Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Work/Life Balance

Yesterday, I attended a panel on work/life balance sponsored by Graduate Women in Psychology, the Center for Women at Emory, and Graduate Advocates for Work/Life Balance. This informal panel served as the springboard for a discussion of women scientists in academia and how they achieve balance between career personal life.

The panel consisted of Dr. Lynn Zimmerman, Professor of Biology and Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs; Dr. Jessica Sales, Research Assistant Professor in Behavioral Science and Health Education; Dr. Cora MacBeth, Assistant Professor of Chemistry; and Dr. Tanja Jovanovic, Associate in Psychiatry. It was wonderful to see the breadth of academic experiences represented on this panel, and I'm thankful to each of the panelists for donating their time to this important dialogue.

Given the panel's stated focus on work/life balance, a large part of the discussion centered on the compromises one must make when juggling career and family. Three of the four panelists have children, and several of them have faced the two-body problem, in which couples comprised of two academics must find complementary job offers. They generously shared their experiences with us, providing some advice for younger women scientists who will face similar challenges in their own careers.

Because the panel was sponsored by several advocacy groups, we also discussed some of the areas in which institutional reform can lead to better support for working families. Some changes are already in progress at Emory -- for example, the Board of Trustees is soon expected to approve a measure that would allow assistant professors to automatically stop the tenure clock if they have a child (either through birth or adoption). Other goals are yet to be achieved, however. For example, some members of the panel are lobbying for Emory to draft an institutional pregnancy policy. Currently, students who become pregnant are subject to the mercy of their advisers. Professors whose students become pregnant are not bound by any university regulations for arranging family leave, exempting pregnant women from potentially risky tasks, and other issues that can arise in this situation. Other institutions have drafted official pregnancy policies to ensure that everyone is treated fairly when students become pregnant, and Emory should do the same.

Inspired by a recent post by Zuska, I raised my hand during the Q&A portion of the event to ask the panelists if they thought that the problem of work/life balance might be a bit of a red herring in explaining the dearth of women in science. After all, plenty of women in other careers have families. Why is academic science different?

Well, that's kind of a tough question, and I didn't expect anyone to shout "Eureka!" and solve everything. But I did enjoy hearing the response from the panel, which ranged from the fact that everyone's career goals are different, that people may have different family structures that aren't always forgiving of the long hours that academia demands, and that -- perhaps most interestingly -- many young female scientists come into the pipeline feeling that they absolutely don't want to pursue an academic career. While there are many reasons behind this (hostile work environments, the stressful experience of being the only woman in the room...), one point that was brought up during the discussion was that students often see their professors at the worst of times. Some professors seem like workaholic drones: slaving away in the lab, hunching over their desks, furiously writing grants, meeting deadlines, drinking gallons of coffee, and generally suffering. This makes students think, "I don't want that job!" Students may not be as aware of the benefits of an academic career, such as the job security that comes with tenure, flexible hours not often found in the corporate world, and the enjoyment that a scientist derives from doing something really cool for a living. Thus, one way to improve the number of women in academic science might be to humanize the women currently working as academic scientists. If students see their mentors as people who love their jobs, live happy lives, spend time with their families, cultivate hobbies, and occasionally switch to decaf, they might be more inclined to view academic science as an appealing career.

How can we achieve this? More faculty panels! More Emory Women in Neuroscience events! More free snacks! (...Among other things. But it's not a bad way to start.)

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