Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Work-life Balance: Hours

I recently came across the following article in the AAAS journal Science.

Title: A Cosmologist Resists Academia's Work-Life Norms

The article begins with, "Sarah Bridle is concerned about the low number of women in academia in physics and astronomy beyond the Ph.D. level."

The article then describes Bridle's career trajectory and a UK workshop she organized on work-life balance in astronomy.

And then, the following: "Bridle also knew that the culture of academic science dictated working long hours, but she decided she didn't want this lifestyle. She promised herself she wouldn't be in the office late in the evenings or bring her work home on weekends. Contrary to what some people assume, she says, this helps her to get more work done. "I'm much more clear-headed after a break from work and a good night's sleep," she says. "It really makes a difference to how efficiently I work. When I've occasionally worked too late the previous evening, I've found myself mentally slacking off at work, surfing the Web, and making extra cups of tea." Today, she encourages her postdocs and students to ignore the academic tradition of working long hours and to have the confidence to work the hours they feel are appropriate."

This may be the first time I've heard a mid+ career astronomer state that they deliberately protect their evenings and weekends from work.

Since my second year of graduate school, I've struggled to do the same-- carefully marking out work-time from out-of-work-time. Every time I loosen these boundaries & work long hours, my efficiency (and healthy attitude) take a nosedive. Yet this deliberate choice to limit work hours is a source of anxiety, since the standard image of a successul scientist is someone who works nights and weekends (willingly sacrifices this personal time) and, as a result, is highly productive.

An NSF report from 2005, "All in a Week's Work: Average Work Weeks of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers," conflicts somewhat with this standard image. The report lists average work-hours per week for science doctorate holders in full-time employment and compares between Education, Industry, and Government. The average across all employment sectors in the physical sciences is 48.3 (with 2 hours more than this in Education and 3 hours less than this in Goverment). Table 2 breaks things down in terms of positions within academia, with increasing hours from non-tenure track (48.7 hours/wk), postdoc (50.3), tenure track (51.1), and tenure-track but not tenured (52.5).

An 8 am - 6 pm M-F 10 hour work day is consistent with this average-- with nights and weekends protected. This, however, goes against the impression that many of us grad students and post-docs are under -- that scientists in permanent positions work 60+ hour work-weeks, an impression gained as a result of seeing our advisors and collaborators working nights and weekends.

It seems to me that there are a number of factors causing this difference between reported hours and our standard image:

One is that there are too few Sara Bridle's making statements about protecting out-of-work time.

Another could be that the scientists surveyed for the NSF study reported 'productive' hours, rather than simply the total number of hours in the work place. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency is the advice I've heard again and again for achieving work-life balance.

Also, there's an ebb-and-flow nature to our work (as a result of deadlines and when a project is 'on a roll' or not). We should be careful to take note of those fewer-hour weeks as well when anecdotally trying to get a sense of work-hours our later-career colleagues are putting in.

Finally, with 'only' a 50 hour work week, a scientist who picks up kids from day-care or cares for elder parents or is responsible for some other of life's many commitments is most likely not working a 10-hour straight work-day. Instead, h/she is starting late and/or leaving early and then working on nights and/or weekends to keep up with the average.

I, and many other of my fellow grad students and postdocs, would very much appreciate hearing more voices of astronomers striving to protect their out-of-work hours.

Also, in order to make informed decisions about this career path, we want to know -- What is the reality of the hours you put in for your work-week?

If there's interest, I'd happily set up a poll and gather updated work-hour statistics for astronomers in academia, industry, and government.

Additional food-for-thought:

Check out the AAUP 2009 report, "Why Graduate Students Reject the Fast Track". The report provides the results of a survey of 8000+ UC graduate students gauging their concerns vis-a-vis the academic career route. The 'Reinvisioning Academia' section is worth a close look.

A thought-provoking review of these and other issues.

An interesting review of results and recommendations from a European collaboration researching work-life balance.

Some useful advice for keeping control of your work-hours.

Summative report from the UK 2009 workshop on Work-Life Balance.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Michael Gurian: Leadership and the Sexes

I recently attended a talk by Michael Gurian, who was promoting his new book, Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business. With a title like that, I couldn't help but be intrigued, but also skeptical.

The focus of his talk was not specifically the retention of women in STEM professions, although he did mention that as a problem he hoped to solve by pointing out gender differences. His point was that there are, indeed, biological differences between men and women, in brain activity and development in particular. While those differences don't translate to differences in intelligence, the way we communicate and learn is different. He showed us MRI scans of brains, demonstrating a distinct difference between men's and women's brains to emphasize his point.

Women's brains have more white matter, while men's have more grey matter. This means that women have more connections between different areas of the brains. Thus, men are good at being very single-mindedly focused on one task at a time, while women are very good at communicating, responding to facial cues, and making connections. When at rest, men's brains show much less activity on brain scans then women's. Science is very much a male-brain profession, Gurian argues, so some specfic ways for encouraging women in STEM include:
  • Discard the Ivory Tower paradigm for STEM. The truth is that science has become a more communal effort and that collaboration and communication are vital.
  • Increase mentoring.
  • Deal proactively with gender differences. For instance, women tend to go into meetings looking for community and reciprocity, men go in looking to express dominance.

I didn't necessarily agree with everything Gurian said. Some of the behaviors he described as being male-specific are ones that I see in myself: being fidgety when bored, for instance. He put up some cartoons in an attempt to encourage us to have a "sense of humor" about these issues: for example, one depicting the amount of time and money a man versus a woman spend at the mall buying a pair of jeans. I didn't laugh. Cartoons like that only serve to reinforce stereotypes. He also cited a study showing that infant boys prefer to stare at mobiles while infant girls prefer faces, which might have been an interesting point if I hadn't recently read a thorough debunking of the study at the Sociological Images blog.

Still, I think that those of us interested in promoting women in science do need to consider that women and men are different, whether because of nature or nurture, and that those differences must be acknowledged in order to level the playing field. This is analogous to the failure of "color-blind" approaches to combating racism. Pretending that we are all the same, or rather that we are all just like white men, ignores the real problems faced in creating true diversity.

All in all, I found Michael Gurian's talk intriguing, and made me curious to read his book, but not curious enough to actually buy it. If any of you have read it, please comment below!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Encouraging Men to Advocate for Women in Astronomy

Men have an important role to play in promoting gender equity broadly in astronomy and other gender-imbalanced fields. I was impressed by the commitment of a few male colleagues whom I saw at Women in Astronomy III last fall and would like to see more like them. Those who work for improving the climate, work-life balance, career advancement and opportunities for women find not only find great personal satisfaction, but will enjoy competitive advantage in finding and recruiting outstanding colleagues to work with.

Some of my greatest pleasures this past year have come from working with a group of extraordinary MIT women faculty in planning for a major symposium celebrating women in science and engineering on the occasion of MIT's 150th anniversary. In addition to organizing the conference, we are preparing updates of the 1999 and 2002 reports on the status of women faculty in science and other areas at MIT. Getting to know Nancy Hopkins and other members of the National Academy of Science, and to work with them in ways that celebrate and improve the status of women, has been thrilling for me. I highly recommend such activities to anyone who wants to make a difference.

How can women encourage men to get involved? Just do it! Certainly all academic leaders should be encouraged to meet with women students and faculty and to learn about the steps they should take to improve their organizations. Most male faculty members will take seriously requests and concerns raised by students and will react positively to encouragement that they and their department be more aware of and supportive of climate, good mentoring, etc. Men benefit from encouragement just as women do. When I met with a group of female graduate students several years ago and asked, with some dismay, how I could make a difference given all the problems that existed, their words of simple encouragement had great impact. I carry them in my heart always.