Unfair choice for women-scientists: to receive payment for work in the EU project or pregnancy-related leave

In the verification procedure, the Ombudsman established that the Latvian Council of Science, the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Finance systematically put obstacles for female scientists to fully use pregnancy-related leave. Consequently, the responsible institutions make it almost impossible for female scientists to balance their work and private life.

“Increasing the proportion of female scientists in science is one of the goals of the European Union. In our view, Latvia has every opportunity to take and maintain the first place in this statistic, as long as the responsible institutions in Latvia do not create obstacles for the work-life balance of female scientists. The state must not allow that these excellent professionals, who are often irreplaceable, leave their profession with great bitterness and under the pressure of circumstances,” emphasizes Ombudsman Juris Jansons.

Reviewing the case, the Ombudsman found that a support program for young scientists has been established in Latvia to promote their careers in science. It is a positive vector. The program is financed from the EU structural funds. At the same time, the national institutions responsible for the use of structural funds – the Latvian Council of Science, the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Finance – systematically put obstacles for female scientists to fully use of pregnancy-related leave.

What is the situation?

First, the Latvian Council of Science, rather than the child’s parent indirectly determines the possibilities and duration of childcare leave. The Latvian Council of Science does not have such powers. Second, the use of pregnancy and maternity leave is either included in the project duration period, thus the female scientist is forced to work, or the project execution is extended due to pregnancy and maternity leave, but it is not paid for. The state pays for a woman to be on pregnancy and maternity leave. If a woman works during this time, the employer does not pay her extra. In such cases a question arises – where goes the funding intended for the remuneration of the female scientist from the EU structural funds in the project?

During the Ombudsman’s verification procedure, ten female scientists admitted that they had experienced restrictions on using pregnancy-related leave. These were women who were not afraid to speak up, but the true number is likely to be higher.

Why such complications arise?

The use of EU structural funds is planned for a specific (seven-year) budget period. The EU Regulation sets an exact deadline when all projects must be completed within the specific planning period. Therefore, if the woman gets pregnant closer to the budget period due date specified in the Regulation, a contradiction arises between the principle of gender equality provided for in the Regulation and the observance of the deadline. If the woman takes her pregnancy-related leave, she cannot conclude the project according to the deadline set by the Regulation. On the other hand, if the female scientist meets the project deadline, she cannot take her pregnancy-related leave in accordance with the national legislation.

Are there solutions?

Yes, there are solutions, but their goals and compliance with the gender equality principle must be evaluated. For example, the Latvian Council of Science offers solutions that contradict the promotion of women scientists’ careers, such as stopping the project, which may also mean the termination of employment, or working without pay. Therefore, the priority is the completion of the project and meeting the deadline, not the employee’s work-life balance.

Is there another solution?

Yes, there is. The European Commission indicated two ways to deal with the contradiction between the principle of gender equality and the deadline set by the relevant Regulation. For example, to cover the remaining costs of the project from the national budget or to connect the project topic with the topics included in the next budget planning period. Unfortunately, the responsible institutions have not offered any of these solutions.

The Ombudsman recommended the Ministry of Finance to make the necessary legislator amendments to ensure work-life balance for women in science, if the support program for young scientists is continued. Likewise, the Latvian Council of Science and the University of Latvia were recommended to immediately stop the discriminatory attitude, prohibiting the use of pregnancy-related leave. The Ombudsman has also sent his opinion to the European Commission.

What is gender equality and how it works?

The European Parliament has pointed out that one of the obstacles to increasing the proportion of women in science is the insufficient provision of the principle of gender equality in terms of work-life balance. The principle of gender equality is one of the oldest EU principles. It is also enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia. One aspect of this is the provision of maternity leave. The regulatory framework of both the EU and Latvia provides for such rights. The principle of gender equality affects practically all areas of EU activity, including the use of structural funds. Thus, women scientists implementing research projects financed by the EU structural funds should have the opportunity to use pregnancy-related leave.