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

November 10, 2009

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."