Scientists and babies

A recent study (see here for a great summary) published by sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklundand Anne E. Lincoln raises a very important point – the pressure-filled road to tenure keeps both women and men from having as many children as they would like.  This affects their satisfaction with life, and pushes them to leave science as a career.

Are our babies stressed when we are writing grants?  Is baby stressed when dad is writing a grant too?  It’s not just mom’s responsibility. Image: www.cafepress.com

For me the ground breaking part of this study is that it establishes that this is not a women’s issue and should not be treated as one.  This is a societal issue.  There are a plethora of possible solutions and each has pros and cons.  Because I am a scientist, I don’t have time to get into all of them here (though this may come in a later post).  The point here is that it should not be up to women to highlight or to solve the “problem” that child-bearing years clash with post-doctoral and tenure-track years.  Rather it is our responsibility as a society to face this biological reality and to accommodate it.

Achieving work-home balance and life satisfaction is a complex and nuanced challenge.  Family friendly policies in academic institutions, such as on-site daycare and reasonable paternal leaves can surely help.  In Canada these already exist for staff and faculty, and are a great success.  But, as researchers spend more and more of their youthful years as post-docs and graduate students, shouldn’t these benefits be extended to these positions as well?  I am not a Pollyanna – I know this will need to be paid for, somehow – but shouldn’t it at least be on the table?

Imagine this: Your graduate student or post-doc walks into your office and announces that the family is expecting a baby.  Instead of immediate angst about how this person will be supported financially: Will it come from your (already cash strapped) research budget?  Will you have to turn the family away with nothing?  Imagine saying: “Congratulations! Here is the number for XXX in HR, s/he will set you up with the forms you’ll need for your leave.  Now since we are both passionate about science let’s talk about how we can best accommodate both your family and our research while you welcome your new addition.”  Wouldn’t that be nice?

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4 Responses to Scientists and babies

  1. Anonymous says:

    Umm. That would be the case in Europe.

  2. Science Mom says:

    Thanks for pointing out that this is often the case in Europe! In some instances, whether you get paid leave depends on your source of funding at the pre-PhD level, but post-docs get benefits. In North America grad students and post-docs can be eligible for leave if they have a grant (e.g. in Canada NSERC or SSHRC), but universities consider them trainees and do not offer paid leave. Another work around in Canada is working enough hours as a teaching assistant to qualify for unemployment insurance, but this isn't always possible. I think if it is possible for universities to treat pre-PhDs and post-docs as employees in Europe, it should be possible in North America.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Would be great! I am an expecting PhD student in Europe, and I have to say that things are also not that easy here. Due to my weird temporary scholarship-dependence I neither get money for a paternity leave nor even the standard health insurance package (particularly underinsuring maternity, in fact).

  4. Science Mom says:

    @ Anon 7:02 am

    Arrgghh! That is frustrating! When I was expecting in Europe I also had a weird non-employed status. Luckily I was guaranteed healthcare (and had a really great experience with the midwifery system). I also had a wise PI who provided me with maternity leave on the grounds that I did exactly the same work as the employed PhDs.

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