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National Science Foundation working to plug the 'leaky pipeline' of women scientists

December 1, 2011
by Claudia Boot

One of the attractive features of a career in academic research is the flexibility provided by the position. We make our own hours, but for early career scientists, flexibility often morphs into round-the-clock efforts to acquire initial grant funding and establish yourself within your chosen field.

Careers in STEM

When home life demands such as caring for a new child or an elderly parent are added to these professional responsibilities, the anticipated benefits of flexibility can be replaced with a burden of unrealistic expectations. Young professionals feel forced to choose between career and family, and many scientists, especially women, end up leaving promising careers to fulfill other equally important roles.

Axel Boot on his second time on skis in Steamboat with his mother.<br />Main page: Claudia Boot doing field work (part of research for her NSF award) in arctic Alaska at the Toolik Lake Field Station.This pattern is reflected in the career paths of women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, where they earn 41 percent of the Ph.D.s but make up only 28 percent of the tenure track faculty.

A leaky pipeline

The ‘leaky pipeline’ of young women Ph.D. scientists in STEM fields has not gone unnoticed by administrators. As a starting point to address this problem, the National Science Foundation recently rolled out the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative.” I was honored to be invited to the White House to attend the announcement of this new policy in late September, as I had already benefited from its informal implementation.  

The arrival of my first child coincided with my first NSF grant award which involved extensive field work. Although it was not their official policy at the time, the NSF accommodated my request to shift the start date of my award to the end of my maternity leave, and provided supplemental health insurance funds for our new family member.

At the White House policy announcement, NSF director Dr. Subra Suresh opened the presentation by discussing some of the highlights of the policy including suspending NSF grants for up to one year to take care of family responsibilities, providing supplementary funds to hire research technicians while on leave, and funding more research on policies encouraging women to stay in STEM research careers.

First lady asks for all hands on deck

Suresh’s introduction was followed by a speech by first lady Michelle Obama where she noted that in order to train the next generation of STEM scientist and remain competitive in a global workforce: “We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Talking with other early career scientists that attended the event about challenges we face and support we're getting from the NSF gave me the sense that the goal of increasing retention of women in STEM fields can be realized. Recognition is advancing that female scientists with children are not half-mom and half-scientist, but both at once, all the time. It may be possible to be a better mom, or a better scientist, by only doing one of these jobs, but this policy shift makes me optimistic about a future where women won’t feel they need to make that choice.

Policies within the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative encourage an academic culture that values people as a sum of their parts, and is intended to be a model for universities, industry, and other funding organizations.

Claudia Boot is a Postdoctoral Fellow at CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab