Why is it so hard to have a work/life balance in the sciences?!

or so it seems.

I was really excited earlier this week when the White House and NSF announced a Foundation-wide initiative termed the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative”. Some parts of this initiatives include postponing grants for child birth/adoption or suspending grants to cover parental leave.  It is refreshing to finally see some action from the highest levels addressing the mountains of research that has indicated a gap in the pipeline (that although women are receiving almost 50% of the PhDs only about 30% are tenure-track faculty).

But an interesting question is: will this work? A recent study by the National Academies might shed light on what women who have reached those critical career transitions have done. One of the conclusions they drew in conducting two national surveys in 2004 and 2005, was that:

“both male and female faculty utilized stopping-the-tenure-clock policies – spending a longer time in the uncertainty of securing tenure – but women used these policies more”. But, most importantly: “…stopping the tenure clock did not affect the probability of promotion and tenure; it just delayed it about 1.5 years.”

This result was surprising to me. Women (and men) are already beginning to take advantage of opportunities to delay tenure. Therefore these new NSF policies may in fact continue to make it more acceptable for faculty to consider these opportunities. The National Academies also make an note that in their study women are just as successful if not more than their male counterparts in obtaining tenure. So the question becomes, how to increase the number of women faculty who get to that point?

There is a gap in the study if the key transition for women turns out to be between receiving her PhD and applying for that tenure-track position, and these new NSF policies perhaps do not address the considerations that happen at that point in a researcher’s career. Although an interesting observation noted in the NAS study is that although institution and departmental strategies for increasing the percentage of women in the applicant pool were not accurate at predicting the number of women applying,

“The percentage of women on the search committee and whether a woman chaired the search committee, however, did have a significant effect on recruiting women”

This finding somewhat supports a recent discussion in Nature Chemistry about the culture of science and not that the field of science is unwelcoming to female scientists but that it is rather inadvertently being hostile.  I highly recommend this article as it has an excellent comparison/illustration of gender biasing to chromatography. But it might just be because I’m an organic chemist. Basically the article presents the viewpoint that perhaps there might not be a key transition point (undergrad to grad, PhD to post-doc, postdoc to applying for tenue-track position) when women decide or not decide that academia is not for them but that it might be the small things that make her think that she does not fit. *Sidenote and speaking of inconvenient bathrooms for women (read the Nature article): a reminder that just this year the House put a female bathroom that was adjacent to the House floor. (men had one but women had use the one through Statuary Hall put built for them in 1962.)

Science Careers in Search of Women 2009

Great program at Argonne National Lab: Science Careers in Search of Women. Strong mentorship has also been attributed to having a significant positive influence on female faculty.

There is a lot of really excellent data on the existence of the gender gap in the science pipeline and it is exciting to see some policy action addressing the gap. However, as the end of the NAS report indicates there still needs to be significant research into what are the barriers at key transitions and what types of policies will be effective? I would also look to fields that have a more even distribution of men and women. What is different about the culture/policies in those fields that attracts both men and women equally?

More reading:

The Conversation: so seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?

The numbers at Wired – Convergence: number of women among National Academy members.

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