Offer pregnant applicants more flexibility, research funders told

Pregnant researchers and new parents describe how they were hindered by inflexible interview process

January 30, 2024
A mother carries a pram up some stairs to illustrate ‘Grant us flexibility’
Source: Getty Images (edited)

Funders must offer more flexibility to grant applicants who are pregnant or have recently had children, researchers have said.

Lea Müller-Funk, a senior researcher in the department for migration and globalisation at Danube University Krems, started a debate on the issue when her social media post outlining her experience of applying for a European Research Council (ERC) grant accumulated more than 200,000 views.

“I applied for an ERC [grant] this year and am pregnant with my second child,” Dr Müller-Funk wrote. “If I make it to the second round, the interview is supposed to take place in the same week as my due date. ERC ‘generously’ offers to either decide without an interview or to change the date within the same week.”

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Müller-Funk said the inflexibility of application processes was hugely problematic for pregnant researchers and those hoping to have a child.

“You can’t plan your project proposals according to when you plan to have a child – that’s not doable,” she said.

Electing not to apply for funding can prove detrimental to researchers’ careers in the long term, said Isabel Torres, chief executive of the non-profit Mothers in Science.

“If you miss one career opportunity like a grant, then you will have less chance of getting the next grant, and throughout the career this will have a snowball effect,” Dr Torres said.

Inflexibility around family issues, she added, was a key factor perpetuating academia’s “leaky pipeline”, which sees leadership roles dominated by men despite broader gender representation at earlier career stages.

Responding to Dr Müller-Funk, the ERC said it would “examine every request to accommodate special needs” and added that “in nearly all cases we can find a suitable arrangement”. However, it explained, rescheduling interviews “may cause delays for other applications whose interests must also be respected”.

“I understand, of course, the constraints or the organisational effort that funding agencies face if they have an international reviewer panel,” Dr Müller-Funk told THE. “I just think that the option of having an interview within the week of your due date is really not an acceptable one.

“I think you have to account for the fact that birth is an unpredictable process, and birth is part of human life. So if you want to take equality in research seriously, you have to factor that in.”

Other academics told THE that the issue was not unique to the ERC. A political scientist who asked to remain anonymous said she had attended an online interview with the Dutch Research Council (NWO) less than a week after undergoing surgery following a miscarriage. The funder said it could postpone the interview by a day or the researcher could withdraw and apply again the following year, skipping the pre-proposal round.

Withdrawing “wasn’t really an option”, the researcher said. She was nearing the end of her contract and felt the grant was her best chance of securing another position at her institution. Delaying by a day, meanwhile, seemed pointless.

“The interview was just terrible,” she recalled. “It felt like I was physically in front of my computer but mentally not really there.” Emailing to ask if the panel could consider her mitigating circumstances, the researcher was told “this wasn’t possible”. She did not win the grant.

“[In academia] your personal circumstances feel like a competitive disadvantage,” she said.

An NWO spokeswoman said it aimed to ensure that interview schedules were “clear and equitable for everyone” but noted that rescheduling “may not be practically feasible in all cases due to tight schedules and committee availability”.

To limit the obstacles faced by pregnant applicants and new parents, Dr Torres suggested, funders could establish rolling deadlines or multiple interview stages throughout the year.

Dr Müller-Funk agreed that funding bodies should implement transparent, universal accommodations for pregnant applicants and those who have recently had a child. “This should not be decided on an individual level. This disadvantages people who do not speak out,” she said.

A potential solution, she said, would see pregnant applicants permitted to postpone their interview for a year, with their eligibility frame similarly extended.

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