How maternity pay impacts academic careers

by Professor Vera E. Troeger

7 Feb 2018

According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for 2016-17, less than a quarter of UK professors are women. What can we do about it? “May” children, holiday babies and post-tenure pregnancies: the language of motherhood in academia is not one of choice. To survive in academia and advance through the faculty ranks, women tend either to give birth during vacation time or to postpone their motherhood status to the end of their probation period and the achievement of tenure. The result: an underrepresentation of women in higher academic positions, lower salaries, lower research outcomes and promotion, lower fertility, and higher rates of family dissolution – while family and children seem to have no impact on men’s career progression in and out of academia.

Motherhood vs. professional achievement

Vera with her son

Vera with her son at graduation

The problems facing mothers are usually even more severe in other sectors, but for an environment that is typically praised for its flexible working hours and thus family friendliness, higher education too often seems to pit motherhood and professional achievement against each other.

When I had my son seven years ago, I was acutely aware of the consequences for my academic career, especially since I chose to be a single mother. I deliberately waited until I had earned my rank as a permanent associate professor before I ventured down the route of motherhood. What I wasn’t aware of is the vast differences in the generosity of maternity pay across UK universities.

“Statutory parental benefits in the UK are the second lowest Europe.”

This is potentially because I am German and statutory maternity pay in Germany is comparatively generous; statutory parental benefits in the UK are the second lowest Europe. Because of this many universities (and companies) top up this statutory amount with contractual maternity pay. This generates enormous variation, from zero weeks of full salary replacement (i.e. just statutory) to 26 weeks of full pay at places like Oxford and Manchester. These differences are similar to other sectors. Many companies, especially smaller ones do not top up statutory maternity pay at all, but there are a few employers especially in manufacturing and engineering that offer up to 10 months of full salary replacement, for example BMW’s Ham Hall plant.

Gender gap in pay and senior positions in academia

So does the generosity of maternity pay affect female academics’ career paths? This question seems particularly interesting given the fact that we observe a huge gender gap in pay and senior positions (less than 20% of full professors across all disciplines are women) in academia as well as other sectors. With Mariaelisa Epifanio (Liverpool) and Tom Scotto (Strathclyde), I am exploring this question of the “leaking pipe” by analysing whether better maternity provisions affect the share of female full professors, and the share of women in the highest salary bracket.

Generosity of maternity pay can positively impact career paths of female academics

Strikingly we find an unambiguously strong relationship between the generosity of maternity pay and an increase in the share of female professors across all disciplines. On average, universities with a very generous occupational maternity pay have twice the number of female professors compared to institutions with minimal maternity benefits. This effect, however, is much stronger for research intense institutions than for primarily teaching institutions. We find no relationship between maternity/paternity leave provisions and career opportunities of male academics.

“On average, universities with a very generous occupational maternity pay have twice the number of female professors compared to institutions with minimal maternity benefits.”

Our findings point towards the possibility that the generosity of maternity pay can positively impact the career path of female academics and help close the salary gap. If the academic community, and more broadly society, is interested in generating equal opportunities beyond just window dressing and keeping female human capital in the production process we have to ask ourselves how we can generate an environment that allows women to maintain productivity and keep up with their male colleagues despite child-rearing and family responsibilities.

Closing the productivity gap

We can possibly draw wider inferences from the UK higher education sector. The UK suffers from a productivity gap as compared to other highly developed economies and it ranks very unfavorably both in terms of generosity of statutory maternity pay and public spending on parental leave provisions compared to other EU and OECD countries. There seems to be room for improvement: more generous parental leave and family policies could help close the productivity gap and thus pay for themselves in the long run.

Professor Vera Troeger is a professor of Quantitative Political Economy at the University of Warwick. She has completed a study on the impact of maternity leave policy on academic careers, funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant.

This blog post is part of our Vote 100 series. Read our other posts marking 100 years since Parliament passed the law allowing the first women to vote.


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