Internal changes to a government agency's home-and-work policy don't normally warrant a White House rollout and an accompanying Washington Post op-ed. But when the National Science Foundation unveiled plans this week to instill comprehensive support for work-family balance throughout the foundation and its grant work, it was a big step toward redressing the gender gap in U.S. science and engineering.
The new policy isn't geared exclusively toward women, although they will be its most practical beneficiaries. Researchers will be able to extend or delay research grants to have a baby or adopt a child. They will be able to take time off to care for elderly family members without worrying about losing grant money, research projects or (hopefully) career status. The NSF will even provide funding for research technicians to carry on their work while a parent temporarily leaves the lab.
And because the foundation, with its $6.8 billion annual budget, funds about 20 percent of all federally supported basic research at universities around the country, this new mandate will reach far beyond Washington.
Some of these policies have been in place in various corners of the NSF, but the 10-year, foundation-wide Career-Life Balance Initiative aims to elevate such ideas to orthodoxy, and in a very public way. The NSF has printed full-color brochures, introduced a new resources website to explain just what all of this means, and enlisted the first lady as pitchwoman.
"So often," Michelle Obama announced at a White House event on Monday,
"it's working women who struggle to juggle their careers while caring for young children or an aging parent. That means it's tougher for them to rise to positions of leadership. It means that the highest rungs of the career ladder are sometimes out of reach. And too often in STEM fields, it means giving up on those careers entirely."
STEM fields — or science, technology, engineering and math — have been a favorite cause of the Obama administration. And the new NSF policy aims to take a first big step toward narrowing the yawning gender gap in that area that extends from childhood testing through tenure-track hiring decisions.
As of 2006, women made up 28 percent of full-time, tenure-track faculty positions in science and engineering at U.S. universities (although this marks a big gain from 1979, when the figure was only 10 percent). Not surprisingly, unmarried women and women without children have made the most gains in becoming full professors.
Wanda Ward, a senior adviser in the office of the director of the NSF, said the foundation was heavily influenced by findings from a 2009 report produced by the Center for American Progress. That study pinpointed the moment at which many women scientists "leak" out of the pipeline from Ph.D. programs to tenure. Married women scientists with children, the study found, are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure-track position than married men with children. Single women without young children, on the other hand, are about as successful as their male colleagues with families.
In essence, female scientists are falling out of the field at the moment when they choose to have families. Without policies like those the NSF is promoting this week, it's not very easy to get back in.
"That's why we're strategically initially focusing on early-career [grant] recipients," Ward said. "We've already got a pool of recently minted Ph.D.s who are going on to the tenure track, and if we can stop the leakage that's occurring there, that's a low-hanging fruit."
MIT recently studied the status of women faculty in its science and engineering schools to update a startling report published in 1999. Back then, there were only 15 tenured women faculty in the school of science, compared to 197 men. Fifteen years later, the percentage of women faculty has gone up from 8 percent to 19 percent, in part, women at the university said, thanks to standardized family-leave practices that removed the stigma of having children.
Many of these numbers are more encouraging than they were a decade or two ago, but that they remain so low underscores the vast challenge the NSF faces in strengthening its policies and shifting the culture and expectations at universities all over the country that benefit from its grant support. Recognizing this, the move has been applauded by groups like the American Association of University Women.
"We're getting a flurry of email and phone correspondence saying, 'Well done!'" Ward said. "'Long overdue!'"