It’s not news that women are underrepresented in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Women earn 41 percent of doctorates in those fields but hold only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty positions in those academic disciplines. On Monday, the White House and the National Science Foundation announced new policies meant to provide greater flexibility for researchers starting in their careers to balance their work and families, with the hope of eliminating some of the obstacles that all too commonly stand in the way of women scientists and engineers.
The “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative” is a ten-year plan that lets researchers who are awarded NSF grants delay their funding for up to a year, to care for a new baby or newly adopted child. Principal investigators who wish to apply for family leave can also apply for stipends to support research technicians and others to maintain their labs.
In addition, the NSF seeks to accommodate researchers starting families by making it more possible for virtual reviews “to limit the need for travel and the need to arrange care for dependents when the reviewer is away.” Universities will also be encouraged to implement their own policies to increase flexibility for young researchers, by, for example, halting the tenure clock for a year.
As Subra Suresh, director of the NSF, says:
“Too many young women scientists and engineers get sidetracked or drop their promising careers because they find it too difficult to balance the needs of those careers and the needs of their families. This new initiative aims to change that, so that the country can benefit from the full range and diversity of its talent.”
Women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and the salary gap between men and women is smaller in STEM fields.
The fact that the White House and the NSF have acknowledged the barriers young researchers can face in balancing careers and families is notable; that they are making provisions for people to continue to pursue research while taking care of family and young children is commendable. Some schools such as the University of California at Berkeley already offer such “family-friendly packages” that allow faculty parents to stop the tenure clock for a year while raising a newborn or newly adopted child.
I am not a scientist or in any of the STEM fields; I’m a professor of Classics, of Latin and Greek, at a small New Jersey college and was, fortuitously, able to be home (teaching part-time as an adjunct at a local college) when my son was a baby. I find the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative” encouraging and hope (maybe I’m being too optimistic, but one can hope) that it might inspire universities and other institutions of higher learning to consider such flexible possibilities for faculty members at the early stages of their careers.
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Photo by Argonne National Laboratory