I knew I had to write an entry today- but it appears that a commenter, ‘Does Family Friendliness help anything?’ (DFFHA), on my last post did all the work for me. I have reprinted DFFHA’s comment in its entirety-
If you compare the proportion of women scientists at the PI level across the developed world, there appears to be a roughly *inverse* correlation between the representation of women in such positions and the length of the allowed maternity leave. In the Scandinavian countries, which we consider more committed to gender equality (they also consider themselves to be this way) than the US, the proportion of women full professors in the sciences is much lower than in the US. Almost all women there have children, and almost all of them take the year or more off per child that they are entitled to– there are enough stable, relatively undemanding jobs in science for them below the PI level that they simply have no incentive to work like dogs. The government (women make up 40%+ of the parliaments) and society encourages this– it encourages the men to do the same, and a lot of them do, but enough don’t that there are *still* more than enough people competinng for full professorships.
In the US on the other hand, women in science risk their careers and often even livelihoods when they have kids. Some respond by not having kids (at least before tenure), other permanently leave science to stay at home, but a sizable minority go back to work 70+ hour weeks with a few-weeks-old baby, even if only because they are afraid to lose their jobs, do brilliant science, get tenure, get elected to the NAS, etc (I’m at Caltech right now, and know quite a few (at least 6) of the younger tenured women faculty here had children on the tenure track or as postdocs-google will provide you with a few hundred examples of women at R1s having pre-tenure children (many on the tenure-track) and getting tenure, despite the odds). In American academia doing this is socially acceptable, even accepted- in family-friendly, feminist egalitarian Scandinavia, a woman who did this would be immediately labeled a terrible mother.
Childlessness for academic women in America is also socially acceptable- while in Scandinavian countries childbearing is considered almost as much a civic duty for women as military service is for men. The result: in America, where having children is seen as a choice and minimally accomadated, and where many mothers don’t work at all- there are many more prominent women scientists, whether with or without children, than in Sweden, where *every* woman is expected to have a child, take year off, go back to 35 hr/week job, repeat twice more. And-oh yeah, the Scandinavians aren’t exactly out-performing Americans in science. Maybe in a field with many more applicants than job *incentivizing* women and men to take time off isn’t that useful…
Forcing a female assistant professor to come back to work the day she gives birth or quit her job will probably compromise the quality of the scientific workforce- so will allowing her to take two years off with absolutely no penalty.
OK, so there is a lot in this comment. Where to start. First, I suggest that the US and Scandinavian system as described here are two extreme situations which are difficult to directly compare. I am going to admit right up front that I don’t know how the academic system is structured in Scandinavia- but I do know that in other European countries (such as Germany which I do know about) the structure of academia, the way you move up the academic ladder, and how you fund your research program are totally different than in the United States. This is slowly changing- the funding part at least- to be more US like.
Now to my specific comments on DFFHA’s thoughts-
1. Ok – so women in Scandinavia have great maternity policies but STILL don’t move up the ranks- is this because they have no ambition, or because the ‘system’ of academic science doesn’t allow them to progress. Just having great, government mandated maternity policies- doesn’t mean that the old boys at the top of the academic system are progressive, not gender biased etc- in their decisions about whether or not to promote women up the ranks.
2. Here in the USA we DO NOT have a plethora of ‘stable relatively undemanding jobs’ in the academic sciences- these jobs just do not exist in any significant quantity. After your postdoc you generally move up in academic science or out to an alternative career. There is no job description for a stable job in academia that are ‘undemanding’ unless you are a technician- these jobs do exist, but I don’t see a lot of women postdocs after their Ph.D. and additional training is completed falling back to be lifelong technicians. Non-tenure track academic positions do not fit this ‘stable and undemanding’ description because you are totally reliant on the federal funding of the PI, or on your own ability to supply YOUR OWN salary from grants.- to me this doesn’t qualify as ‘stable and undemanding’. Sure, some of these positions probably do exist, but it is not really a viable alternative for many US women scientists.
3. Going back to work with a ‘few weeks old baby’ and working 70 hour weeks. For myself, I think this is an inhumane expectation- and something that is wrong with American society- not just academia. Furthermore, we DO NOT HAVE UNIFORMLY REASONABLE QUALITY/ AFFORDABLE CHILD CARE in the United States.
I myself could never have left my daughters when they were just a few weeks old, to return to my job. I was not ready- after the first one it took me TWO weeks to be able to stand up/sit down and roll over in bed by myself!
So- does it matter that we don’t force women to go back to work the day after they give birth- I propose that there is very little difference in making them go back to work a couple of weeks after the baby is born vs. the day after.
4. Ah- well, the US probably has more prominent women scientists BUT- I don’t even have to look this up to say that the US has a vastly larger scientific enterprise (and I imagine way more tenure track positions) than Sweden, for example. So I suppose one would really have to do a proper comparison of how many women are in which positions at all levels across the Swedish and American systems as it relates to the size of the total scientific enterprise. You can’t compare the total ## of women in top positions from a country where there is more opportunity just by virtue of the fact that the system is vastly larger- to the total ## of women in top positions from a country with a tiny scientific enterprise- and expect these numbers to mean anything.
Furthermore, as I say up there in #2, even if you have a strong government mandate for long maternity leave, if you don’t have an equivalent ‘mandate’ for taking into account this time in academic promotion, or if you have gender biased people making the promotion decisions- then you WILL NOT have women rise to the top at the same rate as men. ( you can read Virgina Valian’s excellent book ‘Why so slow’ which is a tour de force on unconscious gender schemas and how they affect promotion of women…)
5. Finally- ‘Scandiavia isn’t out performing the US in science’- I’m sure this has to do with many, many factors, including the way the whole US system of distribution of scientific funding is structured, and the larger amounts of money that we spend on the scientific enterprise than do smaller countries like Sweden (summary_medicalresearchsituation). I venture to say that Sweden’s failure to outperform the US scientific enterprise has almost NOTHING to do with their maternity policies or with their ‘family friendly’ attitude.
Whew. Now I got that off my chest.