04 October 2011

NSF’s new “family-friendly” policies attempt to boost representation of females in tenured STEM academic positions

The challenges of beginning an academic research career in science or engineering are many. Beyond the intelligence, skill and ingenuity it takes to carry out meaningful research, scientists and engineers seeking tenured faculty positions are responsible for bringing in and managing much of their own funding through grants, publishing (and, increasingly, publicizing) their work, advising students and post-docs, and maintaining often-demanding teaching loads.

(Image credit: Argonne National Lab,
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The prospect of such a full schedule leaves precious little time for life’s other activities and sometimes leads researchers to view decisions of further pursuing a career versus, oh say, starting or caring for a family, as either-or propositions. Career-versus-family decisions are among the factors that have historically acted against increases in the number of women, in particular, who achieve tenured academic positions. Though the number is improving, it still lags proportionally compared to the number of women who pursue undergraduate or graduate study in science and engineering, and the number who attain advanced degrees.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics as stated (pdf) by the National Science Foundation (NSF), women held 28 percent of full-time tenured or tenure-track positions in science and engineering in 2006 compared to just 10 percent in 1979. Among doctorate degrees awarded in science or engineering in 2009, though, 41 percent were earned by women. And in recent years women have accounted for more than 50 percent of doctorates awarded in all fields.

With new measures announced last week at the White House, NSF is trying to raise awareness of and make a dent in this under-representation. Saying that it is women who “more often than not are the ones who suspend or surrender prominent professional careers to take on the responsibilities associated with starting a family and caring for dependent family members,” NSF director Dr. Subra Suresh introduced an agency initiative aimed at alleviating the stress involved in choosing between family and career. Such efforts, he said, are “essential to our future innovation, economic prosperity and global leadership.”

While the Career-Life Balance Initiative (pdf) does not introduce any radical changes to NSF policy, Suresh said the idea of the initiative is to “enhance” and “raise the visibility of existing policies” and to “systematically incorporate” them into the organization’s proposal solicitation and grant reviewing processes. The National Science Foundation is one of the major promoters of basic research at U.S. educational institutions, providing around 20 percentof public funding.

Though gender-neutral, the initiative is primarily and openly intended to boost representation of women in full-time and higher-level academic positions in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Family responsibilities account for the major loss of female scientists between receipt of a Ph.D. and the achievement of tenure in the sciences, Suresh said. Women “should not have to choose between their babies and the lab bench.”

In particular, the Career-Life Balance Initiative calls for:

- Expansion of policies allowing no-cost extensions and deferrals of grants (for up to one year) to include situations in which researchers wish to attend to “key life events” (e.g., a newborn child or an elderly dependent).

- Continuation of grant supplements to lab technicians who sustain research efforts while principal investigators are away on family leave.

- Improving the ability for scientists reviewing grant proposals on NSF’s behalf to do so remotely {link - Science}, thereby decreasing travel time and cost.

- A number of other general practices intended to improve on the under-representation of women and minorities and STEM fields and promote family-friendly policies.

Michelle Obama, who also spoke during NSF’s announcement at the White House, stressed that flexibility in the workplace is a good thing both not only for women but in general, allowing companies to retain skilled employees while allowing workers to continue supporting their family and contributing to the economy.

In closing his remarks, Suresh briefly recounted the story of a young, pregnant female post-doc who had recently been awarded a grant from the agency: “As one of the first grantees to take advantage of NSF’s family-friendly policies, she is not going to have to make a choice between being a good mom and being a great geoscience engineer.”

But are the changes announced by NSF going to make a difference? Check back in the coming days for an interview with Professor Jean Bahr, a long-time hydrogeologist and faculty member in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, on her thoughts about challenges for women in academia and whether NSF’s announcement marks a significant step toward addressing these challenges.

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