Over the years, I’ve written and talked a great deal about the challenges for women in science. It’s part a chicken and egg problem because we need more female role models who visibly excel in STEM to encourage the next generation to consider these fields as a viable career choice. But it’s far more complicated than that too. Women don’t want special treatment, but for many of us, priorities shift tremendously between graduate school as 20-somethings and our 30s when we are establishing ourselves as early career scientists. In short, life happens.
From a purely Darwinian point of view, expecting a young woman to sacrifice her reproductive fitness for the sake of career advancement is simply too much, and yet the structure of academic research, in which one must spend one’s 20s and early 30s as a poorly compensated and minimally empowered graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, and the remainder of one’s 30s and into the low 40s working madly to earn tenure, can demand exactly that.
As I wrote then, if we are to encourage women to stay in the system, then the system will need to undergo fundamental changes to accommodate more of us.
The Washington Post has an important piece by Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen about how the National Science Foundation is announcing new steps to make it easier for women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Jarrett is a senior adviser to President Obama who chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls and Tchen is the executive director of the council and chief of staff to Michelle Obama.
Women in STEM, they point out, earn 33 percent more than those in other occupations, and their skills are vital for “high-growth, high-tech fields such as health-care technology and advanced manufacturing.” They acknowledge that the status quo system often forces women to choose between their careers and their responsibilities at home, causing many to drop out of the pipeline. Therefore:
To support female innovators and help women contribute to the economy, the NSF is taking steps to allow researchers to balance their responsibilities in the lab with their responsibilities at home. For example, if a researcher needs to delay the start of a funded project for a family-related reason, such as taking care of a young child or an aging parent, the NSF will work with her to make that possible without causing her to lose her grant. If she needs to interrupt research to have a baby, there will be options to add the lost time onto the end of her funding period without penalty. In many cases, NSF will even pay for technicians who can keep labs and research projects running during a period of parental leave.
While these changes won’t solve every hurdle for women in STEM, they are certainly a much needed step in the right direction and I applaud the National Science Foundation. To quote President Obama from his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week:
“No country can realize its potential if half its population cannot reach theirs.”