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Women in the Sciences

Nov 12, 2009

A new report from the Center for American Progress explores why women scientists are 'leaking' out of the research pipeline - and how to keep them in.

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National Science Foundation

The Search for Talent

The 2009 federal stimulus package, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, earmarked billions of dollars for scientific agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy. This sends a clear message: Scientific research is a high priority for the Obama administration, as the U.S. needs to fund research positions and recruit top talent in order to stay competitive with other nations, .

The American government has been actively recruiting women into the sciences for over 30 years, with great success. Women now earn over 50% of the PhDs in the life sciences and have made similar advances in physical sciences and engineering. However, federal agencies and research universities have been unable to keep women scientists in the career 'pipeline,' an increasingly urgent problem: Losing half the workforce may have serious consequences for the country's ability to continue to perform innovative scientific research.

Balancing Family and Career

Family Versus Career

A study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that women who earn PhDs in the sciences are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to pursue academic research positions. And when women do take faculty positions, they're much more likely to drop out before they attain tenure. Hoping to find a solution to the problem, the Center for American Progress recently performed a separate study examining why this is happening.

They found that conflicts between career and family formation, primarily marriage and childbirth, account for the largest 'leaks' in the pipeline between education and career. Married women in the sciences who have children are 35% less likely than men who are married with children to enter a tenure track position, and 27% less likely to achieve tenure if they do. These findings were supported by surveying doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars. Many scientists make crucial career decisions while they're still in training, and career-life conflicts accounted for four of the top five reasons that students chose not to pursue a career in research, with women twice as likely as men to cite child-related issues.

Even women who choose to follow the academic research path suffer due to family-career conflicts. Earning federal grants is crucial for achieving promotion and tenure, but extremely inflexible time demands make it almost impossible for family caregivers to compete. The average science faculty member works about 50 hours a week through age 62, which leaves little time for child rearing or other family duties that frequently fall to women. As a result, tenure-track female faculty who are married with children are 21% less likely to have their work supported by federal grants than men in the same situation, and 26% less likely than married women without children.

Maternity Leave

Poor Benefits

Time constraints aren't the only reason that women scientists find themselves forced to choose between career and family. The vast majority of research universities only offer significant paid maternity leave without prohibitive restrictions to faculty members, leaving graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers without this crucial benefit. Paid parental leave benefits are even worse - only a small fraction of universities even offer one week without limitations to any of the above groups.

Many institutions may be in violation of Title IX due to their poor maternity leave policies. The law includes two provisions related to childbirth:

  1. For the purpose of calculating job-related benefits, including any employer-provided leave, schools are to treat pregnancy as a temporary disability.
  2. If the school doesn't have a maternity leave policy for employees, it must offer a reasonable period of unpaid, job-protected leave.

The authors of the study found that not only do most schools provide little or no paid maternity leave, they typically don't have a clear policy in place for unpaid leave either. This violation of Title IX ultimately prevents many women from pursuing a research career by making it impossible for them to be pregnant and keep their jobs.

Women in the Sciences

Patching the Leak

The study concludes with several suggestions about how universities and other research institutions can begin to reverse this negative trend. The authors emphasize the importance of the role of the federal agencies that provide funding for most scientific research. By creating baseline requirements for schools that receive their funds, these agencies could effect rapid, significant change.

The report's recommendations include:

Setting clear family responsive policies for all researchers.

Institutions should have a clear set of baseline policies that applies to graduate students, researchers and doctoral fellows as well as faculty. As stated above, federal agencies can lead the way by tying funding to the creation of a baseline policy.

Working together to develop family friendly policies.

The study's authors emphasize the importance of setting a standard that is shared among all institutions. Research universities should collaborate to develop a common package of policies and resources that take the career-family life path into account.

Reducing time-based criteria for productivity assessments and fellowships.

Most evaluative measures in academia don't acknowledge the impact of family events on career timing. Building in more flexibility in time-based criteria would allow women to stay competitive even when confronted with unexpected family events.

Providing supplementary funding for family event productivity loss.

Currently, the principle investigators on a research team bear the brunt of the financial burden from team members' family-related absences. This often causes them to avoid hiring pregnant women and mothers of young children due to the fact that these populations are more likely to need emergency family leave. Offering supplementary funding specifically for this purpose could alleviate the hiring problem.

Improving standards of data collection on family-friendly policies, Title IX compliance and related initiatives.

The information gathered by the current study can only broadly identify the problem. Without detailed data from each school it will be almost impossible to implement significant changes, and the current state of data collection is very poor. The study's authors recommend that federal agencies offer specific grants not only for implementing changes, but also for collecting data and measuring whether the changes are effective. The report also notes that regulatory agencies should be making more of an effort to scrutinize Title IX compliancy issues.

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