The College of Medical and Dental Sciences has a large and growing pool of talented women who have forged a successful career whilst managing a family life. The support of the University has played a key role in allowing the flexibility needed for these women to manage a healthy work/life balance. Below are case studies of women who have shared their experiences of working within the University during career breaks.

Ceri Oldreive, Research Fellow

Research Fellow, working full time with flexible hours in the group of Professor Tatjana Stankovic, School of Cancer Sciences

‘As a full-time working mother of two (5 year old, 16 month old) with an hour plus commute to and from work (as does her husband), Ceri finds that it has been essential to have the ability to work flexible hours along with support from both her husband and her PI.

The flexible hours enable her to drop-off (8am) and pick-up (6pm) her children from 2 different locations, 4 days a week (9:30-16:20 working day) and do a single long day (12+ hours) to make up the loss when her husband looks after the children. This day varies depending both on her own and her husband’s work commitments. The availability of a good holiday club at the school is also very advantageous.

Additionally, the ability to occasionally work at home or alter her hours when necessary to look after ill children or enable them to attend Dr’s/Hospital appointment is very helpful. When this occurs, she has three options (bearing in mind that she has an extra 2 hours when she would usually be in the car commuting):

  1. Look after the children during the day and come into work to do essential experiments when her husband gets home.
  2. Look after the children during the day, working whilst they have a sleep and whilst they are happy to play on their own and extend her working day into the evening when they’ve gone to bed. 
  3. Take them to school/nursery, work at home doing a few extra hours in the evening to cover the time it takes to pick them up, take them to their appointment and drop them back off again.

The workload at home is also split between her husband and herself:

  • The majority of the time they each get one child ready in the morning and evening
  • Her husband does all the cooking whilst I do the majority of the daily housework 
  • Either they all go food shopping on the weekend or her husband will take one of the children giving her a chance to give the house a really thorough clean 
  • They both pitch in to help with the children’s homework

It is possible to juggle all the responsibilities with some flexibility and good communication on all fronts’.

Dr Liz Sapey, Clinical Lecturer

Clinical Lecturer, working full time in the group of Professor Robert Stockley in the School of Clinical & Experimental Science.

Liz completed her PhD part-time after having a career break of 20 months in total following the birth of her children.

Her PhD was well received, attracting 6 national and international prizes, and gaining a number of publications in the highest-ranking Respiratory Journal (AJRCCM), but undoubtly the best award in the UK was the Young Researcher Award for the BTS. Sadly, the exclusion criteria for this award was anyone over the age of 35. Liz was 37, but would have been under the age limit if she had not had children or taken maternity leave. This was frustrating but she didn’t know what to do about it.

She attended the first “Women in Academic Medicine” (WAM) group meeting and brought this up at the Q and As session with Baroness Greenfield. She was inspiring and encouraging, suggesting she tackle this form of discrimination head on. The senior academics within the group (Dr Martin etc.) suggested writing a letter in the first instance.

She wrote quite a gentle letter to the BTS pointing out the potential unfairness of this age-based exclusion criteria but heard nothing. She then discussed matters with Prof Stewart, saying that she wanted to robustly challenge the BTS but didn’t want to do this without the support of the university.

Prof Stewart was very supportive, and so she sent another letter to the BTS, more challenging in nature and suggested the cut-off was a form of discrimination. she also (enthused by the concept of many voices which was discussed at the WAM meeting) wrote to all the female lecturers she knew in Respiratory Medicine who would fall foul of this rule now or in a few years time due to family plans. Some other people offered to write in as well. She heard back within 72 hours from the BTS, saying this award cut-off was being studied and would be changed on the basis of the concerns she (and others) had raised.

She was told to submit my abstract for the award and it would be considered despite her age, as would 2 peers who had also raised this issue with the BTS (but were also above the age cut-off). The BTS said the definition of the award exclusion criteria would change on the website and this would be publicised, but this didn’t happen. She challenged the BTS again, saying that it was good that she was now being considered for the award, but without publically changing its entry criteria, there would be many other people who would consider themselves ineligible through no fault of their own, and who would not know the award system had changed. She wanted to improve things for everyone – not just herself.

She said that she had the support of the Medical School Dean (PS) and this was an active issue at the WAM. By this time it was too late to change things for the annual meeting that year, but she has been assured that next year the now called “Early career investigator award” will have no upper age limit.

Dr Melissa Grant, School of Dentistry

Dr Melissa Grant joined the School of Dentistry in 2005 as a postdoctoral fellow, and as part of flexible working conditions was encouraged to work between the School of Dentistry and School of Biosciences. This enabled forming strong links between the schools, giving rise to appointments of further joint staff and eliciting a number of joint, collaborative publications and projects.

In 2011 Melissa was appointed as a lecturer in the School of Dentistry, maintaining the flexible arrangement between the two schools. She contributes to the BDS and Biomaterials undergraduate courses through lecturing and evaluation of student performance in the School of Dentistry, as well as contributing research to both schools.

Participation in teaching is facilitated by always being on a fixed day in the week (Thursday) such that there is structure for both Melissa and her students. Furthermore, the two schools are 4miles (approximately 30min journey time) apart; flexibility but also structure has been key in the success of this arrangement.

Rachel Jordon, School of Health & Population Sciences

Rachel Jordan obtained a Cambridge Natural Sciences degree in 1993 then after 2 years in a lab post became a research fellow in epidemiology in London. She joined University of Birmingham in 1998 as a full-time research fellow. In 2002 she had maternity leave and returned to work part-time (0.6). She has continued with part-time work (0.8 from 2011) which included some seconded collaborative work with the Health Protection Agency but she remained located in and part of the School.

Rachel was given time to complete an MPH in 2000 and gained her PhD in 2007, both on a part-time basis. She was supported on ‘soft’ funding from 2006 to submit an NIHR post-doctoral fellowship, awarded in 2008 and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2011. Rachel considers that she has been well supported by the School in their positive approach to flexible working so that she could fit in with school times.

In addition when Rachel’s husband was re-located to London for 2 years the School supported her working from home for part of each week. She feels that the personal (alongside academic) support of senior staff in the School concerning working mothers has allowed her to continue to work. This approach also benefits the institution as it leads to greater productivity and allows retention of high quality female staff.

Janine Dretzke, School of Health & Population Sciences

Janine Dretzke joined the University of Birmingham in 2001 appointed as a systematic reviewer (grade 7) to work on a NICE technology appraisal programme grant in the School of Health and Population Sciences. Janine’s first degree was in Microbiology from Warwick in 1995 then she completed an MSc in Scotland in environmental management.

Whilst in Birmingham she also undertook our MSc in Health Technology Assessment in 2002-4 on a part-time basis, supported by the School since it was highly relevant to her work. Janine had her first child in 2004 and took a year of maternity leave then returned in 2005 on a 0.5 part-time contract; and had a second child and year of maternity leave in 2008-9.

She has continued to works 0.5 with a plan agreed with the School to increase to 0.7 in Aug 2012. Janine was promoted to grade 8 research fellow post in 2011 – still as a systematic reviewer and always on short term contracts. Janine feels that the numerous role models in the School of women at all levels of seniority who have worked whilst having children both part and full time has affected the culture and there are numerous colleagues who understand all the difficulties that can occur for working mothers. So she found that it was very easy to ask to return part-time after a year of maternity leave and it was straightforward to organise.

Janine considers that she is supported by the School and her team to work hours that fit in with school days and she is able to be flexible to take account of school terms. Equally she is prepared to fit in with meetings out of her usual working times if needed and had a track record of high quality work when she first joined. She feels that the employer is more likely to have a more committed employee if they are prepared to have flexibility on both counts.

Kate Jolly, School of Health & Population Sciences

Kate Jolly joined the Department in 1998 as a part-time (0.6) clinical lecturer. The post was initially funded by the West Midlands Deanery which continued until completion of her training in Public Health Medicine in 20xx. Kate previously also qualified in Primary Care.

In 2004 she was promoted to Senior Lecturer and has just been promoted to Professorship. Kate has always worked part-time (recently 0.8). She had two young children when she first joined Birmingham and the School/department supported her in flexible working so that she could fit in with school hours and holidays.

Following deanery training funding the School supported Kate’s continued employment as Lecturer then Senior Lecturer using various ‘soft monies’ (including salary earned from her grants) until in 2008 there was a HECF post vacancy which was allocated to her. Kate says that she has welcomed the Schools flexible approach to working times without which she feels that her work/home life balance would have been more difficult and probably less productive.

She has also welcomed the career development and promotion advice provided in the School including a positive focus towards female part-time academics. On her part Kate has been flexible and worked increased hours when tasks have needed this.

Dr Tanya Pankhurst, School of Immunity and Infection

Dr Tanya Pankhurst joined the University of Birmingham in 2005 to do a PhD Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Fellow. She took maternity leave after 2 years and returned part time (3 days) to complete this. She returned to nephrology training and then following a second maternity leave was appointed to a clinical lectureship to continue research studies.

As a result of this she has recently been appointed into a consultant nephrology post with protected research time to continue the studies that commenced during the lectureship. Dr Pankhurst fells that she has been highly supported in terms of flexible working. The support of the university has enabled her to complete a PhD, its associated publications and post doctoral research.

Her appointment into her current post is a result of this research. Undoubtedly without such support, given a choice between family or research/medicine she would have chosen to give up the latter – this kind of support is critical to keeping women in productive research/work posts.

Dr Zania Stamataki, School of Immunity and Infection

Dr Zania Stamataki was a postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School in Immunity and Infection from 2005 to 2011. In June 2010 she started her first maternity leave. The School was able to extend her contract enabling her to return to work for sufficient time to enable her to receive her full maternity pay.

Subsequently she was appointed to a one year fellowship which gave her the opportunity to finish some studies and make an application for the Dorothy Hodgkin Royal Society Fellowship, in which she was successful. The provisions of this Fellowship are suited for scientists with caring responsibilities.

Shortly before Dr Stamataki was awarded this fellowship she was also successful in her application to a Lectureship position within the School of Immunity and Infection. Upon discovering of her success in her Fellowship application, the School have deferred the start of her appointment, which would be at the level of Senior Lecturer, until the end of the Fellowship, allowing her job security as she pursues her programme of research.

Dr Stamataki has felt well supported by the School of Immunity and Infection, and found the positive, flexible and encouraging environment critical in enabling her to secure this prestigious fellowship.

Dr Deborah White, School of Dentistry

After many years working in the NHS, Professor Deborah White was seconded to the School of Dentistry to undertake part-time research work in 1994. During her secondment she was given the opportunity to undertake a PhD and following appointment as a clinical lecturer in 1999, achieved her PhD in 2000. She was appointed to Senior Lecturer in 2003 and Associate Professor in 2008.

During her time with the University, Deborah has been supported in developing her teaching and has taken on a variety of roles within the School including Director of Education and Senior Welfare Tutor, in parallel to an active research portfolio. In addition, Deborah has mentored a number of female colleagues, in the School and more widely in the University. As past Chair of the national organisation ‘Women in Dentistry’, Deborah has supported female dentists through a number of activities, most recently being involved in a ‘Dentistry Networks’ project within the West Midlands and been fully supported by the School in these activities.