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New Study Reveals Distressing Trends in Work-Life Balance for Women and Men in STEM Fields

Today is International Women’s Day, when issues of gender equity have the opportunity to take center stage. And if you’ve been following the story of contraceptive health care coverage in the media, you’ll know it’s not a moment too soon.

Until Rush Limbaugh came out calling a female Georgetown law student a “slut” for demanding coverage of birth control under her self-financed academic health care plan, very few media outlets were covering her story. As a third-year law student and vice president of the Women’s Legal Alliance, Sandra Fluke was supposed to testify on the importance of contraception in front of the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing last month, but was blocked from making an appearance because committee chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said she was not “qualified.” Apparently, the all-male panel of religious leaders was considered more appropriate.

All too often, policy decisions concerning women are shaped without consulting those affected most, and advocates for women’s rights seem to only have a voice in the mainstream media when high-profile men bring their issues to light. According to a new survey conducted by the Association for Women in Science, or AWIS, problems that have traditionally been seen as “women’s issues,” such as work-life integration and family responsive policies in the workplace, are turning out to be issues that affect both men and women across the globe.[i]

The Association for Women in Science is taking advantage of the limelight of International Women’s Day in order to illuminate the challenges faced by men and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM fields. AWIS is releasing the results of its study at a convening of Global Experts on Work-Life Family issues in New York City, focusing on male and female researcher’s perceptions and sentiments about the STEM workforce.[ii] This survey is the first large-scale international snapshot of perceptions and attitudes on work-life satisfaction among women and men in the STEM workforce. Although we have known for decades the challenges women face in traditionally male-dominated work and educational environments such as STEM disciplines, the results of this study suggest work life integration difficulties may be contributing to the high rates of attrition for both male and female STEM workers, but for women most of all.

In rigorous, competition-driven work such as scientific research, where scientists are expected to publish papers, apply for and maintain grants with multiple research projects, manage postdocs and graduate students, teach undergraduate courses, and participate in their respective disciplinary societies, truly attaining “work-life balance” can be elusive. The model of workplace practices in STEM careers is based on the premise that researchers have a spouse at home to cook dinner and take care of the family, which is no longer realistic given that half the workforce in the United States is now comprised of women. As a result, male and female researchers are suffering.

The results of the Association of Women in Science’s survey indicate that lack of flexibility in the workplace, dissatisfaction with career development opportunities, and declining success rates for federal grants are driving both men and women to re-consider their STEM professions. “These findings confirm that work-life conflict is not gender-specific in the scientific community,” said Janet Bandows Koster, AWIS executive director and CEO. “The real issue is that the academic workplace is still modeled on an ideal that no longer exists nor compliments the realities of today’s global workforce.”

Despite their shared difficulties with men, women still bear the biggest burden in STEM fields. According to the survey, women were more likely than men to report that work-life integration difficulties have negatively impacted their careers and 40 percent have delayed childbearing so as not to conflict with their careers; while only 27 percent of men indicated the same situation. Because women have the additional biological burden of childbearing, as well as societal expectations that they take responsibility for family caregiving, female researcher’s ability to compete with their male counterparts is often hindered. To compound their barriers to success, women receive smaller salaries and lab spaces on average, scanter resources, and stunted advancement through the STEM career pipeline. While these are important issues to address, it is often difficult to bring attention to this issue as a policy priority because there are few men who will publicly recognize and speak out on the inherent inequities of the system.

But whether men or women, a diminishing STEM workforce is a challenge the United States must address in order to maintain global competitiveness in technology and innovation. Thus, it is time for men to speak out against the lack of family-responsive policies at institutions and the unreasonable expectations that academic researchers dedicate their entire lives to work. “If researchers who want a fulfilling home and work life are being driven out of the industry through archaic working practices, it’s time to address the system itself.  Let’s stop pointing the finger at women by putting a “baby” Band-Aid on the problem and solve the real issues,” said Bandows Koster.

Some federal agencies are taking the problem to heart, and launching efforts to raise awareness about the importance of work-life integration in the sciences and engineering. Two examples are the National Science Foundation’s Career-Life Balance Initiative and ADVANCE Program, which promote practices that would allow researchers more flexible work hours and provide interim grant support for individuals taking a leave of absence for caregiving. It also promotes a stop-the-tenure-clock option for childbearing, which would allow women to stay on track for tenure despite the unfortunate concurrence of early-career advancement and optimal fertility.

While these and other initiatives by institutions and the government to level the playing field for women researchers are paramount to the success of a movement toward a stronger and more gender-equal STEM workforce, it will take a much larger cultural shift in order for women to attain equal status and opportunities for advancement. Curbing the attrition of talented women from the academic pipeline cannot be achieved through advocacy, campaigning, or policymaking alone. It will require investment in institutional changes, such as those promoted by the NSF’s Career-Life balance initiative and ADVANCE Program, and the development of knowledge and skills to help people achieve greater work-life satisfaction.

Soon after Rush Limbaugh came out with his attacks on women seeking coverage for contraception, President Barack Obama called Sandra Fluke on the phone to offer his support. Today and in the future, let’s hope men take this as an example and stand together with women in ensuring our nation’s global competitiveness by keeping more women in STEM.

Alice B. Popejoy is the inaugural Phoebe S. Leboy Public Policy Fellow at the National Office for the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in Washington, D.C. In addition to working for federal legislation that benefits the 7.4 million women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, Ms. Popejoy is involved in a host of other projects at AWIS, including the Advancing Ways of Awarding Recognition in Disciplinary Societies grant funded by the National Science Foundation. She writes and publishes the monthly advocacy and public policy newsletter, AWIS in Action! and is a regular contributor to science policy blogs as well as academic journals on the issue of under-recognition of women in scientific disciplinary societies. In the fall, Ms. Popejoy will begin a Ph.D. program in public health genetics at the University of Washington, Seattle.


[i] Survey results were collected in December 2011 and January 2012 with 4,225 scientists and authors responding. Of the respondents, 80 percent were married or partnered, 70 percent were male, 64 percent worked at a university and 83 percent worked 40 or more hours per week. Survey respondents were working scientists and researchers who publish academically across all disciplines. This AWIS project is underwritten with a grant from the Elsevier Foundation New Scholars Program. Elsevier assisted with the technical administration of the survey that has a margin of error of <1.3 percent at the 90 percent confidence level.

[ii] National Science Foundation data include six broad occupational groups in the STEM workforce: physical and life sciences, computer and mathematical sciences, social and related sciences, engineering, STEM managers, and STEM technicians (in addition to other workers considered a part of STEM in health and medical-related occupations, STEM pre-college teachers, and STEM postsecondary teachers).

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