Michelle Obama Lends a Hand For Women In Science

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First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the National Science Foundation's Career-Life Balance initiative event in the East Room of the White House Sept. 26, 2011. Photo Helene McLaughlin

On Monday I had the opportunity to attend a press conference at the White House led by Michelle Obama and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Mrs. Obama spoke about the importance of retaining highly talented and educated women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

I have a degree in astrophysics from the University of Colorado and was lucky enough to get a job in my field, as a data analyst, straight out of college at the Space Telescope Science Institute. After a few years working there, my husband and I decided to start our family as we wanted to have our children while we were young. I tried to work part time for several months while my son was an infant but the pressure of working in the office and the demands of a scientific research field was more then I could handle. I’ve been a stay at home mom for two and a half years now and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Fortunately for me, I wasn’t a PhD researcher, post-doctorate fellow, or graduate student who was desperately working towards a tenured position. Those were the women (and men) that I was both in awe of and felt sorry for, they live life under the motto “Publish or Perish“. I know how much expanding my family meant to me, it was a dream to be able to be home with my children on a daily basis. Those that I saw trying to balance a family and their research were always having to give up time with their family in order to meet deadlines or in order to compete with their childless peers. Its a life that is extremely hard to keep up with and is one of the main reasons that there are so few women who make it into the upper echelon of the scientific world.

It was refreshing to hear Michelle Obama recognize that this loss of women in the field is a real detriment to the scientific community.

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone, we need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.” – Michelle Obama

Mrs. Obama introduced the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative. This initiative is a 10-year plan to create greater work-related flexibility for women and men in the STEM related research careers.

Women make up 41% of the STEM related graduates today, while only 28% of full-tenure tracked researchers are women. This is a significant loss in retention, mostly caused by family creation. STEM related careers are of particular interest because it is one area where the wage gap between men and women is smaller then other fields. Also, women in STEM careers make 33% more then women in other fields. Retaining these women is important for not only their research but for the national economy.

The NSF has tried smaller campaigns in the past to promote family friendly work environments but their small scale trials led to a mediocre reception. This will be the first foundation wide initiative to meet the goal of providing post-doctorate fellows and early tenure track researchers support in having a family, if they choose, without having to give up on their careers.

Here are the new policies that are taking effect immediately at the NSF as part of the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative, and soon at other similar organizations:

  • 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 assess 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.

Many of these policies have been tested at various universities around the nation. When many of the family friendly policies were adopted at UC-Berkley the response was eye opening. Before the policies 23% of female professors and researchers had children, after the family friendly environment was adopted, 66% of women professors and researchers had children. That is an extreme difference and one that cannot be ignored.

It is clear that women in STEM fields are craving a balance between having the career they have invested so much time and money into and having the family of which they have always dreamed. These new policies are a great start to striking that balance between life and work for men and women in research driven fields.



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