Balancing Acts: The Untold Struggles of Motherhood in Doctoral Research at 2iE

Traore Maïmouna unveils the undocumented struggles of women navigating the demands of childbirth and parenting while pursuing their doctoral studies. From the absence of maternity leave policies to the strategies employed by these resilient women, the narrative sheds light on the humanization of doctoral supervision and calls for institutional changes to support the holistic well-being of doctoral candidates.

Editorial note: I removed reference to female PhD students as ‘girls’ since it is not possible for a PhD student to be younger than 18, the age of adulthood in South Africa.

Illustration by Tristan Barnard

Introduction

Nowadays, all sustainable development programs and projects recognize the need to consider the principles of equity, in line with the motto “Leave no one behind.” This implies considering the issue of family/work-life balance for both women and men in an increasingly demanding and competitive world.

For almost two decades, in addition to training for engineering professions, the Institut International d’Ingénierie de l’Eau et de l’Environnement (2iE)[1], located at Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso has been training doctors. The grants provided to students help them satisfy their daily needs and focus on their studies. Research supervision arrangements are also good enough to help them to complete their thesis on time. The deadline is specified in a doctoral contract, which forbids leaves during the thesis period. This measure is somewhat contradictory to the opportunity to recruit more women as determined by the positive discrimination methods. Once those women fall pregnant and give birth, they are not entitled to maternity leave.

Pregnancy cases have always been managed “on a case-by-case basis”, as the saying goes. But the issue of maternity/parenthood management and doctoral studies has yet to be documented in official policy at 2iE. Of the forty or so women trained and/or in training to date, almost half have become mothers during their doctoral training. A contract that does not take this situation into account raises the issue of the humanization of doctoral research.

Using the 2iE database and interviews, the aim is to identify the strategies developed by women who have had to cope with the demands of doctoral research and motherhood. In other words, under what conditions did they manage the aftermath of childbirth, the care of the newborn, and any older children while continuing their studies?

In addition to the doctoral students themselves, we will investigate how members of the supervisory team navigate pregnancy and the ensuing mandatory leaves.  Finally, we will look at how to strike the right balance between respecting a set of rules aimed at maintaining a regular and rigorous work rhythm, and the need to consider the social and family constraints that any doctoral students may face and even the potential risks of burnout resulting from a lack of leave.

Finally, we will make recommendations for the humanization of doctoral supervision and beyond.

Methodology

Our research focused on the database of 2iE doctoral students.

Given the small number of doctoral students (thirty-six), we opted for semi-structured interviews with twelve (12) women, distributed as follows: 

– Eight doctors, five of whom gave birth during their thesis;

– Four doctoral students presently enrolled at 2iE, three of whom have given birth during their studies.

The approach used consisted in taking a step back from the experience of those who experienced motherhood and parenthood during their thesis, i.e. women who are already PhDs and from those who were in the process of reconciling doctoral research with the management of motherhood and parenthood, i.e. the female doctoral candidates.

 To take men’s perspectives into account, we conducted interviews with two male PhD students; one married with a child and the other single (see table below).

We also conducted four interviews with the supervisory team that we have categorized as institutional stakeholders.

Thematic content analysis was used to analyze the data.

Results

Analysis of 2iE database shows that, to date, thirty-six women and girls have completed their doctorate or are still being trained at 2iE.

Figure 1 shows the breakdown of female PhD graduates and students by nationality.

Figure 1: Distribution of female Doctors and female PhD students according to different nationalities

Figure 2: Maternity status of female PhD students by marital status

An analysis of Figure 2 reveals the following:

– Half (50%) of married students register for their thesis with maternity experience. This proportion is 20% for single students.

– The proportion of students who have babies during thesis studies is greater for married students (56%) than for single students (10%).

– After the conclusion of the thesis, the proportions of single and married female doctors in maternity status increased. This increase is more marked for married women (60%) than for single women (56%).

Overall, unmarried women are less likely to have children during their doctoral studies. On the other hand, doctoral studies do not seem to have a significant impact on the choice of married doctoral students to have children. In most cases, married doctoral students continue to have children during their studies.

We also note that between January 10, 2014, and July 18, 2023, a total of 19 women defended their theses, after studies between 3 and 5 years. 

Of these, 11 out of 19 (58%) were mothers of at least one child, and 8 (42%) became mothers during their thesis.

Among the 17 others whose doctoral research is in progress, of the 7 (41%) who are mothers, three gave birth to their second or third child during their thesis.

Based on the interviews conducted, the following tables summarize the themes addressed and the answers given according to stakeholder category.

Table 1 concerns responses from PhD students/Female Doctors.

Table 1: Summary of interviews with PhD students/Female Doctors

[1] Kamboinse is the second and largest campus of the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering. It is 15 kilometers away from Ouagadougou, where lies the Head Office of 2iE Institute is located.

Table 2 summarizes the interviews with the institutional stakeholders, i.e. the director of research, the head of the doctoral school of 2iE, and two thesis directors.

Table 2: Summary of interviews with institutional stakeholders

Leave management practices at the 2iE doctoral school

Ordinary leave is not outlined in the contract, worse still maternity or paternity leave. However, students may be granted leave if duly justified, including:

– renewal of identity documents such as passports for non-Burkinabè,

– family reasons (marriage, illness, death, etc.).

However, maternity leave is not mentioned anywhere. Doctoral students are unofficially granted maternity leave lasting between one to three months.

As far as the contractual clause is concerned, there are no vacations for 2iE doctoral students.

As a Burkinabe doctoral student trained at 2iE recalls:

During our time, we wondered whether there was time off for PhD students, and we were told that the thesis was 3 years. I don’t know if that has changed. We used to take a few days off during the summer vacations when everyone was away … But we need to sort that out and grant one month’s leave per year. Doctoral students should have the right to rest. In our day, we filed a leave of absence. Knowing that not everyone is comprehensible, it’s better to clarify the texts.”

As one doctoral student explains:

Our contract states that we are subject to the same working conditions as 2iE staff. Except that we are not entitled to leave like 2iE staff … During the workshop to review the research texts, the doctoral students who represented us were able to make a plea for leave to be granted to us. It was agreed that we would have two weeks’ annual leave, which cannot be carried over (accumulated) to the following year.

Another adds: “We need to make leave official and systematic. We’re always afraid to ask because officially it’s not allowed.

 What do research managers have to say about managing doctoral students’ leave?

According to one research manager,

Institutionally and explicitly, there is no text on leave. This situation is a consequence of the experience we had when the Ecole Doctorale (doctoral school) was set up. Given that doctoral studies are supported by donors, the management of time and resources is very limited. There was a tendency for doctoral students to behave like “public servants”, with leave accumulating from one year to the next while their theses made no progress. Faced with these shortcomings, we decided to suspend the notion of leave to put an end to that “state employment attitude.

In other words, abuses in the management of leave combined with the limited number of thesis years, financed by technical and financial partners, led to the suspension of annual leave. However, in response to requests and to consider doctoral students’ expectations, improvements are underway.

As part of our recent review of research texts, doctoral students have asked us for two weeks in August and two weeks in December. Maternity leave will also have to be considered”.

In the meantime, what is the current state of maternity leave management?

Maternity leave management practice

Doctoral students unanimously stated that they had been granted maternity leave, despite the absence of any text on leave management. Maternity leave is granted for a period of one to three months.

A former doctoral student confirms:

For me, the most difficult part was after my giving birth. There wasn’t any legislation on maternity leave. My supervisors and I agreed. It was amicable. It lasted three months.  I was practically a recluse (because of the distancing measures linked to Covid 19). Only my family and in-laws came near me. My husband was absent. I remember the very humane behavior of my supervisors

All the institutional stakeholders explained that: “Leave is managed on a case-by-case basis“.

Generally, supervisors show humanism towards doctoral students. One of them mentioned that:

Officially, it would be better to regulate the practice to avoid abuses on both sides… to avoid moral pressure and the stigmatization of doctoral students who are pregnant“.

The absence of legislation governing pregnancy and maternity leave does not prevent doctoral students from taking advantage of it. However, this absence does not allow for serene organization.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Reconciling doctoral research, maternity, and parenthood: a question of organization …

Doctoral research, like all research, is subject to deadlines that require rigorous organization.

This organization is all the more complex when the arrival of a baby reduces the time available for doctoral research. The same applies to older children who still need parenting.

As one doctoral student explains: “I accept all the help I can get. From my husband, my in-laws, etc.”.

Another adds that she rarely takes part in the festivities.

… But not only

Analysis of the interviews revealed that doctoral students of foreign origins who became mothers before or during their thesis reconciled better their research and parenthood. Among the strategies deployed were:

– bringing in the infant’s grandmother

– leaving the child with their grandparents

– leaving the child with a sister, etc.

It is as if this distance from the family and the child becomes a catalyst for finishing the thesis as quickly as possible to return to the space of conjugality, which refers to her role as wife and mother.

As one foreign doctor explained to us, she had completed her thesis in three years and three months: When I started my thesis, I came with my child, who was 15 months old. After three months, I had to leave my child with my mother to go on mobility and devote myself to my thesis.”

One of the explanations for this phenomenon is that whatever their marital status, they are better able to stick to the work schedule they have set for themselves, because they do not have to bear the social burden of running a household (cooking, taking part in social events…), unlike Burkina Faso doctoral students who live with their spouses and children.

This is confirmed by the same doctor, who works in higher education and research in her home country:

It’s to avoid the burden of the family that I decided to enroll in a PhD program in Burkina Faso. The proof of this is that since I’ve been living with my family, I’ve had a well-established plan for writing articles. But I’m struggling to write three articles. All in all, it’s not easy when you’re with your family.”

A doctor from Burkina Faso explained how she had to move in with her family so that her mother could take care of her baby.

Time off helps to humanize doctoral supervision and, beyond that, the doctoral student’s performance.

Beyond the fact that the thesis is a moment for building and strengthening knowledge, it requires a reassuring environment in which to display the full measure of reflection. The fatigue associated with the time devoted to research, especially when dealing with pregnancy and an infant whose presence disrupts the “smooth” progress of the thesis, is likely to affect the doctoral student’s achievement.

Maternity leave is designed not only to take care of the child but also to prepare the transition back to research. It helps to avoid the tension and guilt of not being able to fully play both her role as a parent and that of an exemplary doctoral student. In the end, this quartering hurts the level of performance and wipes out the value from the enormous sacrifices made to meet deadlines.

As one doctoral student pointed out: When your mind is elsewhere, you can’t devote yourself to research. If 2iE can support doctoral students in this direction, it may enable them to improve their performance and then secure their future afterward.”

Suggestions for change

One of 2iE’s first female PhD students put forward a series of proposals:

“As far as the academic institution is concerned, we need to focus more on results, instill confidence in PhD students, and combat prejudice. The administration needs to build doctoral students’ confidence. Donors need to be informed of the situation.

About the notion of leave, once a doctoral student has taken her three-month maternity leave, she’s in a better frame of mind.

To female PhD students: “Don’t feel guilty. As soon as you feel guilty, you get upset. To give life is to have more than a doctorate.”

While focusing on deadlines and optimizing resources, silent partners who fund doctoral studies should have a strong consideration for the socio-cultural realities of the environment in which the thesis are carried out. “Leaving no one behind” means considering the impact of parenthood on the doctoral careers of women and girls. Doctoral research involves a social sacrifice that competes with parenthood.

Parent researchers are caught between two “greedy institutions,” to paraphrase Pascal Barbier and Bernard Fusulier. Indeed, as they explain: The work of research presupposes a substantial involvement that knows little of the separation between the private and professional spheres (Del Rio Carral and Fusulier, 2013). One must “give of oneself”, consenting to overrun schedules, hours spent working from home, during the week and also at weekends, in varied and fragmented tasks, with often different temporalities that produce a significant mental load (Aït and Rouch, 2013; Datchary, 2008).” (Barbier and Fusulier, 2015: 228).

 Although the survey they conducted concerned post-docs, the results remain relevant for parent doctoral students.

Indeed, as confirmed by Vallières et al: “The investment of time is perceived by doctoral students as necessary to their success and to maintaining good performance” (2022: 11).

Doctoral students who become mothers during their doctoral research are well aware of this challenge and have to organize their time so that they can combine parenthood with research-related performance.

Except, as one doctoral student points out: With children, we don’t move as fast as others. It can take a fortnight to a month to write an article. That’s one of the constraints that prevented me from applying for a mobility grant.

Recommendations

It emerged from the analysis of data collected from all stakeholders that doctoral contracts should include maternity leave.

It was also suggested that a platform for exchanging and sharing experiences should be set up to better reconcile thesis, maternity, and parenthood.

The organization of workshops to help PhD students better reconcile research and family life would also be welcome. Indeed, the tug-of-war between “these two greedy institutions” can lead to depression, as some of our interviewees pointed out.

One of them put it this way:

“Pregnancy was a depressing time for me. You need to think about a support group. They’ll say why did you get involved if you couldn’t? I can, I just want to be supported. I’ve been lucky in that respect, with a team that has supported me. They told me ‘Concentrate on your pregnancy, and after the birth, you’ll get back to work'”.

Training courses should also consider the need to combat any form of stigmatization or pressure associated with a doctoral student’s pregnancy. This includes support in terms of mental health promotion.

As far as possible, doctoral students should start preparing for the arrival of newborn babies (maternity assistance, childcare facilities).

For funders who advocate equity in human capital formation, to “leave no one behind”, especially women of childbearing age engaged in research, their funding will need to consider the break required by maternity. In other words, the funding they provide will have to consider the possibility of pregnancy and its impact in terms of time and cost for the completion of the thesis.

Humanizing doctoral research also means creating a secure working environment. For doctoral students who are, or are likely to be, mothers, the host university must ensure that facilities are in place to take care of infants so that research and parenthood do not compete.

Finally, the possibility exists of suspending the thesis in the event of pregnancy or childbirth. Using this possibility of suspending the doctoral student’s registration will enable her to rest and organize herself better, to ensure a balance between the imperatives of the thesis contract and her family life.

Conclusion

This research has highlighted the link between family and professional life in the context of optimizing time and resource management.

Humanization of doctoral supervision is first and foremost the responsibility of the supervisory team and must be governed by legislation. However, these efforts will only have a major impact if the doctoral student receives effective help at home and in the family. This help must be material, with effective support in carrying out everyday tasks, including looking after the children. It should also be symbolic, as it should not relegate the woman to the socio-cultural roles of wife and housewife. Ultimately, humanizing doctoral supervision for female doctoral students means helping them to ensure a successful division of labor between research and parenthood, to avoid situations of anomie.

Traore Maïmouna

Bibliographical References

Annick Vallières, Nataly Levesque and Julie Bernard, 2022, « Micro-pouvoirs en action au doctorat : la perception des étudiants », Revue internationale de pédagogie de l’enseignement supérieur, 38(3) | 2022

URL: https://journals.openedition.org/ripes/4310

Pascal Barbier and Bernard Fusulier, 2015, L’interférence parentalité-travail chez les chercheurs en post-doctorat : le cas des chargés de recherches du Fonds national de la recherche scientifique en Belgique », Sociologie et sociétés, 47(1), p. 225–248

URL : https://doi.org/10.7202/1034425ar

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