Recently, a disappointing study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that almost half of new moms leave the full-time STEM work-force within a year of becoming a mother. That is a major loss of talent, and a large leak in the pipeline of women in STEM leadership positions. As a new mom myself, I defied those roughly fifty-fifty odds; I am a neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. But I see all around me the real consequences of so many women quitting their STEM careers.
Among all of the contributing factors to the gender disparity in the leadership of STEM fields—stereotype bias, the implicit bias in mentoring and promotion, and discriminatory hiring practices among them—the numbers also indicate that the lack of support for mothers is one of the biggest reasons. Significantly, the timing of this large post-maternity drop-out is consistent with the timing of the largest drop in women in STEM occurring during their postdoctoral training, the time between completing a PhD and beginning a faculty position.
In my field of neuroscience, for example, 58 percent of graduate students are women, yet women account for only 32 percent of neuroscience faculty. The average postdoctoral fellow is between 29 and 35 years old while the median age for a graduate-educated woman becoming a mother is 30, meaning that many women in the STEM field become mothers just as they are beginning their postdoctoral work.
The good news is that there are ways funding agencies can address this by providing paid time off for postdoctoral fellows having children and also, importantly, providing resources to make up the work lost while on time off.
The current funding structure for postdocs, however, does very little of this. Take for example the typical postdoctoral fellow who is funded by a grant—either directly awarded to her, or on a larger research grant awarded to her postdoctoral advisor. Regardless of funding, she is generally subject to her institutional parental leave policies. In the best scenario, that means 12 weeks of paid leave. After those 12 weeks end, she returns to work, but she pays a price for the time she’s taken off because her grant’s financial support still ends at the originally defined time. Very few women are able to get any financial extensions.
For new moms, this means three months of lost research productivity and three months less time to write a manuscript, present findings or secure future funding. Because of this, these women have three months less to accomplish what their male or child-free counterparts have accomplished. In corporate settings, such three-month absences are less professionally damaging. But in academia, these missed three months have devastating effects on the ability to secure an elusive faculty position, the greatest guarantee of remaining in the field.
Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has taken some steps toward more family-friendly initiatives. NIH now stipulates eight weeks of paid parental leave regardless of institutional policy for postdoctoral fellows on one of the common training grants. While a step in the right direction, that is still eight weeks of pay that was already awarded, and the no-cost extension “solution” provides no funding for salary support during the extension. The National Science Foundation provides a better solution of supplemental funding to cover the cost of research personnel to continue work on the project during the parental leave.
In the absence of supplemental funding, in order to match her counterpart who had no parental leave, a new mom would now be put to the task of making up the eight weeks of work on top of regularly scheduled work, while juggling childcare responsibilities—in a position in which working more than 40 hours per week is already the norm.
Of course, men contribute more and more now to childcare and household responsibilities, but still far more new moms, compared to dads, are leaving STEM fields. This gender difference is representative of the increased burden that still falls on the woman, including the physical burden of pregnancy, labor, postpartum care and breastfeeding. While policy changes may also support and benefit men, the greatest impact will be to benefit women.
I’m fortunate that these structural inequities had limited negative consequences for me. I had the benefit of a supportive mentor who made up the time I took off through funding from flexible unbudgeted non-federal resources. Not all postdocs have access to this level of financial or mentoring support system.
What is needed is not only paid time off, but the funding for the research time as originally awarded in a grant. This would require providing budgetary supplements aimed at postdoctoral fellows that could either extend the salary support for a time equal to the length of the parental leave or provide funding for a temporary research assistant who could continue driving research efforts at full force during the parental leave. This would show full support for women in STEM during the period in which we are currently losing the largest numbers of our most highly trained and talented women scientists.
To be sure, this would require increased support for granting agencies such as NIH during a time when there’s limited public support for funding research. However, the loss of talent at this highly trained level equates to the loss of the federal funds that supported their years of training through the PhD. Furthermore, the loss of diversity in STEM fields slows important scientific progress and reduces the efficiency of research dollars already spent. That’s a wastefulness that nearly everyone can agree shouldn’t happen.
With relatively small increases in budgetary support for parental leave supplements, we can support new mothers in science and retain great science moms to support and encourage the next generation of women in STEM. Principal investigators can raise the issue with program staff and other contacts at NIH and other funding agencies, and everyone can call their local representative to express support for increased budgets to include parental supplements to budgets for grants.