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IN MY OPINION

Some simple policy changes to support scientist-parents

A successful career in STEM, combined with fulfilling parenting, should be sustainable.

By CORINNE MAURICE, KATHERINE AMATO, JOEL ZYLBERBERG & GABRIELA SCHLAU-COHEN | JUN 13 2019

Despite an ever-growing demand for talent in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, full-time employment for STEM workers remains challenging – and this is especially true for women who decide to become mothers. While billions of dollars are invested yearly around the world to encourage and train the next generation of female STEM workers, these fields often fail to support and retain this new talent.

Women obtain close to half of all STEM degrees in North America, but they make up only a quarter of the STEM workforce. One of the main drivers of this disparity is parenthood, which can be difficult for any young parent regardless of gender, but is particularly tough on women.

It’s a well-established fact that women disproportionately bear the burdens of child-rearing and childcare. A recent study (“The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM” by Erin Cech and Mary Blair-Loy) followed full-time professionals in the U.S. in STEM careers over eight years. It found that nearly half of new mothers, but “only” about a quarter of new fathers, leave full-time careers in STEM after having children. This puts female scientists at a profound disadvantage – a situation that is not only unfair but also hinders science at large.

Early-career researchers feel they’ve “made it” when finally hired into a full-time independent position in science. This is also the time, however, when many of them want to start a family. That’s when reality kicks in. Multitasking is the rule, as they spend endless hours writing grants and manuscripts while pumping breastmilk, answering emails on their phones with one arm while holding a sleeping baby in the other, and participating in meetings through a dense fog of sleep deprivation. For academics, this is, of course, in addition to managing their newly launched research labs and training newly hired staff.

Setting up a well-funded and productive research program is no small feat. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of many research institutes and universities, barriers preventing new scientist-parents from balancing parental duties with research responsibilities remain. These barriers include: reduced or interrupted lab and fieldwork; limited or no access to daycare close to work; and inadequate, inconvenient or nonexistent facilities for nursing mothers.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be. A successful career in STEM combined with fulfilling parenting should be sustainable. We believe that small policy changes can help overcome these challenges and give scientist-parents a shot at launching world-class research programs without sacrificing their family responsibilities.

Beyond issues of equity, the recent U.S. study also reinforces the strong economic argument to be made in favour of supporting scientist-parents: when new STEM professionals fail to thrive, the substantial investments in their research programs are lost.

For example, at the early career stages (postdoctoral and assistant professor), it’s estimated that US $1 million has been invested per person in education and training. Institutions also bear a significant financial loss, including the offer package (or start-up package for universities), the investment in personnel and equipment, in addition to the costs in time and money of the search for a replacement. Departures also decrease the morale of those left behind. Given the competition to recruit the best young scientists, institutions should be hesitant to put themselves in a position where hiring committees need to explain to new recruits why the previous person left their position.

Fortunately, there are several actions that we believe would improve the situation, many of which don’t cost much or anything at all. We believe all institutions stand to benefit from taking steps to support scientist-parents, including, but not limited to, those listed below. Given our career paths, these suggestions are tailored to academia, yet we believe some of them may be applicable and warranted for industry as well. In our view, research institutes and universities should:

  • Provide start-up funds with no end date, or allow no-cost extensions that extend well past the duration of parental leave. This would avoid the situation where scientist-parents must sacrifice part of their research start-up period if they wish to take leave.
  • Provide administrative support during the leave to oversee finances, limit the times and number of committees, and allow remote committee participation. That way scientist-parents can focus (at least for a short while) on their parenting duties without having their research group run out of supplies, suffer from administrative lapses or delay students’ evaluation schedules.
  •  Schedule mandatory meetings at hours that don’t impede parents’ abilities to drop off or pick up their kids from daycare.
  • Provide resources for nursing mothers, including private office space with doors that lock as well as sinks and refrigerators, across their campuses.
  • Promote peer support groups for new faculty raising young families. These groups provide a valuable way for scientist-parents to network with their peers, and exchange both helpful tips and boost morale.
  • Provide accessible childcare for a range of research contexts. At home institutions, this includes an on-site, full-day childcare facility. While many universities currently have these, often the capacity is severely limited, with waitlists that leave faculty struggling to piece together alternative solutions for months or years. Family-friendly spaces should exist on campuses that allow faculty to work while their children are with them in cases of scheduling emergencies or illness.
  • Provide off-campus childcare support, e.g., during fieldwork, conferences or other work trips. In many cases, this support may come in the form of money to hire appropriate help. Otherwise, essential work travel can leave many parents paying for additional childcare hours while they are gone, or parents may forego necessary work travel for lack of childcare support. An additional way to implement this support, especially for mothers with young infants or those doing fieldwork, is to provide funding to bring their children and a caretaker with them when they travel. CIFAR, and some other organizations, do provide this support, but it is far from universal.
  • Offer adequate parental leave. The first weeks with a new child are an all-consuming cycle of feeding, napping and diapers, when the parent-child bond is being established. While many jurisdictions, including Canada, legally mandate paid parental leave, others do not. Universities can and should provide adequate leave, even when not explicitly required to do so by law.

Unfortunately, even paid leave is often insufficient on its own. The nature of running a research group means that during a period of leave, theses and manuscripts can go unread, students can go unsupervised (especially in junior faculty groups that lack the institutional structure of more established groups), and progress reports can go unsubmitted. As a result, parents often cannot fully take leave without the potential for long-lasting damage to their research programs.

To balance this necessity, departments should take two critical steps: they should facilitate absence from as many responsibilities as possible, including administrative duties, departmental service and teaching; and they should be flexible with respect to teaching and service leave – i.e., a longer partial leave could equal a shorter full leave.

While there are institutions that already implement some of our suggestions, our aim is to make these policy changes the norm. This benefits not only the scientists but also the institutions: by minimizing barriers, institutions can facilitate the recruitment and retention of top-level talent. In this way, they will remain competitive and fulfill their mandate of nurturing the next generation of world-class researchers.

Corinne Maurice is an assistant professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Gut Microbial Physiology in the department of microbiology and immunology at McGill University. Katherine Amato is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Northwestern University. Gabriela Schlau-Cohen is the Cabot Career Development Assistant Professor in the department of chemistry at MIT. Joel Zylberberg is an assistant professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Computational Neuroscience in the department of physics and astronomy at York University. All of the authors are CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars.

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