’s simple. I am a mother now.

What I would really like to do here is write about soil food webs, soil microbial communities, plant communities, roots, and how these all interact under changing environmental conditions, like land use change or climate change. I never wanted this blog to be one about ‘issues’, like sexism in academia, the struggles of getting a permanent position, long working hours, women in science, equal pay, …… Not that I don’t care about these issues, but there are enough people out there that are much better at discussing these then I am.

But, I always intended this blog to also be partly about my personal experiences as an early career ecologist working abroad. And I feel like I am combining quite a few experiences at the moment! Continue reading

Switching off?

I know, it has been embarrassingly quiet on my blog, and I am ashamed to see that my last blog post was almost two months ago – on the 16th of May. Why have I been so quiet? Has nothing been happening in my academic life? Or am I also someone who, after an enthusiastic start, throws the proverbial towel into the ring, as we would say in Dutch? Well, at least, in the last two months, readers of my blog would have found a blog post that said it all: I have been incredibly, ridiculously busy.

So what have I been doing during these two months? Well, in no particular order, I have built roofs for my drought experiment and done the first samplings, I have organised a publishing workshop at the Faculty of Life Sciences of The University of Manchester, I have been on field work for the Ecofinders project, I have been to a knowledge exchange workshop with Cumbrian farmers, I have participated in a workshop about food, health and environmental change, and I have revised and resubmitted two papers. I have also written and submitted a grant, and I am currently writing another one. On top of that, I am writing two other papers, I am setting up a lab, I am an associate editor for two journals, and I regularly review articles for a range of journals. And I am also secretary of the Plants, Soils, Ecosystems special interest group of the British Ecological Society. Oh yes, and I have also been to the Netherlands for a week to visit family and friends.

Writing all this down does make it look a bit ridiculous, and it at least sort of underpins my feeling that I have been pretty much working flat out. Which is slightly worrying, since I have not even started teaching yet! Continue reading

No time!

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post. The reason is simple – I have been away for almost four weeks. First, I went to Aberdeen for a week to extract DNA from my glacier samples (yes, I actually have a project on glaciers, or rather, the soil in front of glaciers, which represents a chronosequence of ecosystem development because of the retreating ice), then I went on holiday to Portugal for almost two weeks (kitesurfing! 25 degrees! sunshine!), and then I went to a three-day workshop. Yes, this sounds great, but coming back from it all is not so great, as I have been struggling to keep up with things, or rather, to get rid of the backlog. Holidays cause stress – before you go to finish things, and after you come back to catch up with things.

Of course, I could have made time to write a blog post. I could have also made time to catch up with friends, to ring my family, to send private emails, to reply to all those non-urgent work emails, and to clean the house. I could have made time to buy a plant for my new office, to take my car for an MOT, or to have my passport renewed. I could have also finally analysed data from last year’s experiment, and talked to a sales rep about the centrifuge that I want for my lab. But none of this was urgent enough.

Kite surfing is very relaxing indeed, but afterwards you pay the price!

Kitesurfing is very relaxing indeed, but afterwards you pay the price!

Continue reading

Two careers, one journey

A career in academia means choosing to be flexible. I have already written about the drawbacks and benefits of short-term research contracts and moving around a lot in terms of having a social life and maintaining friendships, but when it comes to maintaining your relationship, things can become a lot more complicated. Especially when both partners have a career, and are driven and ambitious about it.

Of course, it is fairly common for couples to move abroad for one partner’s career, if that partner has a high-earning job in business or industry. In general, it will be the husband that has the career, and the wife that follows, whether or not with children. If you think this is not the case anymore, you’d be surprised how many people responded with ‘normally, it’s the other way around’ when my partner and I announced that we were moving to England for my job (for the record: I am a woman).

However, maybe things are different in academia, and maybe the choice between the man’s or the woman’s career is more balanced. You might expect this to be true, because I like to believe that academics are rational, thoughtful, and generally quite liberal when it comes to equality issues. On the other side, there are fewer women in professorial positions than men, and this is largely because when women have children, they choose to work fewer hours whereas men generally don’t (note that I am not in any way judging this decision, but the facts are the facts – if you want to read more about this, have a look at the most recent special issue in Nature). At a younger age, men are more likely to be more advanced in their career because in couples, generally the man tends to be older than the woman. Because it makes sense to give priority to the most advanced, or well-earning, career, it is therefore likely that partners that both have a job in academia move for the man’s career. Continue reading

The perks and perils of short term research contracts

When you are starting a career in academia, you are inevitably going to be working on a couple of short-term contracts. A lot has been written about this, and I don’t want to repeat that discussion here – at the moment, there isn’t really a way around it, unless you are one of the few people who get a lectureship straight after their PhD (which could turn out to be a curse rather than a blessing!).

Being on short term contracts, and specifically, having to go where the work is, can make you feel out of sync with friends or university classmates who chose to work in industry (or, who got a proper job, as some relatives keep reminding me – they never stop asking me when I graduate or am done studying). They start to earn money straight after university; they buy houses and cars, and can afford expensive lifestyles. They build up a network of friends and colleagues, start to have children, and meet more people when they drop off their kids at the crèche or primary school. They settle down.

In academia, all of this is challenging, and it could get in the way of your career. Short-term contracts mean that it is hard to buy a house, or to settle down. The decision whether and when to have children is even more difficult, as the age at which women generally have children is exactly the age when independent research careers start to take off and require a lot of investment. Continue reading


It has been very quiet on my blog for the past two weeks. The reason is simple: I have not only started a new job, but I also packed and moved the lab, and we moved house – all in one week. So, it is about time that I reflect on my first week in Manchester, which is in many respects very different from Lancaster!

Our house is lovely – it is a red brick house in the south of Manchester, and it is beautiful, warm, and light. In contrast, although very nice, the two late 1800’s terraced houses we lived in in Lancaster were dark, moist, and cold, and so were all our friends’ houses. We got used to having a cold house by default – always below 15 degrees during the day – and blasting the heating for a couple of hours in the evening. This warmed up the air in the house, but never the walls, the bed, the contents of the kitchen cupboards, or the bathroom. I always wore two jumpers in the house, drank tea to stay warm, and slept with a hot water bottle – even in summer. To Dutch readers, this might sound medieval. In Lancaster, it’s just how it is – you either have a cold house with character, or a comfortable house without a soul. Continue reading