Toward Reaching Our Potential

27 Sep

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.

I’ve observed many exceptionally bright female friends leave–or step back from–academia to start a family because the lifestyle in pursuit of a tenure track position is often at odds with caring for an infant. “Having it all” is celebrated in American culture and some woman seem to find a good balance with the support of relatives and friends, but I also understand why balancing family and career doesn’t work for everyone. There was a great piece in the New York Times about this several years ago by Natalie Angier:

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.”

7 Responses to “Toward Reaching Our Potential”

  1. Gabriel September 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    “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.”

    I’m not sure if I like this language. The agency seems to suggest that it will work with women, but not men. Why? What about the men who need to take time off to care for the a child or elderly family member? This gender-specific language is both dismissive of men as caretakers, and implies that it is the woman’s obligation to stay home after a child has been born.

    The NSF should support equal choice, regardless of gender. If all agencies were to approach issues related to family obligations with a female-centric bias, then I foresee that men will eventually have to fight for equal recognition as parents.

    • biochembelle September 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

      Gabriel, I would say this is an error in transcription/translation, as the White House press release specifies efforts are to help women and men (see excerpt, emphasis mine).

      “As highlighted in a Washington Post op-ed this morning, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is announcing a major, 10-year initiative to provide greater work-related flexibility to women and men in research careers.

      “Among other advances, the NSF—the Nation’s major funder of research in engineering, computer science, mathematics, and other high-tech fields that will be central to U.S. economic growth in the years ahead—will allow researchers to delay or suspend their grants for up to one year in order to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or fulfill other family obligations.”

      • Gabriel September 30, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

        Great. Thanks for the fact check.

  2. Sheril Kirshenbaum September 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    Commentors posting under my name will not be tolerated.

    The IP address associated with the deleted comment is now banned from contributing at Culture of Science.

  3. Joe H. September 28, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Maybe a stupid question, but there is solid data that these “life changes” are the primary reason that women fall off of the STEM career path, right? I mean, it’s the most obvious reason, but I can’t recall seeing where women were surveyed, etc.

    There’s certainly lots of systematic bias present against women, too, so we must take care to fix the right problem.

    • Sheril Kirshenbaum September 28, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

      I do not know of data off hand, but I think it would also be difficult to do a survey. However, changing priorities was discussed in detail last year during the Discover Mag/L’Oreal panel on women in science I moderated on the Hill.

      And while personal anecdotes are certainly not representative, as a young woman in the science community I am observing a significant drop off of female friends over the last several years as children arrive. Male friends, meanwhile, seem to be staying in the pipeline.

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