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PhD Thesis
Mar 2019

Organisational support throughout the maternity journey: the perceptions of female academics in selected UK Universities

Joel, A (2019) 'Organisational support throughout the maternity journey: the perceptions of female academics in selected UK Universities '.


 This thesis takes the case of female academics to explore an insight into the organisational support afforded to them during their maternity journey whilst working in UK universities. Despite the fact that women represent nearly half of all Higher Education (HE) academic staff, they continue to be significantly underrepresented within more senior academic positions, in particular professorial roles. With this in mind, the workplace barriers that this group faces in pursuing a traditionally successful academic career have been analysed in depth revealing that the decision to have children can act as the primary barrier for career progression. Where balancing motherhood and an academic career are addressed, the focus is mainly on the organisational barriers women face, such as managing work-life balance, and difficulties with part-time and flexible work. In order to curtail such organisational barriers for working mothers, the government and the HE institution has introduced valuable policies and agendas, in particular; shared parental leave, right to request flexibility and the Athena SWAN agenda. However, an insight into the type of organisational support this group experiences to ease the maternity process can have a significant impact on an academic career, and it has yet to be analysed in depth. 

The present study seeks to address the gap by gaining an insightful understanding of organisational support throughout women’s maternity journey, through analysis of narrative interviews with twenty-six mother academics, and follow on interviews with other eight key actors working in HE with experience of managing maternity for academics, including five university HR professionals, and three university line managers. The research involves four levels of analysis; the pregnancy and maternity leave stage, the transitioning stage from maternity leave back to work, experiences soon after return to work, and the gradual career progression experience.  This research is influenced by various theoretical concepts including the Gendered Institution and the Ideal worker. In particular, it utilises the perceived organisational support (POS) theory as an analytical tool in understanding employee perceptions concerning the extent to which an organisation values their contribution and cares about their well-being.  

The first part of the narrative interviews with academic mothers explored their perceptions of organisational support whilst they were pregnant at work, and took maternity leave. The participants revealed that they had experienced unfair treatment for being pregnant or taking adoption leave, and experienced difficulty due a lack of maternity cover arrangements. Additional, interviews with line managers and HR practitioners in HE linked restricted maternity support with both organisational and government wide policies. Women academic’s narratives further revealed that difficulties were experienced during the transitory period post-maternity leave. This included a lack of organisational adjustment upon return, in particular phased return. The overall experience of return depended predominantly on the type of line manager, and the expectation of a supportive HR department that was mainly administrative. In the interviews with HR professionals in university, they explained that their role was simply ‘advisory’, and the line manager holds all the responsibility, whilst the line managers contested that it was unfair for HR to sub-contract their responsibility on the line managers, and that HR should play a more active role. Thus, revealing contrasting expectations of the role each party should play in the return to work transition. 

The third stage of women’s narratives revealed that there was a lack of awareness for psychological support required after return to work from maternity, and both HR professionals and line managers agreed. This concept was particularly lacking in related literature.  Finally, in the fourth stage women’s narratives, highlighted that their experiences of gradual career progression post maternity were difficult for two reasons; organisational rigidity with flexible working, and lack of promotional opportunities for part-time working mothers. In the follow up interviews, HR professionals and line managers admitted that certain organisational structures restricted career progression for academic mothers.  

Taken as a whole, the evidence at the four different stages shows that organisational support throughout an academic’s maternity journey remains lacking and underdeveloped. The issue under consideration thus requires further attention, both in theory and practice in order to ensure more suitable support is extended to working mothers in academia.  


Animal Joel


Jonathan Lord

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