Thursday, November 19, 2009

Family versus science

Check out the full report Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences.


The pressures of family obligations and child-rearing are pushing young female researchers out of science, according to a new study released this month by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank based in Washington, DC.The report provides a contrast to an earlier report by the National Academies of Sciences that focused on dissecting the subtle biases against women in science.

CAP, together with the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic & Family Security at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law surveyed some 25,000 University of California postdocs and graduate students for the report. They found that married women with children were 35% less likely to get a tenure-track position than married men with children and 33% less likely to do so than single women without children.

In an article for The Scientist last year, Association for Women in Science president Phoebe Leboy explored some of the reasons why women, who enter most scientific fields in equal numbers to men, only occupy some 30% of the highest echelons in academia. Leboy suggestedthat universities weren't doing enough to promote their female researchers. She suggested that search committees and review boards make a point of including women, who might be more likely to suggest the names of other women than men would.

But while the focus in recent years has been on discrimination, many women who added their voices to an online forum on the subject at The Scientistdiscussed how their experience in the lab changed when they started a family. If a lab is essentially thought of as a small business, the loss of an employee -- even for a short period of time -- can be devastating.

Universities have responded to the call for better support of scientists who want to start families with policies such as stopping the tenure clock and offering paid parental leave. However, "there is a huge variation" in how these policies are administered, said Mary Ann Mason, coauthor of the CAP report, in a press conference yesterday (November 10). Often "researchers don't know what [these policies] are" and how they work. Also, few of these programs are offered to early career scientists, who need them the most, she said.

The report stated that women who had a child while they were postdocs were twice as likely to rethink their career goals as men, or as women who no children and had no plans of having them. Only 13% of graduate students and 23% of postdocs surveyed said their research institutions entitled them to 6 weeks of paid maternity leave, compared with 58% of faculty.

The report also puts the onus on funding bodies such as the NSF and the NIH to provide more financial backing that is better coordinated with university efforts. Universities and funders should offer financial supplements to labs to offset the productivity loss when a scientist takes family leave, the report says. It also suggests removing some of the time-based assessment of scientific accomplishment and tenure review.

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