Helping Women Scientists Balance Family and Research

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


Malgorzata Zmuda
Malgorzata Zmuda4 years ago

To niestety prawda, a kobiety powinny być traktowane na równi z mężczyznami, a nawet lepiej.

Emily W.
Emily W.5 years ago

I am a science major, and I know for a fact that women are actually dominating the science field. For example: Microbiology has been dominated by women for the past 10 years! 75% of forensic scientists are female (97% for forensic anthropologists). 50% of medical students are female. Over 60% of psychology degree's are by women.

the professors hae made it clear to us, that our competetors in the workforce will NOT be male, but female.

Penny C.
penny C.5 years ago


Thomas A.
Thomas A.5 years ago

This good and necessary.

However, it misses the point. Why are women still being saddled with everything at home PLUS their careers? What century are we living in?

You don't hear about such plans to help men in these fields cope with the balance of work and home. Why? Because a majority still don't carry their weight at home. It's the woman's job, regardless of whether she is actually employed or not.

sandra m.
Past Member 5 years ago


Tom Sullivan
Tom C Sullivan5 years ago

Right on

Tom Sullivan
Tom C Sullivan5 years ago

Right on

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L.5 years ago

One more positive step in the right direction.

Laurie D.
Laurie D.5 years ago

It is about time! Now if that regard and respect can be offered to ALL WOMEN in the workplace -- we haven't gotten there yet but this action shows there's still hope!

Laura D.
Laura D.5 years ago

I think it'd be more helpful to help young grads get a job in the science field in the first place. It's hard as heck these days to find a job in the sciences with a BS degree. It's all Masters, Masters, Masters to even qualify--which is why there is a huge rush right now for those with BS degrees in the sciences to get post grad degrees, only to find that many universities don't have the money for fellowships, and are only accepting out-of-state grads or out-of-country. One of the reasons women are as represented in the field is simply that its hard to even find that first job. Grant money is harder to come by as well.

So, yeah, it's great family-friendly policies are being introduced and all, but unless it becomes easier to actually get a job in the first place, it's going to seem pretty meaningless for most of us women with degrees in the sciences.