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Get a Life

Universities Must Support Scientists Who Want Families and Dynamic Careers

woman working in lab with test tubes SOURCE: AP/Rich Pedroncelli Researchers with families need more than childcare. They need a culture of professional assessment that looks for their contributions as teachers, scholars, and citizens—not just an unrelenting rate of work.

Forty years ago, when women of the baby boom generation broke through many barriers to enter elite colleges that had previously excluded them, enter new fields of study and research, and join the academic workforce in unprecedented numbers, not many of us thought about the challenges we would confront in making it all come together. We charged into our complicated professional and personal lives, convinced that we could succeed at both raising families and having dynamic careers by sheer force of will. In fact, for countless women of many generations since the 1960s, it has been a great life. We have been supported by both cooperative partners and friends and worked in enlightened institutions. But for others, it has not been good at all.

The more recent generation of women appears to be taking a different approach to planning their lives, more sensitive to the problems in maintaining a balance of work and family. In a controversial 2005 article in The New York Times, Louise Story reported anecdotal evidence that many women in elite colleges were thinking twice about combining careers and families, and there have been many other books and stories since then about women’s unhappiness in trying to do it all. This is true even in academia, which has generally been more accommodating to people with families, given the faculty’s relative autonomy and the flexibility of work hours. And the problem has been, most significantly, in the natural sciences, where the hours tend to be long and the competitive pressures unceasing throughout a person’s career.

Witness the recent report published by the Center for American Progress and the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic and Family Security on “Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences,” which asserts that “both men and women report a shifting away from the career goal of a research professor, with women’s moves being more pronounced.”

The report focuses its recommendations for institutions on creating more family-friendly policies, including stopping the tenure clock for bearing and caring for children, the provision of child care support and tuition remission, and even the construction of lactation rooms. There is no question that there must be a stronger institutional response of this kind before we lose a generation of American scientists, male and female. And as long as the burden of childcare and domestic life still falls mainly on women, it will be the women that we lose.

But from where I sit, as a dean who oversees the hiring and promotion of faculty across a school of arts and sciences, I see we will have to do more than provide childcare. There will have to be a change in culture in the assessment of academic productivity, which now privileges an unrelenting rate of massive amounts of work over time. Everyone recognizes that the expectations for academic productivity have escalated in the past forty years: what got you tenure in 1970 would certainly not get you tenure now, whether at an elite liberal arts college or a research university.

The CAP-Berkeley report does address the issue of time and work, for example, in its recommendation to “remove time-based criteria for fellowships and productivity assessment that do not acknowledge family events and their impact on career timing.” But what happens when people with and without such extensions are competing for jobs and tenure in the same pool? When at least some people can produce new results and publications at an exceptionally high rate, because they have no other responsibilities or demands on their time, should the same be expected of everyone?

As a dean, I am responsible for making sure that my school is hiring, tenuring, and promoting the very best faculty, who will serve the institution and their field of knowledge in multiple capacities: as scholars, teachers, and citizens over a long career. Science is hard, and it moves fast, and we do indeed want scientists who can handle the work and its pace. But we also want to have faculty who are well-adjusted and good colleagues: we want faculty, indeed, who know how to “have a life.”

I believe that having a family made me a better teacher and colleague, if only because it made me stop working every once in a while, and because it brought me to appreciate a world outside of the library, lab, and classroom. And it made me no worse a scholar. I want my daughter, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in high-energy physics, to believe that she, too, can have a family and follow the passion for science that has driven her since he was in high school. But what can I really tell her about the world she will enter in a year, as she tries to balance her work and personal life? Should she seek a post-doctoral position, or should she go on the job market?

Academic leadership needs to be clear about the signals that we send to our undergraduates, graduate students, and junior faculty—male and female—about what constitutes success and what we value in them as scientists but also as future colleagues and as human beings. We can do this with material support for them to be able to lead full and productive lives, but we also need to give our moral support to their personal as well as scientific dreams.

Dr. Rebecca W. Bushnell is Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and the Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor, as well as a Professor of English, at the University of Pennsylvania.

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