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WNN Webinar | Family Planning in Academia

Dr. Robinson W. Fulweiler
Dr. Sarah Davies

Drs. Robinson “Wally” Fulweiler and Sarah Davies did not need an empirical publication to intuit that the careers of academic mothers would be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The "leaky pipeline” has been a persistent problem in academia, and they knew that the pandemic would only exacerbate this problem for mothers who typically carry the greater weight of childcare responsibilities.

Driven to focus on actionable solutions instead of the problem, they teamed up with other scientists to document actions that everyone, no matter where they are in the system, can take to support academic mothers.

In our last WNN webinar, Drs. Fulweiler and Davies shared their solutions, which are organized into five spheres of influence: mentors, university administrators, scientific societies, publishers, and funding agencies. Actions can be as simple as being an attentive mentor giving academic parents flexible timelines or at the level of funding agencies that provide *automatic* no-cost grant extensions. Fig 1. below summarises some of their proposed actions across the different spheres of influence (Fulweiler, Davies et al., 2021).

Fig 1. This figure was retrieved from Fulweiler, Davies et al., 2021 published in PLOS Biology, which provides a summary of proposed strategies to support academic mothers. The number of asterisks reflects the relative fiscal requirements (*=low, **=moderate, ***=high) of these actions.

🛑 You may think there’s no point going further with some of these solutions because they did not work in the past. It’s important to reflect on whether this failure was a “false fail”, which is an idea that has merit but may have previously failed because it was not implemented under the right circumstances (e.g., right time or strategy). See the table below for examples of “false fails” in academia and proposed solutions (Fulweiler, Davies et al., 2021).

Table 1. This table was retrieved from Fulweiler, Davies et al., 2021 published in PLOS Biology. An overview of “false fail” examples and proposed solutions.

💡 If your university has implemented successful reforms to support academic mothers, share these successes with researchers from different institutes! The precedence set by other universities gives momentum to others advocating for change within their institutes. Alternatively, you can submit caregiver university policies and reforms to the WNN platform here.

We encourage you to read Fulweiler, Davies et al., 2021 in PLOS Biology, for a detailed overview of strategies that strive for a more equitable academy for working mothers.


The second half of our webinar welcomed Drs. Siri Leknes and Rachel Buckley – both academic mothers of twins! – who shared their respective journeys becoming mothers in academia. They affirmed that having a supportive community was foundational to their continued progress in academia and their ability to care for their families.

Dr. Siri Leknes

As a Ph.D. student, it was important for Dr. Leknes to observe her Ph.D. advisor have a successful career and family life to believe it was possible for her as well. Her advisor regularly invited her lab to socials at her home, where lab members saw their supervisor as a scientist and a mother, and that these identities did not clash.

Now as an advisor herself, Dr. Leknes strives to be a role model for her lab by being open-minded and sensitive to her trainees’ needs. She says it’s crucial to have discussions with her trainees to understand what they need for their success, both as parents and scientists, and to not assume what is best for them given their circumstances.

Early on, Dr. Buckley was also left with a strong impression of what motherhood in academia was like when she attended a public talk given by one of her scientific role models. Unlike Dr. Leknes, however, Dr. Buckley felt disheartened by her role model’s message – that it was impossible to succeed in academia without sacrificing some or many of your children’s milestones. The sad truth is many women in academia feel guilty for not being productive academics and present mothers.

Dr. Rachel Buckley

Luckily, female mentors later in her career path helped change Dr. Buckley’s perspective, but also provided active support and encouragement while she learned to balance motherhood with academia.

It was critical for Dr. Buckley to find a peer mentor in her department that was at a similar stage of motherhood so that they could meet regularly and give each other support and motivation. The support that she received from senior female mentors also motivates her to pay it forward and provide mentorship to younger academic mothers.

🛑 We must broaden our understanding of “caregivers” to not only parents but also to consider those who care for their parents and other family members.

Dr. Buckley also spoke about the important role that inertia played in her personal life – that tasks had a way of moving forward even if she was not actively working on them. Trust that you have a team more than capable of working together and progressing on projects without your active presence.

Both Drs. Buckley and Leknes also recommend setting boundaries in terms of how much time we allocate for work – don’t apologize for doing so! – and to ask for help and extensions when needed. You have not failed as a scientist or a parent by doing so.


We are so grateful for our speakers for being open and willing to share their stories in this webinar! Through the strategies they have shared with us, they’ve shown us that it is absolutely possible to be a successful academic without sacrificing the role of being a mother.

“Rather than rebuilding what we once knew, let us be the architects of a new world.”

Fulweiler, Davies et al., 2021


We appreciate your feedback, so please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments!

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