I am a Scientist AND a ___________.

Embrace the AND: Work-Life Balance for Women in STEM to Promote Equality in the Work Place

Today is National Women’s Equality Day (apparently it is also National Dog Day, which makes this female scientist with 2 dogs very happy). I consider myself very lucky as a female PhD student in a STEM field in 2016. Female scientists before me have sacrificed in ways that I do not need to and have paved the way for acceptance and encouragement of PhD seeking females. My female role models throughout my many years of school have been in all stages of life from single to married to mother. All are intelligent women who have made great contributions to society in their roles as scientist AND woman/wife/mother/mentor/sister/aunt/etc. All of my research advisors (2 during my undergrad and my PhD advisor) are male. Each has been supportive of my career goals as a woman in STEM. In fact, my PhD advisor once told me “You don’t have to go into a specific career if you don’t want to. Just make sure the reason you aren’t pursuing it isn’t because you think you can’t because you’re a girl”. Still, as a PhD seeking woman, I often get asked the question “What are you going to do when you get married and have kids?”.

science AND

Perhaps it is this question that makes women wonder early on whether they will be able to fulfill roles as scientist AND mother. Maybe this is what makes many women feel that they need to choose one path over the other. A career in science has been traditionally thought of as one that requires COMPLETE devotion. Even many men (whereas most men never need to choose between fatherhood and a career) have forgone families in order to dedicate their lives to science. Although more women are earning PhDs than ever before (41% of STEM PhDs were awarded to women in 2009), the number of female scientists pursuing careers in academia does not hold the same proportion. * Further examination into the personal lives of these women has revealed that unmarried women and women without children are more likely to pursue and hold tenure-track positions in academia than married women or women with children. These statistics indicate that the lack of work-life balance in academic and STEM fields may be causing women to leave science.

Stereotypes and “traditional” attitudes are not the only factors preventing women from achieving a work-life balance. Policies regarding maternity and paternity leave in the United States force many parents to choose between a career and childcare. The United States is the only developed country with no guaranteed paid maternity or paternity leave. California was the first state to have a paid leave program for new parents and large companies such as Netflix, Facebook, and Virgin Airlines are working to offer more flexible plans to help new parents. These policies work to create a better work-life balance to recruit and keep talent. But can these same types of policies be applied to careers in science? After all, 36% of researchers with children report a negative impact on their career if they pursued a work-life balance. ǂ Statistics such as these beg the question: are we losing talented female AND male scientists who want to have a family or a more balanced career and life?

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a major funder of scientific research in the US, is working to incorporate policies to support a healthy work-life balance. Specifically, they aim to increase the placement, advancement, and retention of women in STEM disciplines. Some of these policy changes include¥:

  • Flexible deadlines and extensions for submitting grants
  • Supplemental money in grants for research technicians
    • In labs where the majority of experimental work depends on graduate students who do not cost very much money, an experienced research technician can be a valuable asset if the advisor is unable to devote all of their time to the lab. Research technicians are rare in new labs that have limited funding. However, this is the time that many people may want to start families and need to devote time to their personal lives.
  • Incorporate family-friendly practices and policies in NSF’s CAREER (early development program for professors), all post-doctoral programs, and graduate research fellowship program.

Basically, as a leader in science in the US, the NSF is working to lead by example to other funding agencies, universities, and scientists to change what it takes to be a successful scientist. These policies will hopefully take unnecessary pressure off of early-career researchers who have or hope to start families while trying to succeed in the world of academia.

But, when all is said and done, how do you actually improve your work-life balance?

The Association for Women in Science conducts a workshop to develop a personal plan to achieve the work-life balance that you want. Here are a few recommendations from the AWIS to achieve your own work-life balance, or, as they define, “the level of personal fulfillment and professional success that are right for you”:

  • Define your situation. Work-life balance is a personal decision. Define what your own values and priorities are that will constitute your own balance.
  • Develop a strong support system. Family, friends, and close colleagues can all serve as support, coaches, and mentors when trying to achieve your balance.
  • Plan and prioritize. Keep your focus on your pre-determined priorities and learn to say no to non-priorities. I love Galit Lahav’s article “How to Survive and Thrive in the Mother-Mentor Marathon” where she advises others to “compartmentalize your brain and calendar”. When you are working, be at work. When you are at home, be at home. Don’t worry about home when you’re at work and vice versa. This will make you more efficient and productive in the end.
  • Learn to say “no”. This one seems to be especially difficult for females compared to males with 55% of females struggling to say “no” compared to 47% of males in science. And saying “no” doesn’t only apply to tasks and favors colleagues, friends, and family ask of you. You might be saying “no” to doing your own laundry or cleaning (you can pay people to do that) or to how well a project needs to completed (is there a “good enough” point?).
  • Set guilt-free boundaries. If you need to leave work early to pick up a child from daycare, then come in early so you don’t need to feel guilty. Make others aware of your situation by setting clear boundaries from the beginning rather than feeling guilty later.
  • Recharge your batteries. Remember that you have to take care of yourself in order to be of any use to anybody else. Sleep well, eat well, take breaks, exercise, and do activities that you enjoy.

“Every time we are saying ‘yes’ to something, we are saying ‘no’ to something else.” –Tara Teppen of the University of Illinois, Chicago


*National Center for Education Statistics 2010-028; NSF SRS InfoBriefs 08-208, 11-305

ǂAssociation for Women in Science Work-Life Balance Executive Summary

¥ Balancing the Scale: NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative