The study PARENT (PArents in REsearch aNd Technology) was initiated by the Faculty of Technical Chemistry, the Women's Network of the Faculty FemChem and the Vice Rectorate for Human Resources and Gender at TU Wien. Between 2022 and 2023, gender experts Marita Haas (Ward Howell International) and Bettina Stadler (FORBA and University of Graz) dedicated themselves to the question of whether and how parenthood affects a scientific career, especially in the field of chemistry. In this context, "PARENT" is a follow-up study on the situation of young scientists at the faculty from 2019. The core question at that time: why does the number of women in studies not translate into the number of women in top positions?
Globally, women are underrepresented in science. The further up the career ladder you go, the lower the percentage of women becomes. And that's even in fields where more women than men are studying. Data suggest this is due to high barriers for women, not a limited pool of capable women.
"The overall issue is fairness" explains Dean Marko Mihovilovic. "As faculty, we want to identify systemic hurdles or flaws, clean them up as best we can, and thus create an environment where colleagues can develop equally across all career stages. It is our declared goal to create attractive framework conditions so as not to lose talent and to tap new potential. That's why it was important, following the findings of the previous study, to now examine parenthood as a relevant factor."
Multiple factors cause shortage of women in STEM professions
43 percent of mothers leave STEM professions in the 4-7 years after the birth of their first child. This disproportionately affects women, as it only applies to 23 percent of men. The career pattern of our society does not fit people with caregiving responsibilities. The meritocratic notion of the ideal scientist is based on the figure of a man with no or only minor care responsibilities. This leads to the so-called "homo-social" reproduction: young scientists who resemble their predecessor are more likely to pursue a scientific career than those who have a different life concept or career pattern. Moreover, there is a great dependence on superiors to succeed in scientific careers and on the number and impact of publications, which are often the most important measurable factor in determining "excellence."
The aim of "PARENT" was to investigate the experiences of parents with the compatibility of work and family. The experiences and expectations of scientists who do not have children were also included. Based on a well-founded qualitative and quantitative analysis, suggestions for measures to improve the situation for parents and especially for women were identified. Since the suggestions were directed at people with management responsibilities as part of an organizational development concept, the measures were also discussed with managers. The aim was to raise awareness of the issue within the organization. Inclusivity has far-reaching implications for scientific progress, economic development, social well-being and the advancement of human knowledge.
To this end, two focus groups were organized with staff members. With the results from the focus groups, a questionnaire was developed to cover the specific situation at the Faculty of Technical Chemistry at TU Wien. In a third step, co-creation workshops were held with group leaders and supervisors to initiate discussion among decision-makers and to develop concrete solutions for the main challenges identified. In addition, good practice research was conducted to enable comparison with other research institutions.
Compatibility of career and family vs. feelings of guilt
The organizational structures and processes that lead to a pessimistic view of women and the low number of women's careers were examined. Generally, in our society, men are congratulated when they take care of the children, while it is taken for granted for women.
At the same time, men and women face different difficulties. This is also because they take care of their children at different stages of development. Women are usually on maternity/parental leave when the children are still very dependent. This also limits the possibility to continue working scientifically during this time. More and more men are taking various forms of parental leave; a generational change is taking place here. However, both men and women emphasize how difficult it is to meet the high performance requirements in science when one has small children.
The study authors conclude that women are more likely to feel guilty if they cannot devote 100 percent of their time to either scientific work or motherhood. Men have a more positive attitude because of the different social perceptions. Probably also because men usually make the decisions, as the study shows. What unites men and women are concerns about work stability. The study authors criticize transparency here. The question of the "right steps" for a successful scientific career can hardly be answered.
Rethinking assessment criteria
In view of the study results, the study authors call for a rethinking of the evaluation criteria for the academic career path. Thus, more value should be placed on "invisible work," i.e., teaching, mentoring and administration. In addition, the evaluation should be adjusted to the actual amount of time spent on an academic career, for example during a reduction in workload. Part-time positions should be taken into account when calculating a "scientific age." Haas and Stadler also call for a rethinking of the distribution of tasks, more support and the promotion of collaboration, teamwork and knowledge transfer. Additional solutions include facilitated opportunities to achieve scientific results during pregnancy and lactation, for example through pregnancy laboratories.
Bettina Mihalyi-Schneider, Chair of FemChem comments: "FemChem was founded to create an open and fair working environment for all and to identify the specific hurdles and challenges faced by women in science so that together they can be reduced or eliminated. We support respectful and appreciative interactions and create space for new ideas and approaches that contribute to transformation. The study results show concrete fields of action where we will develop solutions together." "It is our declared goal to create attractive framework conditions for science careers at the faculty in order not to lose talent and to tap new potentials" emphasizes Dean Mihovilovic.
Contact for queries
TU Wien | Faculty of Technical Chemistry
phone +43 1 58801 166170
Contact for queries about the study
Audrey Laura Masi
TU Wien | Research Department Biochemical Technology
phone +43 1 58801 166577