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Making Research Careers More Family-Friendly

Making Research Careers More Family-Friendly

White House and NSF announce new policies.

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Monday, September 26, 2011 - 18:15

Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- The White House announced today a program designed to increase the ability of academic research professionals to balance family obligations and their work. The National Science Foundation's "Career-Life Balance Initiative" is designed to allow grant winners to postpone or temporarily suspend their awards and provide supplemental funds to keep experiments going, among other policies deemed family-friendly.

Michelle Obama appeared at the event in the East Room of the White House. "If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone,” said Michelle Obama.  “We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Designed to assist academics in the early stage of their careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), this plan will be applied across the whole National Science Foundation.  The initiative is designed to eliminate barriers to women's advancement and retention in these fields. According to the White House, women in these jobs earn 33 percent more and experience a lesser gender wage gap than women in non-STEM fields.

"What works in a small corner of NSF we want extended across the agency," said Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation, during a telephone news conference.

At the same conference, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, John Holdren, said that the new effort is aimed at encouraging young scientists, especially women, from dropping out of careers in research fields. He said that women in these fields currently earn 41 percent of Ph.D.'s in the U.S., but make up 28 percent of tenure-track faculty.

"Unfortunately too many young women drop out of promising careers in science and engineering and math because of conflicts between their desire to start families and the needs of trying to rapidly ramp up their careers," said Holdren.

"This is a huge step, and one we've been needing for quite some time," Alice Pawley, an engineering education professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, In., wrote in an email. "I have no doubt it will have a really big impact."

Pawley's work includes interviewing researchers about how different employment policies affect their success at navigating through academic careers.

"One of the issues people have had with creating flexibility in their careers is that the grants themselves are not flexible," said Elizabeth Freeland, a physicist who forged her own non-traditional career path before becoming a tenure-track faculty member at Bendictine University in Lisle, Ill. After taking about 10 years off from physics research to care for her two children, she reentered the academic arena in 2006.

Both Pawley and Freeland would like to see the policies extend more explicitly beyond grant award holders to other scientists, such as non-tenure track faculty and post-doctoral researchers.

"I don't think changing any one policy will turn out to be 'the magic bullet' that improves women's representation in faculty positions," said Pawley.

However, researchers said it should help.

"It's a huge step forward from a cultural perspective," said Freeland. "It's huge because you have a significant player in scientific funding saying 'we are changing the way we do business' because of it."

"It seems now that NSF is friendlier towards women," said Shireen Adenwalla, a physicist at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. She took time off and worked part time in a non-tenure track position for a total of about seven years to raise her three children. "The perception is important."

The 10-year initiative will include provisions for grant recipients to defer their awards for up to one year for the care of a newborn or newly adopted child, allow recipients to suspend their grants for parental leave, and pay for technicians and staff to maintain labs for researchers on leave.

The plan also includes efforts to publicize these family friendly opportunities, encourage more research into workplace flexibility, and design outreach that introduces girls to women at the top of research fields.

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Chris Gorski

Chris Gorski is an Editor for Inside Science and runs the Sports beat. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.