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Department paralysed by maternity leave

Every time a young scientist takes time off to have a baby, another employee may lose their job. This is the consequence of a University of Copenhagen policy, that critics say is damaging to morale, and damaging to equality

This year, maternity leave cost the Department of Human Nutrition DKK 1.5 million out of a DKK 4 million department budget.

A change in maternity leave policy in 2009, means that department’s are no longer fully compensated for leave. Lay-off’s have been necessary: Essentially, when one employee takes maternity leave, another one may be up for dismissal.

»We are a new department that attracts a lot of female researchers, so we are particularly affected by this. But this is a problem all over the University,« says Pia Degn, administrator at the Department, which is part of the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Want a child? Get department permission first

»We have chosen to discuss this openly,« says Arne Astrup, who heads the department. »During last year’s round of lay-off’s, we told our employees why. But that also means that some of the young women working here who wish to have a child will hold back. But it cannot be the purpose of the rules to put this pressure on people. Then they will seek jobs in the private sector, like Novo or other companies that don’t have this kind of issue,« he says.

As his colleague at the department Pia Degn puts it:

»Having a child is no longer something you discuss with your partner – first you have to agree with your group at work that there’s room in the budget for it,« says Pia Degn.

Hesitate to hire women

A Danish government call for more PhDs has added to the pressure.

PhDs are hired for a limited time only, and when a PhD or postdoc takes maternity leave, the contract is automatically extended – even if the project is handled by a temp while they are on leave.

The fear of extra costs, according to Astrup and Degn, has departments and funds hesitating to give PhDs or grants to young women. A big problem for Human Nutrition, where seven out of ten people are female.

Director: Give the rules time to work

Astrup and Degn suggest that funding for maternity leave should come from a central maternity leave fund that distributes the costs for leave sensibly between departments with young (female) employees and those with a higher percentage of older researchers and men.

Director of the University of Copenhagen, Jørgen Honoré, does not believe in a central fund: It would would have to be funded from the total salary budget, and it would cost extra administration. He believes that the problem of unevenly distributed costs for leave will solve itself in due course:

»Our departments have reached a size that the up- and downturns in the amount of people taking maternity leave will be off-set across their own budgets over the course of years,« says Jørgen Honoré.

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