A new book explores how to “expand the family-friendliness of academic science”.
Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science is based on a survey of close to 3,500 biologists and physicists in top American universities, followed up by 184 in-depth interviews.
“We started out the project interested in women’s experiences, and thought of men as just a comparison group,” says Elaine Howard Ecklund, professor of sociology at Rice University, who co-wrote the book with Anne E. Lincoln, assistant professor of sociology at Southern Methodist University. “We weren’t that interested in studying men. And we were completely wrong!”
Although she points out that “there is much more of a ‘motherhood penalty’ than a ‘fatherhood penalty’” for those forging academic careers, today’s “young men are a lot more like women than older men in the importance they place on family life and the tensions they felt in combining it with a research career”.
Unfortunately, the book suggests, academic science (and particularly male-dominated disciplines such as physics) is still in thrall to the image of “the ideal scientist” – in essence an utterly single-minded “man with a supportive wife who takes care of all his personal matters” – and the notion that, as a source of “ultimate objective truth”, science is “the sort of activity that is worth putting everything else on hold to pursue”.
Failing Families, Failing Science includes many striking testimonies of what this means for individuals.
One woman recalls her boss saying to her: “Oh, yes, you’re giving birth next week, and...you know, just don’t do anything, we’ll do everything. But can you write this grant and we’ll submit it in a month?” Another reports “hid[ing] the fact that she had children [during evaluations for promotion] in order to guard against ‘motherhood discrimination’”. A man describes having to choose between picking up a sick daughter and completing a proposal likely to bring in “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.
Today, notes Professor Ecklund, “the most successful corporations have day care centres on site and universities are behind the game on that”. Given this, as well as generally lower salaries and often ferociously long working hours, it is hardly surprising that “a lot of scientists are leaving academic science for the corporate world”.
So what can universities do to combat this loss to scientific research and individual hopes?
One crucial step, according to Professor Ecklund, is to offer their own childcare, since “the life satisfaction of scientists who had day care centres on campus was much better”. Also essential was to ensure that “conversations about family life involve both men and women”.
Far too often, she added, “mentoring programmes single out women and put a lot of emphasis on securing female mentors for other women”, which can leave those who are very under-represented in a field "hesitant to take part”. Far better was to make mentoring “more universal” and to acknowledge that “cross-gender mentoring can work perfectly well”.
Elaine Howard Ecklund and Anne E. Lincoln’s Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science was recently published by New York-University Press.