America Should Compete for Women Scientists
Addressing Work-life Issues Key to Stemming Female Brain Drain
Hear Mary Ann Mason discuss her research and how to patch America’s leaky pipeline in the sciences in a Science Progress podcast, “Time for Family, Time for Science.”
Congress is currently considering reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, the legislation intended to boost the nation’s investment in research and development and to increase the numbers of American students proficient in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But to protect these investments and harness the full power of American science, Congress should change the policies that drive women out of the pipeline leading to academic research careers.
Over the past 30 years the number of women receiving Ph.D.s in all the physical sciences and engineering has risen significantly, with huge advances in the life sciences, where they currently receive more than 50 percent of all Ph.D.s. Women now represent a large part of the American talent pool for research science, but many studies indicate that they are more likely than men to “leak” out of the pipeline before obtaining a tenured position at a college or university.
A recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that women who receive Ph.D.s in the sciences were less likely than men to seek academic research positions—the path to cutting-edge discovery—and they were more likely to drop out before attaining tenure if they did take on a faculty post. The loss of these women, together with serious increases in European and Asian nations’ capacity for research, means the long-term dependability of a highly trained U.S. workforce and global preeminence in the sciences may be in question.
Our research at the University of California, Berkeley, shows that the leak is predominantly associated with starting a family. Across the country married women scientists with young children who have received their Ph.D.s are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure-track position than married men with young children. There is little difference in the rates of those who pursue tenure between single women without young children and men who are married with young children. A similar leak occurs at the point of granting tenure: Married women with young children are 27 percent less likely on a yearly basis to achieve this goal than married men with young children.
So what are we doing to solve this problem? Not enough. Our study considered the 62 schools that made up the Association of American Universities—the pre-eminent research institutions that receive the bulk of the federal support for science. We found that 43 percent of those schools provided no, very limited, or ad hoc leave policies for graduate student mothers and only 13 percent offered a baseline of at least six weeks of guaranteed paid leave without limitations that prohibit access to that time off. For postdoctoral fellows, 15 percent of universities offered no leave or had very limited or ad hoc policies, while a mere 23 percent provided a baseline of at least six weeks of guaranteed paid leave without limitations that prohibit access to it. Few of these young scientists are eligible for the job-protected 12-week unpaid leave of the Family Medical Leave Act. Faculty mothers fared somewhat better, with 58 percent of institutions providing a baseline paid leave, but before reaching this rank, many women have decided against scientific research careers.
Young women scientists see the lack of family responsive policies and often make their decisions in graduate school, before they become mothers. In our study of University of California doctoral students, both men and women indicated that they were concerned about the family friendliness of possible career paths, but research-intensive universities were considered the least family friendly of a range of possible career choices.
At a meeting in Washington, D.C. last month sponsored by the American Council on Education and Berkeley Law’s Center on Health, Economic and Family Security, leading members of the university world and the major federal granting agencies cooperated in addressing what it would take to keep more women in the pipeline. Measures already in place in many of our international competitor countries—such as paid parental leave, grants to cover the cost of childcare while researchers participate in professional conferences, and part-time and re-entry grants—could go a long way in stemming this leak.
Our current inadequate benefiting of America’s researchers makes no economic sense. In the world of federal grants, individuals who drop out of research science after years of training represent a huge economic loss. These science students are normally supported by federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to completion. The reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act should provide support for universities and federal agencies to work together on a baseline of family responsive policies for graduate students, postdoctoral academic researchers, and faculty. Doing so will help us preserve our competitive edge.
Mary Ann Mason is a Professor and Faculty Co-director of Berkeley Law School’s Center for Health, Economic and Family Security and the co-author of “Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences.”
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