Because the world of academic science has been male-dominated for so long, we tend to think of work-life balance as a "women’s issue." Most of the conversation about retaining talented scientists has focused exclusively on women’s lives and experiences, and the obstacles and barriers they encounter.
Historically of course, the "ideal" scientist was a man who had a supportive wife at home who took care of all his personal matters so he could devote himself fully to his research. But in a new book I wrote with sociologist Anne Lincoln — Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science — we argue that academic science is not currently seen as a family-friendly career track for anyone, and institutions that fail to deal with that problem will lose talent and face decline.
Our research underscores that women are, in fact, hit harder by the demands of academic research and the pressure to be an "ideal" scientist — married to work, with no outside interests or responsibilities. But that image of the ideal scientist is no longer doable for men, either. Both male and female academic scientists are finding it extremely hard to negotiate their work and family lives. The struggle to balance those realms is keeping many young scientists from pursuing jobs at top research universities — or from staying in academic science altogether.
Scientists at major U.S. research universities are busier than ever. Alongside their usual teaching and service responsibilities, they often manage multimillion-dollar research enterprises. Their work lives revolve around getting grants, retaining lab employees whose jobs are dependent on grants, doing public outreach as a condition of those grants, and serving on grant committees.
Mothers in academic science pay an especially high price. Of the mothers in biology and physics in our survey, 42 percent of the associate professors and 47 percent of full professors said they had experienced gender discrimination sometimes or often. Less than 5 percent of men at those ranks said the same. A 2010 study, "Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline," showed that married women with children are 27 percent less likely than married men with children to achieve tenure in the sciences.
Women in academic science have fewer children than their male colleagues, and they are nearly twice as likely to say that they have had fewer children than they wanted because of their career choice.
Yet, surprisingly, when we did more complicated analyses, we found that those same female scientists actually report that they are more satisfied with their lives than are their male colleagues. This finding suggests that having fewer children than desired has a greater negative impact on life satisfaction for men. This is important, given that most research on the relationship between family life and pursuing a career in science has focused almost exclusively on the lives of women.
We also found that job satisfaction in academic science waned — for both men and women — because of the feeling that trying to balance work and family had hindered their career progress.
Moreover, about a quarter of both male and female scientists said they were likely to consider a nonfaculty career due to the perceived constraints that academic science puts on their family lives. In fact, that was the only factor that predicted someone would seek a nonfaculty career. One in four graduate students and one in five postdoctoral fellows who took our survey said they were considering leaving science altogether.
We trust our top universities to generate the best and brightest scientists, and it’s a problem if the fear of not being able to succeed at work while having a family is keeping talented people from pursuing academic science. American institutions must find ways to retain and better support scientists with children or who want children.
Given our findings, universities would do well to re-evaluate how family-friendly their policies and cultures are for academic scientists. Here are five ways top research universities ought to lead the way:
Providing onsite child care. An affordable onsite child-care center was the chief thing that researchers of all ranks — even those without children! — said would help relieve pressure on scientists with children. Nearly a third of the scientists we surveyed said that affordable university day care is key to successfully managing both scientific work and family responsibilities. Adjustments for family income need to be made so graduate students and postdoctoral fellows can afford university child care. Academe could take a lesson here from the most family-friendly corporations on this count.
Provide nonstandard child-care benefits. Typical day care will often not meet the needs of academic scientists, since many of them work beyond the 9-to-5 schedule and have work responsibilities that cannot be rescheduled or delayed. A biologist we interviewed, who had two young children, said: "The single biggest problem that we encounter is emergency child care or nonstandard childcare, or what you do when … you get the call. That’s what we call it. You know, your daughter is sick, you have to come pick her up, and I say, ‘No, I have to write this. I have to submit the proposal. If I don’t push the button … you know, I’m out hundreds of thousands of dollars.’"
Scientists raised the idea of nonstandard flex accounts for child care — a fund they could use in any way necessary, whether for after-hours day care or to hire a nanny who can travel so they can bring their children on work trips.
Make paid parental leave the norm. Research universities should offer an automatic one-semester paid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child for all ranks of scientists, from graduate students through full professors. New parents should have to apply to forgo the leave rather than apply to take the leave. Scientists who become parents would then not have to informally negotiate whether or not they should take a parental leave, or wonder how taking a leave will affect their reputation in the department.
Develop checks and balances at the department level. Department chairs are often organizational gatekeepers, determining how policies are carried out and how work culture is created and maintained. Universities can do better at putting checks and balances in place to ensure that this power is used to promote, rather than discourage, work-family balance. A physicist in his late 30s, who works as a postdoctoral fellow, told us that the wrong department chair can make things disastrous for academic parents. He remembers "a nontenured female faculty member [who] had a kid and it was just, like, the end of the world, you know. The department chairman pretty much made it clear that that was not acceptable, and so she ended up going to another job."
Stop thinking of work-life balance as a "women’s issue." Universities need to adopt policies and dialogue that treat work-life balance as a structural issue and a "family issue" rather than a personal problem or a "women’s issue." Many female senior professors we talked with were very vocal about the ways that being a scientist affected their family lives. But they were also adamant that their male colleagues needed to be open to, and involved in, discussions about family responsibilities and roles. Ultimately what we found in our study is that work-life balance is a critical issue for all scientists.
Elaine Howard Ecklund is a professor of sociology at Rice University and author (with Anne E. Lincoln) of Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science (New York University Press, 2016).