Study Seeks to Address Concerns of Pregnant and Breastfeeding Lab Scientists

A new study from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry needs you help getting a snapshot of current provisions for pregnant and breastfeeding staff and students in physical sciences academic laboratories.

The study will allow researchers to better understand the barriers to combining pregnancy and breastfeeding in academic careers within physical sciences.

Examples of best practice and missed opportunities will be identified in order to better accommodate pregnant or breastfeeding staff and students in laboratory work and teaching.

Funding for the project is being provided by the EPSRC’s Vacation Internships scheme.

Study Background

While the percentage of female chemists at undergraduate level is approaching parity, there is a sharp drop off in the progression of women into more senior academic positions.

A major hurdle to the rates of women’s advancement is overcoming the challenge of building an early research career during their peak child-bearing years.

For physical scientists the uncertainty and risk of pursuing a mostly laboratory-based subject presents the need for extra support while they are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Need for Advice

Uncertainty in what precautions should be taken to ensure the safety of pregnant people and the safety of the unborn foetus when there is potential exposure to dangerous chemical substances can cause undue stress for expecting parents.

The level of support received by staff often varies depending on the approach of their line manager, especially when there is no formally established policy in place.

Evidenced-based recommendations for management and staff to allow them to best assist their colleagues who are pregnant, or breastfeeding are key to increasing the participation and advancement of women in physical sciences.

Study Aims

Participants will be asked questions about their experiences with pregnancy and breastfeeding (or those of their colleagues) while pursuing a career in the physical sciences and about their awareness of available accommodations in their place of work or study.

The impact of a supportive working environment on the welfare, safety, and comfort of pregnant or breastfeeding staff will be investigated.

Staff will be consulted on the types of policies and reforms that they feel would best address their concerns and increase retention of staff who are pregnant or breastfeeding, which disproportionately affects women.

A list of recommendations will be created from the results of the study with aims to influence the way academic institutions approach pregnancy and breastfeeding policy.

pregnant woman in lab

“When we talk about increasing diversity in the physical sciences in academia, all too often we gloss over the “elephant in the room”. Women often make, or are forced to make, a choice between a successful academic career pathway and starting a family. With this survey we want to capture both good practice and areas in which more support needs to be given. So, we encourage everyone involved in the academic physical sciences to take part; from postgrad students to professors, we want to hear about your lived experiences and observations.”


Cerys Walsh is a 3rd year undergraduate student at the School of Chemistry working on a 10-week vacation studentship under Professor Alison Hulme and Dr. Jean O’Donoghue.

Ensuring that we hear out the lived experiences of a wide and diverse range of physical scientists will make sure that our study is reflective of the needs of everyone. In order for our survey to have the widest impact, we really need a lot of academic staff and students to respond as much as possible. I am optimistic that with the right level of engagement that this research can have a positive impact on the retention of academics who are pregnant or breastfeeding, especially women.