NSF sets its sights on retaining women

A new NSF brochure (PDF here) was e-published today, explaining some novel initiatives aimed at retaining women in the STEM workforce, with a focus on women in academia. The brochure includes some recent stats in support of the effort, and NSF lays out its approach to mitigating some of the issues in the following way:

The goal of NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative is to help improve the proportion of women attaining full professorship positions at American colleges and universities by addressing the balance of scientists’ work with conflicting demands of life events (e.g., the birth or adoption of a child, raising children, or providing elderly dependent care). To that end, the agency will:

• Continue flexibility in timing the initiation of approved research grants.

• Continue no-cost extensions of awards.

• Continue grant supplements for research technicians or equivalent to sustain research when investigators need to provide family care.

• Encourage parental medical leave (paid, if possible), accommodations for dual-career couples, and part-time options.

• Support research and evaluation of advancement, attrition, and retention of women in STEM fields.

• Enhance the assessment and evaluation of NSF programs in terms of gender/diversity outcomes.

• Draw on relevant NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering recommendations (2010) to address issues faced by women of color in STEM.

• Study and recognize best practices for career and life balance.

• Foster mutually beneficial international research and training collaborations that provide career-life balance opportunities.

• Ensure compliance with Title IX of The Civil Rights Act to prevent gender discrimination in education programs.

• Incorporate family-friendly practices and policies in NSF’s CAREER and all post doctoral programs.

• Further integrate and enhance work-life balance practices into additional program guidelines, including for Graduate Research Fellows and ADVANCE, and subsequently through the broader portfolio of NSF activities, consistent with federal guidelines.

• Collaborate with federal agencies and professional associations to exchange best practices, harmonize careerlife policies and practices, and overcome common barriers to career-life balance.

• Communicate broadly to the STEM community, in order to clarify and catalyze the adoption of a coherent and consistent set of career-life balance policies and practices.

• Lead by example to become a model agency for gender equity.

Are they on the right track?

17 responses so far

  • Dr. O says:

    It all sounds good - but the proof is in the pudding.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It DOES seem like a care bear tea party.... Although I thought the part on elder care was a step in the right direction. Implementation, beyond a pretty pamphlet with lots of buzz words, will be interesting.

  • PQA says:

    How about require grant awardees to pay their post-docs the currently 'recommended' salary as opposed to whatever the PI feels like paying, that alone would solve a lot of issues for most of the post-docs I know.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    How about require grant awardees to pay their post-docs the currently 'recommended' salary as opposed to whatever the PI feels like paying, that alone would solve a lot of issues for most of the post-docs I know.

    Are you contending that postdoc compensation is a major force in differentially driving women out of science or is this just an opportunistic gripe?

  • BrainGuy says:

    This all sounds good, but there's a sexist elephant in the room. It's still based on an antiquated (and NOT gender-equitable) notion of women being the "caregivers". This is only acceptable if this is just a realization that this is the way things are, to too great an extent, but not the way things should be.

    But do they really imagine that men never have "conflicting demands of life events"? That men never raise children or provide elderly dependent care? Or have difficulties with "career and life balance"? If so, gender equity will NEVER happen, because women will still have these difficulties (despite whatever is done to attempt to alleviate them) and men won't.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    BrainGuy, I agree with you. The pitch of the flier and the fact that "family friendly" appears to come up only in a flier aimed at women's issues does make the implicit link, suggesting that NSF is viewing the family as the woman's responsibility. I've been wondering whether the potential benefits outweigh the negatives, and it's kinda feeling like a wash. With a little more thought, they could have geared the effort simply at retention and made it clear that these policies would be open to anyone.

  • Anon2 says:

    Brain Guy, I used to be 100% with you on the "family issues are men's issues, too" boat - until I had kids. My husband does a LOT with the kids, even working part time so he can be home with them one day a week. But the "load" is still disproportionate. Sometimes, the kids just want their mommy, and no one else will do. The school will still call mom when the kids are sick, no matter how many times you tell them otherwise (as I found out today, when I came back from class to find several messages on my phone about my daughter, who was sick at school, throwing up for an HOUR before they decided to call someone else on the emergency contact list! And STILL, rather than calling the nanny, they called MY mom, who works at the school district!!!). Much of the caregiving responsibility falls on women.

    However, even though I've seen male colleagues take their "semester off" when their wife had a baby and use that time to travel and do research and write grants, I agree that these policies need to apply to everyone. Women with children, women without children, men who adopt children, transgender people who need to care for an aging parent or sick family member, it shouldn't matter. Certain groups of people may use the policies more than others, and certain people may abuse the policies. But the culture needs to change such that "life-friendly" policies are in place and used frequently by all. After all, doesn't everyone want to come to the care bear tea party?

  • TheGrinch says:

    I believe the real issue no one seems to recognize and accept is that childbirth, childcare, elderly care are all unavoidable aspects of our lives, irrespective of the gender and career stage. We simply work too much and feel guilty when we need to tend to these issues; and those who do are seen as weak and looked down upon subconsciously.

    A step in the right direction, nevertheless!

  • Postdoc says:

    I agree with PQA's possible insinuation that postdoc pay contributes to the attrition of women in science. I saw a study of postdocs somewhere (sorry I don't have time to search for the link!) demonstrating that women, regardless of their current marriage/kids status, were more concerned than men with being able to care for a current or future family and how that might interfere with their jobs. I'm a female in my early 30s and perhaps cursed with an inordinate tendency toward financial rationality and planning. My significant other is also in academia. We're both very careful spenders and savers, but as postdocs, I don't see how we can keep the pedal to the floor professionally and pay for the cost of childcare and a two-bedroom apartment with a dishwasher. (We do live in a pretty high-cost-of-living area, because that's how we solved the two-body problem.) If we sacrifice retirement saving (which I'm not excited to do--federal fellowships have already denied me several years of contributing to 403(b) accounts), it would be easier, but what a gamble... especially if either of us can't soon find a tenure-track job. The academics around me for whom children seem to work best are those with more disposable income to spend on services that make life easier.

  • DJMH says:

    I am especially fond of the part about having $$$ to hire a tech to pick up slack when someone has to leave for family care. I hear anecdotally that this has helped immensely.

  • AAA says:

    One thing that NSF could do to help is to reimburse at least part of the costs of child-care when the PI (or postdocs or grad students on the grant) are traveling to conferences. I would go to more conferences and do more networking if child-care wasn't so expensive and money wasn't an issue.

  • biochembelle says:

    Although I understand the concern re: 'discrimination' against male scientists for such awards, two important points: 1) There is a disproportionate number of men in upper levels of academic research, with many women citing lack of support in family care as a reason for not staying; 2) Although the brochure is targeted to women, there is no evidence from the original press release that the awards will be restricted to female scientists.

    Actually the NSF program is very reminiscent of the PCTAS program NIAID launched a few years ago. I haven't seen much about them since the initial launch, but one issue at NIAID is the funding level for the program - $500,000 per year cannot support that many supplements.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    BB, I don't think you are reading the comments right. No one is concerned about discrimination against men. My reading of Brain Guy's comment was that NSF is undercutting gender equity by assuming that women will be the ones that take on the "family" tasks. It is not that men deserve these benefits too (although one could argue that anyone taking on family care responsibilities should benefit), but more that NSF is saying that family is women's work and therefore we need special programs targeted at women to deal with this women's burden.

    I hope I am being clear and not further muddying the waters.

  • biochembelle says:

    With the pressure being applied to my brain by my allergy-inflamed sinuses, you're probably right, PlS. That interpretation does make sense - and a well-appreciated point (though I've seen comments elsewhere that would seem to lean the other way).

  • Kati says:

    The NSF is gearing their efforts to retain women in *academic* STEM fields. However, THERE ARE NO EFFING JOBS IN ACADEMIA ANYMORE! You're completely foolish to even try for an academic position given the one in 10,000 shot you have of getting a tenure-track professorship.

    If the US government and its agencies like the NSF really want more women in STEM, they need to open up more jobs--inside and outside the university setting.

  • Kati says:

    R: Fellowship dollars and post doc salaries.

    I'm a woman in physics and a mom to a young child. The ONLY reason I am able to continue to pursue physics at a university right now is because I got a nice NSF fellowship that pays above average. The preschool at my university costs $1,325 per month (and, yes, that's a typical cost in our area). There's no way we could afford that I hadn't gotten my fellowship.

  • azileretsis says:

    As a grad student, I'm not that interested in a post-doc either. Post-docs get paid less than the recommended amounts?!? I'm also not interested in government fellowships that isn't competitive to my total experience and education bg (unless it's in HI then I might consider it).

    We all make choices in our careers and the job of caretaker is still a choice though it may feel like an obligation. It is a major factor in my choice of a career path and I'm not sure there is enough incentive for me.

    Great site. Adviser is undergoing NSF review and I've learned alot from your site.

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