working mother

Motherhood and an Ecology Career: Can the Two Go Hand in Hand? – by Laura Sanderson

A recent Facebook Ecology Group discussion got me thinking about the issues affecting expecting and new mothers in the ecology workplace. Ecology can be an interesting and satisfying career, but it is not always conducive to family life. As a mother of two small children, I have recently been through the process of pregnancy in the workplace, maternity leave and returning to work, and thought it would be worth me sharing some of my experiences and exploring options and rights for other potential or new mothers. Some of the comments assume employment in a formal setting, but much of the information is relevant to self-employed ecologists as well.

This discussion is not intended to exclude fathers, adoptive/non-genetic parents or LGBTQ+ parents, but for the sake of space and ease (and due to being based on personal experience) is primarily addressed at mothers. Where government advice and legislation is mentioned, this is as it applies in England, Wales and Scotland.


Deciding when to tell colleagues about a pregnancy will be a personal decision, although there may be specific company advice on this and additional health and safety concerns (such as field work or travel requirements) that may mean needing to advise colleagues early on. It is possible to advise certain team members, perhaps your line manager or HR team, without advising other colleagues immediately. Government advice is that employees must tell their employer about their pregnancy at least 15 weeks before the beginning of the week the baby is due.

Likewise, deciding when to stop conducting field work may be a personal decision or may be dictated by company policy. A consideration may be handling bats, where there is a higher risk of rabies exposure which pregnant mothers may wish to avoid early on, handling other animals including reptiles (salmonella exposure) and working in water. I remember doing habitat surveys in early pregnancy and feeling exhausted from it, whilst similar work in the middle trimester was much more comfortable. Certainly by the third trimester, I felt far too big and uncomfortable to contemplate site work and was very much desk-based, and I think colleagues were very happy for me not be out waddling around sites.

Midwife and/or hospital appointments will be necessary throughout your pregnancy, and you have a right to paid time off work for these. You should not be asked to take annual leave or make up hours to cover this time. You should receive a MATB1 form from your midwife between Weeks 20-25, and for those in employment this will need to be passed on to HR or your manager, and you should agree expected start and end dates for maternity leave.

Maternity Leave

There will be some preparation required for taking maternity leave, and it is sensible to prepare well in advance as babies can come well before their due date. Project managers are likely to need to delegate work to colleagues. It is sensible to prepare extensive handover notes, detailing all projects which may require work in your absence, with details allowing any colleague to pick it up. Lots can happen unexpectedly, and the last thing you want in the early days of bringing home a new-born is a call from a colleague desperate to find an answer for a client. Self-employed workers may need to find suitable alternative ecologists to take work on.

Other things to think about include abeyance from professional body memberships, and protected species licence requirements. CIEEM allows abeyance during maternity leave and for up to five continuous years. During this time you will not need to pay professional fees and are not required to complete CPD, and will continue to receive selected member benefits. Dealing with protected species licensing may require some thought. It is worth making a note in your personal diary of any annual licence returns dates, as it is easy to lose track of these, especially if you are not checking work emails. If you are named ecologist on protected species development licences, you may need to arrange for this to be moved into a suitably qualified colleague’s name.

Once you are on maternity leave, you are entitled to up to 10 keep-in-touch (KIT) days. These should be fully paid by your employer, even if they do not involve a full day’s work. Statutory maternity leave for up to one year is allowed in the UK, and it is usually possible to share this with a second parent (shared parental leave). In most employment, it is also possible to take accrued annual leave, which means you may be able to get an extra month or so beyond the year’s leave. Many companies have policy on how much notice must be given to return work.

Maternity leave pay for the self-employed or those not eligible for statutory maternity pay for other reasons will be different. Maternity Allowance is available from the government for eligible workers for up to 39 weeks, and can be claimed through the MA1 claim form available from the government website.

Returning to Work

Returning to work after maternity leave can be a stressful process, and it is important to seek support both at and away from the workplace, if needed. You may feel differently about career prospects and the types of projects you work on. Alternatively, you may be happy to slot in where you left off, or you may have more drive to progress and succeed now that you have an extra mouth to feed. Finding your feet and regaining confidence can take some time after an extended amount of time away from the workplace. It is important to keep an open dialogue with colleagues. Supportive co-workers may be worth seeking out and speaking to or asking for mentorship. Colleagues can be very happy to share their experiences and tips on returning to work after children, but may not be aware of personal difficulties. Line managers may need to learn about the process as much as you do to ensure they provide the right level of support.

Returning to work whilst continuing to breastfeed may be a concern. Workplaces are legally obliged to provide somewhere suitable for breastfeeding employees to rest. You should be able to confirm with your manager or HR colleagues arrangements for a safe, hygienic, private place to express milk. Expressing in other locations (such as when undertaking site work) may be more complicated, but even site offices/compounds are likely to be able to provide places for pumping if needed, and this can be arranged in advance. Expressing in toilets should never have to occur. With the correct pump and use of scarfs or drapes, it is possible to be quite discrete about expressing milk. Depending on the age of the child, pumping may not be necessary, as both mother and child can often adapt to longer gaps between feeds. The Facebook Ecology Group discussion on this matter had many useful suggestions from experienced mums, and of course every parent’s experiences will be different.

Childcare will be a concern for many returning parents, and working on a reduced hours or flexible basis is common. Employers are obliged to consider requests for flexible working, and there is often little reason this cannot work with an ecology career, particularly post-pandemic. Working unusual and anti-social hours is common for ecologists, and an increase in night work for surveys, with more time off during the day, may work well for some parents, allowing more time with your child during their waking hours. The difficulty with this would be ensuring regularity of evening work, as formal childcare is not usually flexible with the days booked. Staying away from home for survey work, particularly for more than one night at a time, is likely to be trickier for those with young families. I do know of some ecologists who have found a way to take their children with them on surveys, but this is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution for most parents, and is unlikely to be in line with health and safety risk assessments and company policies.

For some parents, going back to a previous role may not be feasible. In these instances, there are other options, aside from leaving the profession entirely. If more time is needed, taking CIEEM membership into abeyance for an extended period of time is possible. Going independent (if not already) may be an option worth considering. Although it may take some time and investment to build up, independent working allows more flexibility to choose projects and working hours that suit your lifestyle. There are also plenty of desk-based ecology careers, including growing work in Biodiversity Net Gain and corporate biodiversity; biodiversity specialists in local planning authorities and other in-house roles; or simply different roles within ecological consultancies as people managers, GIS specialists, or proposal managers. With experienced biodiversity professionals in high demand, some companies even offer specialist support for those returning to work after extended periods off, offering flexible opportunities for returners with additional support to ease the transition.


With the support of colleagues and clients, navigating the journey of pregnancy, maternity leave and returning to work in an ecological career is certainly possible. Being aware of your rights and options, and the support available, will help to make the journey all the smoother. Of course, some adaptions are likely to be necessary to accommodate a different lifestyle, but family life does not need to halt your career progression.

Whilst it will not always be easy, ecology can be an enjoyable career choice for those with a young family. And who better to share your passion and enthusiasm for the natural world with than the next generation of budding young ecologists.

Additional information on pregnancy and maternity rights and advice can be found at the following links:

Laura Sanderson CEcol CEnv MCIEEM

Laura is an Associate Ecologist at Ramboll UK Ltd, leading Ramboll’s London biodiversity team. She provides ecological advice to a wide range of clients in the UK and internationally. She has particular interests in urban biodiversity and green infrastructure, bats and Biodiversity Net Gain.

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