Doing Science When Pregnant

With safety during pregnancy being a concern, women scientists may drop out during this stage. How can women's health concerns at this stage be managed?

With safety during pregnancy being a concern, women scientists may drop out during this stage. How can women’s health concerns at this stage be managed?

When Neha Sharma’s* 6 week pregnancy got confirmed, the first thought that came to her mind was, “Oh my God! When was the last time I handled that X-ray irradiator?” She is a scientist in a radiation laboratory. Her work includes handling irradiation machines, working with carcinogenic chemicals and many hours of standing in a chemical filled laboratory.

Lekha Rao* does not work with irradiation but with animals, and she had to think really hard on becoming pregnant. She is a molecular biologist and regularly works with rodents, tissue cultures and several potentially hazardous chemicals, along with spending long hours on a microscope . 

Sheela Raj* is an ecologist working on various species of fishes, and her work requires many field trips to water bodies in different places of India.

Along with the laboratory conditions, all these women scientists were also unsure about the 9 long months of pregnancy and where they would stand in the ‘publish or perish’ world of scientific research.

Safety during pregnancy: At your own risk?

Pregnancy and child-birth are life altering experiences for women. Most women in India working in scientific research laboratories in academia or industries, in pathology laboratories or in teaching involved with demonstration of science activities in educational institutions find it overwhelming to pass through the period of pregnancy and then lactation, due to the lack of support, awareness and the traditional mindset of people. This is also the period when it is observed that all over the world a large number of women in science leave their jobs.

The Indian government allows women 6 months of paid maternity leave while the private sector gives 3 months of paid leaves.

In India two popular platforms: Women in Science (An Indian Academy of Science Initiative) and Indian Women Scientist’s Association are working on the challenges faced by women scientists but they also lack a safety manual for pregnant women working in laboratories. The Indian government allows women 6 months of paid maternity leave while the private sector gives 3 months of paid leaves. The Indian government has also introduced many re-entry programs for women scientists who take long breaks for family responsibilities.

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But when it comes to work ethics, safety measures, health insurances and policies for pregnant women scientists in the work place, it pretty much boils down to the personal assessment of the woman to identify potential risks and protect herself and on her supervisor and colleagues to help – or not. Except for some countries in the European Union and the UKfew other countries have strict governmental laws were it is required to carry out risk assessment tests and visits are conducted by health care professionals to inspect the working conditions of pregnant employees in a place with potential chemical, biological and radiation hazards.

Women’s health during pregnancy

Here are some points which might be helpful for pregnant scientists in India or any other country where laws and policies are not clear and when there are no departmental safety officers for safety in science.

Be Vocal: Women, especially those in the lower rung of the scientific world (PhD students, on contractual positions) find it difficult to announce their pregnancy to their bosses, mostly due to the fear that they won’t be looked upon as serious in science anymore. They are afraid of comments and criticisms. Although women are hesitant to announce their pregnancies during the first trimester, it is very important that you share the news atleast with your immediate supervisor as soon as you get to know about it. This might create certain ripples in your group but people will be aware and will be able to help you if needed.

Women ….. find it difficult to announce their pregnancy to their bosses, mostly due to the fear that they won’t be looked upon as serious in science anymore.

Risk assessment: It is necessary for you to identify the potential risks associated in your daily routine – handling chemicals and carrying heavy objects, for example. Find out safe methods and try to get assistance to handle those functionalities. If you are not sure about the assessment than talk with your boss, doctor, read the instrument manuals and you can always contact the companies from where the chemicals and instruments are bought in your laboratory for further information.

Discuss and negotiate: After informing your boss, you need to start negotiating with your supervisor and senior colleagues about your pregnancy term, how the planned experiments will be carried out and how things will be managed (frozen samples etc.) in your absence. Reach out to research scholars or the employee association or to your HR person for knowing your rights and work place policies. Look out for writing and data analysis work required in your group and offer your colleagues an exchange of work if possible. Enlist the help of a laboratory assistant or ask for a project assistant for carrying out the not so safe laboratory activities.

Be aware: Women in science from all over the world do go through challenges while being pregnant. Make Google your best friend and read about other pregnant women in science. Also discuss with your colleagues who have gone through the same situation already. A petrochemical scientist from UK reported that since all the chemicals in her lab are labelled properly it helps her a lot. You might lead the process of labelling the bottles of chemicals in your laboratory mentioning ‘teratogenic’ (substance which can have harmful effects on the foetus, example-alcohol) if they are. Also proper disposal of laboratory waste is extremely important to prevent infections and pollution.

Take proper precautions: Using gloves, masks, laboratory coats, goggles, cotton and light clothes, taking snacks and lunch breaks, drinking enough water, washing hands properly, taking little rests in between experiments, carrying your doctors name and phone number and above all being slow and calm are some important tips to pass the 9 months of pregnancy in the laboratory. Special precautions should be taken in using public toilets at work places; sanitizer and wet tissues are recommended strongly considering their low hygiene conditions. Change your position every 15 minutes while sitting and looking through a microscope or standing near the spectrophotometer.

Be careful and not afraid: Dr. Rona Banerjee, scientist from IIT Roorkee, balanced her pregnancy and lab work through proper precautions, delegation and positive thinking. She says that at times, she was an object of fun among younger colleagues because of wearing gloves and laboratory coats all the time but she never took a chance on safety.

An ecologist from a renowned institute confided that during her pregnancy she went for field-work for 3 weeks as well as interviews for faculty positions – all during the summer months in India. She survived, using her risk assessment skills and uncompromising stance on safety, rest, proper planning, and clean drinking water. Sometimes, rather than being helpful, colleagues can criticise or comment harshly on your state. Be careful not to lose your temper but tackle that person with strong self-esteem and firmness.

Pregnancy is a beautiful period in a woman’s life. Being a scientist should not shunt your joy of being pregnant. India is still to come up with proper policies and rules for laboratory safety for pregnant women, but if every pregnant scientist of India try to bring certain changes in her institutes/companies/mindset of colleagues through her positivity, then science and pathology laboratories of India can become a much better place to work in – with or without a baby in the tummy!

*Names changed to protect privacy.

*Photo credit: (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)


About the Author


A science researcher finding ways into broader science careers. A women enthusiast to the core and a keen observer of life... read more...

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