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Professor Vera Troeger talks about research on maternity leave in academia

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Professor Vera Troeger talks about research on maternity leave in academia

What research projects are you currently involved with?

I’m looking into questions of how work-life balance policies, particularly maternity and parental leave policies, affect the career paths of women. In the UK statutory maternity provisions are very low compared to the EU standard, but because this is the case, we find a big variation in occupational and contractual maternity benefits. I can exploit this variation to do my research.

My main project is looking at the higher education sector in the UK where we have a large variation in maternity benefits across universities. We undertook a large-scale survey of all female academics in the country so we have very rich individual level data and can do a whole lot of analysis.

We have done the analysis at the aggregate level to understand why maternity leave differs across universities. It’s not the case that richer universities have more generous leave policies – it really depends on how research-intensive these universities are, their size, the staff costs, the staff-student ratio, but also the bargaining processes that are going on between the staff and the leadership.

At the aggregate level we have found that more generous maternity leave leads to a much larger proportion of female professors with higher salaries, and a lower share of women on non-permanent contracts.

Now we have cleaned up and matched the individual level data and we are starting to look at productivity and individual career outcomes. We are looking at career paths among female academics, salaries, and productivity - whether a generous maternity leave leads to female academics staying more connected to their research and therefore being more productive when they return from leave.

It’s a very large project – it includes five research assistants from this department, people at Strathclyde and the University of Liverpool and it will go on for quite a while.

I feel like there has to be a cultural change when it comes to promoting women in the workplace, and my research, because it is rigorous and rooted in actual data, could help to inform evidence-based policy change
Professor Vera Troeger

What impact do you hope this research will have on society?

In general I want to do research that has relevance for public policy-making. I’ve already been contacted by many Athena SWAN representatives from other universities who want to use these findings to lobby their own universities to increase the generosity of maternity provisions and in general to look into work-life balance policies.

In my own career I have observed a gender imbalance on the academic side. As soon as women have children, they slow down. They don’t have to – they are still equally bright and have good ideas, they just have a little bit less time. I feel like there has to be a cultural change, and my research, because it is rigorous and rooted in actual data, could help to inform evidence-based policy change.

I was in the Cabinet Office a couple of weeks ago talking about this project – they are very interested in the productivity effect, because the UK has a productivity gap compared to other advanced economies. This would be one way of – not completely closing the productivity gap, but keeping female talent in the labour market and increasing productivity to some extent. I was asked to extend the research from the HE sector to industry and the civil service, and that will be the next step.

Why did you decide to become an economist?

I’m very interested in the political decision making mechanisms behind economic policies. I consider myself an applied political economist - my background is in both economics and political science.

Why did you join the Economics Department at Warwick?

I came here because of CAGE, the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy. It was set up as a centre in Economics but with a very applied, policy-oriented and interdisciplinary focus. That seemed like the perfect home for me, because I had this economics background but was very much interested in policy-making. It was absolutely perfect.

The combination of people working in CAGE – economic historians, applied economists, and people who work on the development side – fits very well with my interests. I enjoy working with people who are interested in a rigorous approach, but also in policy-relevant outcomes.

And it’s close enough to London to reach policy makers – that’s important for the kind of research that I am doing. We are involved in policy making, where it’s clear that the Warwick brand stands for quality and good advice and good consultancy.

There are many good universities in this country but clearly Warwick is one that is at the top – Economics is a top five department, it has many people that are internationally renowned, especially in the US, where they are kicking the frontier in Economics. Several Nobel prize-winners visited this department and I could talk to them personally – these are significant benefits.

What has been your most memorable experience during your time in the department?

A student of mine last year did a very political science-y topic in his final year thesis – he went to the Carroll Round conference – we worked very closely together and he did a great, great job and went on to Oxford. I met him every week for a year and had a lot of input in his work, and he was very receptive to my comments – that was absolutely great.

The other thing I have achieved, with support from CAGE, is to pull this maternity project off the ground. Over the last month I got a lot of media attention for the project – I spoke on Women’s Hour, I was in the Guardian – and that makes me really proud. But this couldn’t have happened without being in this Department and having its support around me. We have to do so many things – teaching, and admin, and research, and promotion of our research, and it’s very difficult for one person to do this – you need a whole machine. And Warwick Economics Department is a very well-oiled machine when it comes to trying to generate these opportunities for our research to be seen.