Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The Top Five Challenges for Pregnant Scientists

Pregnancy changes your life. When you become pregnant, you become a different entity in employment law and in the eyes of those you work with. Your research can be affected in many ways, many of them unforeseeable. Here’s our guide to handling the new challenges.

Challenge 1: Know Your Rights

The most important thing for scientists starting a family is to understand the rights of European mothers in the workplace. The 1992 European Directive on pregnant workers and new mothers, which has since become law in every member state, gives women employees a number of important rights.

Your employer is obliged to carry out a risk assessment on your work once you have given notice of your pregnancy. In most countries, you have to do this in writing. It is a good idea to notify your employer as soon as possible, because some risks are higher early in pregnancy. Any risks identified by the risk assessment should be avoided. If it is not possible to avoid them, you are entitled to paid leave for the period of the pregnancy.

The directive demands a minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave. It protects you from being dismissed because of pregnancy and entitles you to time off for antenatal checks. It also covers women who are still breastfeeding when they return to work. Breastfeeding mothers are protected from chemical and biological hazards in the same way as pregnant mothers, and employers are required to provide a private, comfortable space suitable for breastfeeding or breast-milk extraction (not a toilet).

If you’re a student, Ph.D.or otherwise, this law does not protect you. Still, most funding bodies will pay a period of maternity leave for postgraduate students, and institutions and companies whose premises they work on will treat them as members of staff in terms of health and safety. But whether students are entitled to paid extended leave due to a pregnancy-related risk is still a grey area in most institutions. It’s worth finding out from your supervisor or institute where you stand before the situation arises.

Challenge 2: Your Ability to Do Your Job

Some parts of your job may become uncomfortable or impossible when you are pregnant. Manual lifting is dangerous, because your ligaments are softened. Lone fieldwork is not advisable, and activities that put your body under stress, such as diving or climbing, are out. Long hours and working in hot conditions should be avoided. Sitting on uncomfortable lab stools or standing for long periods are not only difficult but increase the risk of low birth weight or pre-term delivery. In early pregnancy, the smell of chemicals you are working with may make you vomit. These are all recognised risks. Make sure the person doing your risk assessment knows what difficulties you are facing.

It isn't always practical to set aside your work-related responsibilities, but the health of your future child may depend on it. "Often the solution is simply to rotate your job with someone else or vary your duties, so you are not in one place for so long," says Jane Paul, a health and safety expert who advises the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Sometimes it is the employer or the authorities, rather than the scientist herself, that imposes the restrictions, and this can lead to frustrating conflicts. As a pregnant ecology student in the United Kingdom, I was forced by my funding body to be accompanied during fieldwork. This was a serious inconvenience. I was left responsible for finding someone to join me and with no resources to pay them.

The European Directive on pregnant workers states that you cannot be required to do night work while pregnant. In some countries, including Germany, night work is actually illegal for pregnant workers, which could be a serious problem for young scientists eager to get access to big equipment at off-peak times.

In general, the solution is to anticipate the problem and plan your work carefully. Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) can no longer “go south” when they get pregnant. Several women at BAS have had children recently or are about to, but there has been little inconvenience. Eric Wolff, a principal investigator at BAS, says: "We have not yet had a team member who was unable to go at the last minute because of pregnancy. I suspect people plan their babies or their trips south quite carefully."

If you have recently become pregnant or are planning to, it can be helpful to work in a team so someone else can cover the work you can’t do. Nadine Johnston, a marine ecologist at BAS working on feed webs in the southern ocean, is 7 months pregnant. "My data are samples of krill and fish, which others can collect for me to analyse," she says.

Challenge 3: Keeping Your Baby Safe

The greatest risks to your foetus at work are chemicals known to be embryotoxins and infectious diseases that can cause birth defects or spontaneous abortion. Ionising radiation is also a problem, especially if it comes from radionuclides of bone-building elements such as calcium and phosphorus, which are preferentially taken up by the foetus. Safety levels for radionuclides are lower for pregnant women. In the case of lead, levels are lower for all women of childbearing age.

That's because the foetus is most vulnerable in the early weeks of pregnancy, when you may not know you are pregnant. Irene Figa-Talamanca, a toxicologist at the University of Rome La Sapienza, would prefer to see all workers explicitly protected from reproductive hazards. "Many occupational risks have effects very early in pregnancy and determine subfecundity in men and women," she says. "Specific measures for pregnant women may have negative consequences for women’s employment opportunities."

Toxicologist Paul Illing, an adviser to the UK government on the safety of chemicals at work, asserts that the health and safety regulations assume all women are in the early stages of pregnancy. "In theory, everyone is protected," he says. "In practice, only a limited number of chemicals have been properly tested for reproductive toxicity, so many hazards are not known about." Figures from ILO indicate that of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals in regular use in labs, about 2500 of them have been tested for reproductive effects, says ILO's Paul.

Even groups of chemicals that have been tested can be steeped in controversy. The ethylene glycol ethers used in the semiconductor industry are known to be embryotoxins, for example, but there is disagreement between American and British studies about whether there is a real effect on human pregnancies.

If you work with chemicals you think may pose a risk but are not on any list of recognised hazards, the only solution is to familiarise yourself with what is known about them and let your employer know you are uncomfortable about the safety of your baby. Without legislation, an employer is not obliged to take any action, but you may reach an agreement.

When it comes to infectious diseases from animals, David Buxton, head of pathology at the Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh, UK, is used to handling the risks. He works on the causes of infectious abortion in sheep. The intracellular bacterium Chlamydophila abortus and the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii are two of his main subjects. They are also the reason why all pregnant women are told, antenatally, to avoid contact with farm animals, particularly sheep and lambs.

Buxton’s team manages hundreds of sheep and often works with animals that have been deliberately infected. "Our safety regulations are ferocious," he says. "If a woman is pregnant, she is not just excluded from the sheep pens. She’s excluded from the labs as well"--and confined to her desk. Women are told that if there is any chance that they might be pregnant, they must say so immediately. Buxton admits that the rest of the team have to work harder to support women who cannot be involved with the practical work.

Challenge 4: Taking Maternity Leave

Taking time off to have your baby has its own problems, especially if you work in a fast-moving field. A year later, your work may be superseded and your command of the literature weak. Get the paper published before you go.

"Taking time off to have children reduces your visibility in the international community," says Wolff. "Regular attendance at conferences is important. If you are off the horizon, people forget to invite you as a speaker or involve you in collaboration." BAS goes to considerable lengths to ensure that mothers and mother-to-be are able to attend at least one conference a year.

"The number of invited talks is one of the factors included in the Research Assessment Exercise, by which university departments are rated nationally," says Penny Gowland, professor of physics at Nottingham University in the UK. Gowland encourages women to come back from maternity leave with confidence. "Do not allow yourself to be sidelined because you have been away for a while and you can no longer engage in the long-hours culture," she says.

Other useful Web sites

Challenge 5: Coping With Discrimination

The Spanish word for pregnant is embarazada. Are scientists who find themselves “embarrassed with child” treated differently by their colleagues because of their condition? There is little sign of this in the public science sector, universities, and research institutes. Female scientists report full support from those around them. But there is plenty of evidence of discrimination in other sectors. "There is widespread prejudice against pregnant women, particularly in small companies," says Paul. "There is an assumption that maternity absence is expensive. Women don’t want to tell their employer they are pregnant, in case there are redundancies coming up."

In the world of small biotech and pharma businesses, this situation is all too familiar. Recent research by the Equal Opportunities Commission in the UK found that 7% of pregnant women--30,000 people a year--lose their jobs because they are pregnant. Paul warns that scientific companies must guard against this discrimination; not only is it illegal, it risks losing the huge potential of women in the workforce.

Across Europe, only 15% of scientists in the private sector are women, half the proportion you find in the public sector. Ragnhild Sohlberg represents the energy company Norsk-Hydro and was co-chair of the European Commission’s Committee on Women in Industrial Research. Coming from Norway, where women actually dominate in areas such as biomedical science, she has a different perspective. She believes science, particularly engineering and physical sciences, is a good career for women because so much of it is computer-based and can be done at any time.

Sohlberg was shocked one day to hear a German colleague suggest that female scientists should not have children because it will ruin their careers. What is the Scandinavian secret? "It’s to do with attitude," she says--the attitude of the government, the scientific community, and of families themselves. In Norway, women scientists are very well supported. Maternity pay is for 1 year; childcare is largely taken in charge by the state. "We need some tremendous changes of attitude on the continent," says Sohlberg. Individual scientists working while pregnant can help bring about this change, as long as they stay effective by exercising their rights and keeping their work comfortable and safe.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Lynn Dicks is a science writer and editor based in the UK .

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers