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A Two-Track Course

Institutions of higher learning implement family-friendly practices to ease the tenure-track burden for female academics

by Faith Hayden
March 3, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 9

Tough Choices
Credit: Lindsay Elliott
Gatimu, pictured in a Notre Dame University lab, decided an academic career wasn't practical because of her family.
Credit: Lindsay Elliott
Gatimu, pictured in a Notre Dame University lab, decided an academic career wasn't practical because of her family.

As any professor will tell you, seeking tenure at an institution is an all-encompassing job that requires 110% of the candidate's attention. And as any parent will tell you, rearing children requires the same amount of devotion.

For women scientists, the biological and tenure clocks often overlap, and many question having to choose between life in academia and life at home. "In our society, women traditionally take on more of the responsibilities for raising children," says Veronika A. Szalai, who has two small children and is a chemistry professor with pending tenure at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). "I think this can make it harder for women to balance everything and, perhaps, ultimately be successful."

This difficult balancing act may help explain why women are still poorly represented on chemistry faculties in the U.S., even though studies show that more women than ever are pursuing chemistry degrees. For the 2007–08 academic year, women made up only 15% of the faculty in the top 50 chemistry departments, up 1% from the year before (C&EN, Dec. 24, 2007, page 44).

Meanwhile, a 2008 report from the National Science Board finds that in 2005, women earned 56% of all chemistry bachelor's degrees, up from 36% in 1985. At the doctoral level in 2005, women earned 34% of all chemistry Ph.D.s, up from 20% in 1985. These numbers show that women are interested in chemistry, and they're getting the degrees to prove it. But where are all the female Ph.D. chemists going?

If Enid Gatimu is any indication, they aren't going into academia. Gatimu is a postdoc at the Notre Dame University, with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Clark Atlanta University. She is also a single mother with two children, one of whom is an infant. Last summer, Gatimu attended a two-day seminar at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) designed to encourage outstanding women chemists to apply for academic positions. Gatimu found the seminar useful, but she ultimately decided a career in academia wasn't practical.

"If I had not been pregnant at the time, I probably would have pursued an academic career. But for the next couple of years, I just won't have the time to devote" to the demands of academia, she explains.

Citing better pay and less pressure as reasons, Gatimu instead plans to seek employment in government or industry and is currently investigating options.

"There's no one reason" for the underrepresentation of women chemists in academia, says Joan Girgus, a professor of psychology at Princeton University. She cites pipeline issues, workplace discrimination, and the difficult transition from postdoc to professor during child-bearing years. "I don't think you have to choose between family and work, but I think many women think they do," Girgus says.

To alleviate this problem, institutions such as Princeton and California Institute of Technology are implementing family-friendly practices aimed at encouraging more women to pursue academic careers. At Princeton, the moves are a response to findings in its 2003 "Report of the Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty in the Natural Sciences & Engineering," which examined the overall position of women at the university.

"The report says that when we look back over 10 or 15 years, we see substantial progress in the number of women faculty at Princeton," Girgus says. "It also found that there was still a lot of work to be done, and we are nowhere near where we want to be," adds Girgus, who was named special assistant to the dean of the faculty at Princeton soon after the report was issued to help address some of the problems the task force uncovered. "We believe one of the ways in which we can help women flourish in their careers is by providing a really strong set of family supports," she says.

Hiring Practices
Credit: Courtesy of Robert Gordon
Gordon, professor of chemistry at UIC and promoter of family-friendly environments for academics, poses with graduate student Sima Singha.
Credit: Courtesy of Robert Gordon
Gordon, professor of chemistry at UIC and promoter of family-friendly environments for academics, poses with graduate student Sima Singha.

At Princeton, these supports include child care grants for any professor earning below a certain income and backup-care grants that provide extended child care for professors who travel. The university is also expanding its day care facility.

In addition, assistant professors at Princeton now get automatic one-year extensions in the tenure window with the birth of each child, Girgus says. "We have really tried to make it possible for people to focus on their careers and their families simultaneously."

Since the release of the report, Princeton has seen an increase in the representation of women faculty in the natural sciences, up from 17% in 2003 to 27% in 2008.

Like Princeton, Caltech continues to address gender inequality within its walls. In October 1999, the university created the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty at Caltech, which submitted its findings to the faculty board in December 2001. At that time, the committee reported that the percentage of women on the professorial faculty at Caltech was "very low"—only 11%. The report recommended ways to attract more women to the school.

Caltech has seen some progress. According to the latest study of female professors, which the school updates every year in October, about 15% of Caltech's faculty now are female.

As at Princeton, faculty members at Caltech do not have to request tenure-clock extensions for the birth or adoption of a child—something that may have carried a stigma, according to Caltech chemistry professor Pamela J. Bjorkman. Now, "the extension is granted automatically," she says.

In another family-friendly move, Caltech has changed its day care policy so that its facility takes infants as young as six months and as old as five years. "When I started at Caltech, the day care was only for children ages two through five, so our son wasn't eligible," says Bjorkman, who has been with Caltech for 19 years.

In its Child Educational Center, Caltech has set up programs for infants, preschoolers, and school-age children. The center also has a summer camp for children in the first through seventh grades.

Caltech also offers a child care assistance program that gives grants of up to $4,000 per year to eligible faculty, postdoctoral scholars, students, and campus staff with dependent children under age 11. Although this grant covers at least a portion of most people's child care costs, Bjorkman believes the institute could do more.

"The university didn't want to initiate a campaign specifically for attracting and retaining female scientists and engineers," Bjorkman says. The campaign was a recommendation of the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty at Caltech. "I was disappointed," she says. She believes that because Caltech is a small, wealthy institution, it should be able to raise enough money to significantly subsidize child care for the children of all students and postdocs, or even offer it free.

Cynthia Wolberger, a biophysics professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School, acknowledges that any woman planning to have children while on the tenure track needs help. "Being a single parent, forget it. You can't do it alone," she says. "Running a lab requires your presence, so you can't do it as a single parent unless you have other resources." Wolberger has two children and is married to an academic "who views children as his shared responsibility," she says.

One thing women scientists can do when applying to schools is to observe the environment and culture of the institution, Wolberger says. One reason she chose Johns Hopkins is because other family-oriented people were working there. "I work regular hours," she says. "I eat dinner with my kids every night. I do things with my family on the weekends. I think going to places where there aren't family-oriented people can create problems for women, because your colleagues don't get it. They have nothing to relate to."

As for balancing work and family, Wolberger also suggests budgeting time as effectively as possible, which means not living in the lab. Still, even the most efficient women are likely to be challenged as they balance their academic load with motherhood.

"Many successful male professors have a wife at home taking care of the details, while most female professors have a husband who is also working full-time," says Julie S. Biteen, a postdoc at Stanford University with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. "The extracurricular expectations and responsibilities of the female professors seem to be a bit more burdensome."

Balancing work and family life "is a continual issue," says UMBC's Szalai. "It will be a constant fact of life until my children are adults."

Although she doesn't downplay the impact of family responsibilities on female academics, Wolberger notes that discrimination in the workplace can be just as discouraging. "Women are less likely to be included in informal networks, they are less likely to be given leadership positions, and they are less likely to feel they have a voice or are being mentored," she says.

Caltech's Bjorkman echoes Wolberger. "I think that some people, even academics, are more skeptical of women candidates," she says. Some of the skepticism is unconscious. "The model is the guy. People tend to promote people who remind them of themselves when they were young," Wolberger says. "They are looking for a certain model for success. There are tons of data to show that all it takes are cumulative little disadvantages like this to really hold you back."

Not surprisingly, the inaugural 2001 report of the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty at Caltech did find that "women can legitimately claim to have no voice in the institute's higher administration." It also says that "there is at least anecdotal evidence of [a] past climate of gender bias in the workplace." The report suggests ways to correct this problem, including establishing and implementing mentoring programs for junior faculty and monitoring the institution's salary structure.

Robert Gordon, head of the chemistry department at UIC, acknowledges that biases in hiring practices and hostile work environments still exist, but he believes these biases are diminishing as more faculties make genuine efforts to rectify these problems. "If this is true, then the main battle will be to establish life-friendly environments on campuses and in the departments so women will not have to choose between family and academia," he says.


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