Sylvia: Bad Girl Science Chats

There are many reasons why women are underrepresented in science & engineering. Some are specific to certain areas and some are systemic. When I was an undergraduate in science, as I tell my students, many moons ago, the advice I received from older women was to wait until tenure to start having kids. In the late 1990s that meant waiting until about your mid-late 30s. That did NOT sound like a good plan. Nowadays I see more graduate students and post-docs starting families. I know not an ideal time, but it coincides better with fertility.

That is why I practically screamed in my office when I read that the White House was announcing some new initiatives at the National Science Foundation to assist in this family versus career battle:

  • Allow postponement of grants for child birth/adoption – Grant recipients can defer their awards for up to one year to care for their newborn or newly adopted children.
  • Allow grant suspension for parental leave – Grant recipients who wish to suspend their grants to take parental leave can extend those grants by a comparable duration at no cost.
  • Provide supplements to cover research technicians – Principal investigators can apply for stipends to pay research technicians or equivalent staff to maintain labs while PIs are on family leave.
  • Publicize the availability of family friendly opportunities – NSF will issue announcements and revise current program solicitations to expressly promote these opportunities to eligible awardees.
  • Promote family friendliness for panel reviewers – STEM researchers who review the grant proposals of their peers will have greater opportunities to conduct virtual reviews rather than travel to a central location, increasing flexibility and reducing dependent-care needs.
  • Support research and evaluation – NSF will continue to encourage the submission of proposals for research that would asses the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women in the STEM pipeline.
  • Leverage and Expand Partnerships — NSF will leverage existing relationships with academic institutions to encourage the extension of the tenure clock and allow for dual hiring opportunities.

These are some serious changes folks!

For one, as the Sylvia comic points out, women, from my own sampling, do want to use their awesomeness to help the world. What some young women struggle with is seeing how their fab science and math skills translate into working with people to solve the world’s problems. I know, I know…for some of us it is obvious. For some of us it takes time to learn how imperative it is to have empathetic and caring people in science and engineering. Not that only women are those things, but girls are raised to value emotions and relationships. But even when they can see how much of the world they can impact with their civil engineering skills, many have plans to be mothers one day.

I do not believe women are leaving science & engineering because they want to be mothers, but it may be influencing how easy it can be for them to decide to leave when they hit other challenges and roadblocks.

The no cost extension benefit will be tricky. Most, if not all, scientists and engineers have others working for them off these grants. From graduate students and post-docs to supporting department administrators (like the accounting office), all that would also be on hold.

My cynical side needs to be reminded that these are just the beginning. Hopefully if the National Science Foundation is sending this strong and clear message that women in science & engineering are valuable enough to enact these changes, that other institutions like universities will follow. Perhaps bridge funding for the graduate students who need to keep working on their experiments while the faculty member is bonding with a newborn? More on campus child care centers to allow parents to stay on campus (and in the lab) longer each day, instead of dashing out at 5 pm to make the 6 pm pick up.

These changes are a start. Not a small start either, but still a start. And a huge signal to the next generation of scientists and engineers that their human lives will be valued as much as their lives in the lab.