• August 28, 2015

Researchers Urge Colleges and Federal Agencies to Coordinate Efforts for Women in Science

Women with Ph.D.'s in the sciences will keep "leaking out" of the tenure pipeline if colleges and the federal agencies that award grant money to researchers don't work together to stop the flow, says a new report from three researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.

The report, "Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences," was prepared with the help of the Center for American Progress. It offers recommendations to both groups on how to retain women, who aren't as likely as men to pursue careers in academic science and who, if they do become faculty members, are more likely to drop out before earning tenure. At stake, it says, is the United States' global reputation and pre-eminence in the sciences.

"This is really a wake up call that we're losing our women scientists," said Mary Ann Mason, a Chronicle contributor who is an author of the report and a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic & Family Security. "But there are some things that we can do about that right now," she said.

Among the report's recommendations for major research universities and federal granting agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, are the following:

*Universities need to adopt family benefits, such as paid maternity or parental leave, for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, not just faculty members. Federal agencies should have the same kinds of policies in place for their fellows.

*Deadlines and time caps related to careers in academe—such as requiring that a Ph.D. student begin a postdoctoral appointment a certain number of years after receiving a doctoral degree—should be removed.

*Extra money should be provided to principal investigators when their researchers who are paid with grant money take time off for family-related absences. Currently, principal investigators must use money from their research awards to support such absences. Supporting such absences from other funds would remove an incentive for investigators to avoid hiring researchers who may "eventually need family-responsive policies."

The report's authors said the attention President Obama's administration has paid to scientific research makes their findings particularly timely.

"The federal agencies have actually been hosting joint conferences with the universities in the last few years. They're highly sensitized to gender equity right now," said Marc Goulden, another of the report's authors and director of data initiatives in academic affairs at Berkeley. The third author of the report is Karie Frasch, manager of the UC Family Friendly Edge projects.

Mr. Goulden said both universities and agencies have been moving in the "general direction" of the report's recommendations, but their efforts have been "a little bit haphazard. It needs to be more strategized. We're hoping this report gives them a broader strategy."

Much of the report focuses on the reasons why women have turned away from careers as academic scientists. Among them: Research universities don't have a reputation for being family-friendly; paid maternity leave is hard to come by, particularly for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars; and "the time pressures of academia are unrelenting" for faculty in the sciences, the report says. The report is based on data from four surveys: the federal Survey of Doctorate Recipients; a survey of Ph.D. students, postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, and faculty members in the University of California system; a survey of the 62 research institutions that are members of the Association of American Universities; and a survey of 10 of the top federal granting agencies.

Ms. Mason said in the end, providing benefits that help researchers with family responsibilities makes economic sense.

"Getting a scientist fully trained is a huge investment," Ms. Mason said. "To have them drop out after years of training is such a shame."


1. jyodh - November 10, 2009 at 02:29 pm

THese are great recommendations - esp. the extra payment to PI - might be a good incentive to accept women into their labs. Another deadline or time cap related to careers in academe that should be removed is the maximum number of years between your postdoc and being able to apply for first grants. Women are often not following a linear path towards academic careers resulting in gap in their research productivity (due to childrearing or taking an alternative job to solve two-body problem) - if women are able to recover and get back on the research train - they should not be penalized because too many years have passed between their postdoc and next academic appointment. Finally - the culture in individual science labs and departments has to change along with university policy. Women will not continue in the academy if their PhD or postdoc advisor requires them to be in the lab 24/7. This still happens - I recently heard of an example where one chemistry advisor held group meeting at 8pm on Friday night!
J. Yodh

2. fliedermaus - November 10, 2009 at 03:15 pm

I agree - these recommendations are great. I think we also need some kind of bridge program for PhD women who have taken time away from a straight research path, but have stayed with science. When you combine the two-body problem with having a child, it can be frustrating to find postdoctoral programs (or other grants) only for those who have gotten their PhDs within the past 5 years.

3. sbeach - November 22, 2009 at 01:05 pm

sorry, I hit the test message and not the comment. These have been thoughtful articles on Title IX today, and I would also like to see discussion of Marital Discrimination, vis a vis dual career couples in the same science profession. Thanks-

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