Friday, April 11, 2008

Encouraging women in science

There’s been plenty of talk about difficulties women in (academic) science face, and how there are very few women scientists at senior positions in academia in most universities. Most major research universities now admit that there are difficulties women face in research that have nothing to do with their scientific abilities. Subsequently, most universities now say they are actively trying to rectify this, and look to hire more talented female faculty. Departments try to have career workshops for female graduate students and postdocs to encourage them to stay in academia, there are endless efforts to recruit more female students and so on.

All this is well and good, but are there some really simple things that universities could do to rectify this that aren’t in the spotlight? From what I can see, at least in the greater biological/biomedical/biochemical sciences there are plenty of female graduate students (approximately a 1:1 male: female ratio). This more or less remains when you start off as a postdoc (a few years of postdoctoral work is pretty much required before you can get that assistant professor position). But by the time you look at senior postdocs or junior faculty (3-4 years down the line from a starting postdoc), there are far more men than women. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most women have kids between their late twenties and mid thirties. That’s when they are most likely to be in the early-middle stages of their postdoc. There’s nothing new in this statement, we all know it, as do most universities. So a number of universities now say that they are working towards policies that make it easier for women postdocs or junior faculty to have kids.

But I was quite unaware of how bad the present policies are though until recently, when I was chatting with a postdoc friend of mine who is pregnant. Now, the three things that will make it easier for a female postdoc to have a baby are (1) the ability to easily take time off/maternity leave (2) the financial means to afford a baby (those things are expensive) and (3) a good medical insurance policy that would cover most of the massive medical expenses having a kid incurs.

Unfortunately, apparently most major research universities still have lousy policies for all three of those. Here’s how it works. Most institutes have a policy stating that a female employee cannot be fired if she decides to have a baby, and also that she will be allowed to take the required time off post childbirth. That’s the good part. But here’s how the fine print goes. The only paid leave the person is allowed to take is the leave that she has accrued over the year. Postdocs (at least here) are technically allowed to take 12 days of vacation time, and week of sick leave a year, and there’s no roll-over policy for holidays not taken during previous years. So that gives a grand total of less than three weeks off. There isn’t a concept of overtime/leave accrual for working weekends; all you can get credit for is if you work on public holidays (probably half a dozen for the year). That’s it. Subsequently, if you need more time off, you can take unpaid leave for a maximum of 12 weeks.

You might argue that the option of taking unpaid leave for 12 weeks should be sufficient; after all, you shouldn’t be paid for not working. That’s ok, except that the salaries/fellowships of postdocs aren’t that high in the first place (some might call it unreasonably low). So, since you’re paid a pittance for endless hours as it is, the least you might hope for is continuing to get that salary while having a baby, so that you can take care of points (2) and (3), the financial details.

Which leads to point (3), medical insurance. A lot of postdoc researchers in the greater biological sciences work in premier medical schools/centers across the country. An outsider might be tempted to assume that medical costs for an employee of a medical center would at least be subsidized. Invariably that isn’t the case at all. Students and postdocs usually are offered a mediocre insurance policy, fine for minor ailments, but not that great for extended medical care. Most postdoc policies pay only about 75% of the medical costs (and the remaining 25% runs into thousands of dollars). Students or postdocs don’t get any benefits even if they choose to get their treatment from the same medical center they work in.

Sucks, doesn’t it?

These seem like rather obvious reason why a lot of women decide against plunging into academic scientific research careers, when just about any job in industry or even teaching offers better policies and benefits. Here’s one suggestion for NIH. Come up with a policy that states that all female postdocs who have their salaries paid by NIH grants must get 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, and flexible work-hours for 6 months after returning to work. And universities can start coughing up a little bit of money on better health insurance policies. Finally, it makes no sense for universities with major medical centers not providing any subsidized health care to their own postdocs and students in their own medical centers.

Obviously, this alone isn’t going to create a flood of female scientists wanting to spend their lives in academia, but I think it certainly might help.

Now these suggestions are fairly simple and easy to implement. So, if it is that simple, why hasn’t it been implemented yet? And I’m familiar with policies only in a handful of universities in the US. What’s it like in other schools? Other countries?


Princess Fiona said...

i totally agree! esp with the part abt the 'unreasonably low' salaries.. it really makes u wonder if its all worth it!
being in science is great and all but if we cant even support ourselves and our families (after working day and night!), then u really feel very tempted to leave academics and join some industry, where they'll pay much more than what we've been used to as grad students/postdocs..
This part of course, is of equal concern to the guys as well..

Anonymous said...

Demand and supply , demand and supply every time. There is an excess supply of postdocs and nobody currently feels that they are missing out on talent. Which makes postdocs cheap as they can be and manifests itself in the insensitivity towards the needs of women.

Sunil said...

princess fiona.....a pity isn't it? are right in that there are a lot of postdocs out there, which makes them cheap. And I agree with supply and demand, and also am ok with the relatively lower salaries as postdocs. What I don't like are these policies (particularly against women) in an academic institution which is funded substantially by the state. Isn't the state supposed to rise above just market forces, and put down policies for the future? Which is why I made that point about NIH funding and benefits.

Anonymous said...

good,keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thank you!

Bharat Rajawat said...

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