Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thoughts on Work-Life Balance

My subtitle is: How will academic institutions improve work-life balance?

I'm thrilled that astronomers are having so much impact in highlighting the need for policies that make it easier for young people to begin careers and families in science and technology (see Hannah's post of October 6). It was exciting to hear about the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative announcement at the White House, and to see Michele Obama and Tina Tchen promote the arguments that our amazing colleagues gave after WIA-III. The policies announced by the NSF are a step in the right direction, and the NSF Director is to be commended for his dedication to long-term change.

The important question now is: who else will listen and act?

Earlier this week I held a luncheon at MIT for faculty, staff, postdocs and graduate students to discuss work-life balance and to ask how universities should respond to the NSF steps. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of interest in this topic, especially from postdocs. Unfortunately, nearly everyone who showed up was female. This is ironic because nearly all of my faculty members who have benefited from parental leave are male. I'm delighted that some men are starting to play a significant role in advocacy and policy in the AAS and elsewhere. It makes a huge difference for all of us.

At MIT, we are talking about possible ways to make childcare more affordable and to ask the thorny question of maternity leave for postdocs. In the life sciences, such steps would require drastic changes in the funding model. I don't feel that fact should deter us from improving the conditions for postdocs in the physical sciences, but universities have great inertia. Change will require greater advocacy within.

About a decade ago, after gender equity studies showed how discrimination was holding back women in science, universities responded with parental leave policies, on-site daycare, and tenure clock extensions. While these policies have helped to lessen gender inequity at the faculty level, they gave little relief to the postdocs who become tomorrow's faculty members. I wish I could start a new department with all the great talent that left the field because balancing work and family meant falling behind. We've got to stop the brain drain.

The NSF has taken first steps in a 10-year plan. It's time for universities and other grant-receiving institutions to take the next steps. What will it be? Loans or fellowships for childcare? One-year postdoc extensions for childbirth? How can we raise money for these?