08 October 2011

New "family friendly" policies from NSF (Part 2)

Earlier this week I wrote about policy changes announced by NSF that are designed to provide researchers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with greater flexibility to attend to family concerns while continuing their research efforts. Among the changes, which extend certain current policies regarding the grant award and review process, are provisions to allow for grant deferrals or no-cost extensions for up to a year when researchers need to take time off to raise a newborn child, for example. The measures are aimed particularly at retaining female researchers in academia by easing career-versus-family decisions.

For an informed opinion on the challenges for women in academia and NSF’s announcement, I talked to Professor Jean Bahr, a hydrogeologist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Following her Ph.D. and a brief stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., Bahr has been on the faculty in the Department of Geoscience at UW – Madison since 1987. Among many other achievements during that time, she has served as president of the Geological Society of America and as chair of her department.

Q: How have you been involved with mentoring young female scientists during your time as a researcher?

A: My own students are my primary set of mentees. I was also one of the faculty co-directors for several years of the undergraduate Women in Science and Engineering Residential Learning Community … That’s an effort that’s been going on to increase retention of women who come to college thinking they want to study science and engineering. Lots of studies had shown that we were losing a lot more women at that level than we were losing men who came into those fields. [It’s about] creating a community in which they could live and study with women peers and also have interaction with women faculty.
            There’s also the Women Faculty Mentoring Program, which pairs junior faculty with more senior faculty to provide some mentoring support outside of the official department mentoring committees. I’ve done that a couple times as well.

Q: What do you think are the main challenges that young female scientists face?

(Image credit: Argonne National Lab, Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)
A: In the physical sciences, one remaining challenge is that it’s still a heavily male-dominated field in many departments. It’s a less comfortable environment when you’re one of a handful compared to being one of many. But, it’s certainly gotten a lot better overall at the university since I’ve been here, both in terms of total numbers and in success of women having families along the way.

Q: The main two changes that NSF has decided to institute appear to be the ability to defer a grant for up to a year or postpone it for a year.

A: [With the announcement], it sounded like they were doing two things. They were more broadly publicizing some of the things they’ve been doing for a long time, and then making some explicit changes or explicit publicity about NSF graduate fellowships and CAREER awards that really go to women at the early stages of the pipeline to allow deferrals for family reasons. I’m not sure that that’s really a new change or something that they’re trying to make more broadly visible.
            The bigger changes that a lot of universities have made have been in making parental leave and stopping the tenure clock more automatic. … But women, for various reasons, sometimes choose not to stop the tenure clock.

Q: Is there a perception that if you take advantage of the ability to stop the tenure clock, that that will somehow have a negative impact?

A: I think that there may be women who have felt that. It varies a lot from department to department. I think it also varies from field to field, and how much momentum do you lose in a research project. You probably lose more momentum than just the formal tenure clock stoppage.

Q: The other main change is that you can review grants remotely from home, as opposed to having to travel to review panels.

A: Right. A lot of organizations are talking about making it more feasible [for committees to work remotely], not just for family reasons, but it saves on travel costs, it saves on the amount of time. If you go to a panel meeting in [Washington,] D.C., you’re there for three, but you’re also spending two additional days traveling back and forth.
            All of these things that NSF does to make their programs more flexible and more family-friendly or life-balance friendly are going to benefit women and men.

Q: As far as NSF and other funding agencies, as well as universities, what improvements still need to be made to aid and retain female faculty or undergraduate science students?

A: I go back ultimately to the numbers. The more women that there are in faculty positions and providing role models that say that this is a feasible and attractive career option, I think the more we’re going to see young women come into and stay in the field.

Q: Would it become a positive feedback?

A: Yeah. I think all of these things are increments to help make that the case. … The more the opportunities are seen as broadly available, the more people, from a whole range of backgrounds, will look at those and see those as options.

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