Comment to the P word… Family Friendliness..

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.


27 thoughts on “Comment to the P word… Family Friendliness..

  1. I would suggest that a better comparison would be the difference in the percentage of FSP in Canada vs USA. Canada has full maternity benefits AND the national grant association (CIHR/NSERC) also allow for mat leave benefits. The major hindrance I find is finding affordable quality daycare that allows me to work efficiently during the day. I suspect Canada is slightly better because of our mat leave policies and that I suspect we would be able to jump way ahead if we had better childcare.

  2. ScientistMother-

    So right. I might point out that countries that in countries that have longer maternity leave- the mother doesn’t have to look for child care at the period when this is most difficult to find- for a very small infant. Children younger than 1 year of age are very expensive to care for in a high quality licenced daycare setting because of the low teacher to child ratio (in my state this is 1 teacher for every 3 children at this age). When we left the Northeast US 9 years ago- having my daughter cared for at an excellent licenced facility cost $1200 per month. That was 9 YEARS AGO, and I can only imagine what this costs today.

    When my younger daughter was born, I hired an excellent nanny- which, because of where we live was cheaper than if we had lived in a big metropolitan area- but still cost me a good 20K/year…. this was also years ago.

    While still not that expensive, these kinds of costs are UNAFFORDABLE for the average postdoc… or two postdoc couple. Thus, finding quality childcare for a reasonable cost is a HUGE concern.

    I can not function at work, if I am not confident that whoever is taking care of the kids is doing a great job at it.

  3. One thing upfront: Whether or not Scandinavia outperforms the US in science is highly debatable. Looking at citation to papers from a given country divided by inhabitants*, Sweden, Finland and Denmark outperform the US by quite a bit and Norway is only slightly behind the US. Sure, the US win in absolute numbers, but the more obvious explanation than maternity leave might be the fact that there are about ten times as many Americans as Scandinavians.

    Also, taking into account two more countries changes the picture a bit: Germany and France. France spends a lot of money on daycare and has more female professors than Germany. Germany has a stronger emphasis on long maternity leave but hardly any daycare. (Granted, both has changed recently or is changing right now in Germany.) Additionally, the fellowships often given to young scientists do not offer the generous maternity leave in contrast to jobs outside academia. So, if you look at these two countries, you’d conclude that daycare does indeed help women in science. To be fair, Germany beats France in the citations-per-inhabitants-race, but not by an egregious amount and it is also by no means clear (to me) that this is the mothers’ fault.

    *i.e. “How many citations are there to papers written at Swedish institutions?” divided by the Sweden’s population.

  4. In 1997/1998, female full professors accounted for 21.5% of full science professors in Turkey, 17% in Portugal, 14% of those in Australia, 13.8% in US and France, 12.7% in Canada, 11.7% in Norway, 11% in Sweden.
    Canada doesn’t seem to be outdoing the US either.

  5. I am quite enjoying the international nature of this conversation…!

    Schlupp- I don’t know if citations per capita is quite a fair comparison as the US has a very large and un-educated underclass…. and college education costs a ton of money here. In european countries that I’m familiar with- College education is free or highly subsidized for everyone and tiered based on merit… I don’t know if this is the case in sweden or not. Plus, primary and secondary education in european countries (in general, and this is my impression of having been a student in both, and being married to someone who did their entire schooling including college in europe) is just better quality than what we have in the United states.

    Anyway, I suppose I’m saying that performance might better be measured by citations per size of the scientific community from a certain point upwards…

  6. 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.

    Not established (here anyway) is whether or not the Scandinavians are correct, and that a woman who does this IS, in fact, a terrible mother. It would be necessary to evaluate how the children of immediately-back-to-work vs long-maternity-leave mothers are doing, other variables being equivalent, in addition to evaluating how the mothers are doing, which seems to be the sole consideration in this current discussion.

  7. anon – I am not sure what the current stats are for Canadian Universities, as yours are 10 years old. I do not think Canada has solved the issue or kicking butt in the equality department, we are however on the right track. 1 year mat leave only took effect in the early 2000s so its effects may only be starting to be felt. I am seeing more and more female faculty accept positions and our granting agencies are working toward understanding the productivity gaps. Case in point
    I must believe the nudging is slowly working 🙂

  8. One important factor missing in this discussion are the fathers. Why is Mom always viewed as the primary caretaker? After Mom has recovered from birth and full-time breastfeeding has ended there are no good reasons why the primary caretaker must be Mom.

    In the Scandinavian scientific environment I come from, quite a lot of the dads take a quite substantial part of the one-year paid PARENTAL (not maternal only) leave thus equally(ish) sharing the career cost. That being said, it’s a constant debate and struggle also in Scandinavia how to get more men to take more of the parental leave and parental duties in general.

  9. As the mother of several kids and somehow still a professor, I have a lot to say on this topic. First “Family Friendliness” is an interesting comment which I read carefully in its entirety. There’s a lot of common sense in it and I found myself agreeing with it.

    The main point I want to make (which someone else also made) is that the author juxtaposes two extremes. Why take two years off? Why not just give more accommodating schedules without hassling?

    I recall pleading with the dean after the birth of my child for a sensible teaching schedule that would allow me to juggle everything. Not less, just a schedule that I determined would allow me to manage everything. I got it only after pissing him off. Any other time he would have agreed. After my child was born his ‘inconvenience radar’ was working overtime. Was it my bad luck to work for a jerk or is this a common experience?

  10. hypoglycemia girl-

    I think you have hit the nail on the head almost precisely- in the relationship between this post and the last. My point was in the way things are currently set up mom’s take the ‘maternity’ time, get their tenure clock stopped, but not their NIH ‘productivity’ clock. This hurts them moving up the academic ranks.

    If more men took ‘parental’ time- perhaps a few would better understand the complexity of what their female faculty counterparts go through, and the men themselves would have a lapse in productivity… surely when the powerful majority faces this problem, things may change. But right now you are all saying drdrA- are you on crack???- what academic man would take 3 months off UNPAID to care for a child???

    So- perhaps we need 6 months of paid parental leave in this country- 3 months taken by EACH parent (with exceptions for single parenthood). Now the playing field is more level, and we don’t need NIH to take ’special’ consideration for lapses in women’s productivity.

    I could probably keep this thread going single handedly for about 3 weeks….

    And Science Cog- If men get an equal amount of paid time when a child is born- then women can no longer be singled out as an inconvenience, because suddenly everyone is fair game….

  11. I interviewed for a position up in Canada…the parental leave benefits were amazing. The department chair was very about how the tenure process could be halted if that were to happen. Contrast that to my many interviews in the states…nobody said anything about anything*.

    *I am male…just in case it matters in this discussion.

  12. Apparently the comment was taken as more way abrasive than I intended it to be…
    Ideally, when a prestigious research institute/university makes a high level appointment, they do it to the candidate who has made/is likely to make the greatest contribution to his or her field. This may depend on the field, but making such a contribution requires (for most people) years of intellectually “backbreaking” work with large blocks of uninterrupted concentration. For most people, even with the requisite talent, discovering the secrets of the universe would simply not be worth it. But there are a few men and women who would do it even for free- Perelman was quite content after proving the Poincare conjecture to return to mooching off his mom’s 75 ruble/month pension, and most notable women scientists until the last few decades KNEW they had no hope for getting any social or financial recognition for their accomplishment (I can think of dozens of examples of women who spent their life as “research assistants” until finally being appointed full professors after being elected to the NAS). There are probably neurological reasons why scientists in many fields do their best work in their 20’s and 30’s, and biological reasons why women have children at the same age. Here’s the thing- if they were infinitely wealthy, had young children, access to excellent external childcare, and could allocate their time however they wanted to, more men would probably choose to do science in the dogmatic manner (usually) necessary to make top contributions to their field and play with their kids 30 minutes in the evening, while more women would choose to work at something they enjoy 35 hrs/week and spent most of the rest with their children. I don’t know how much of this is biological/cultural, but when a country offers couples 2 years of fully paid parental leave to distribute between them however they wish, this is in part the phenomenon that plays out. Taking a year off thinking about say, physics, at age 30 DOES make it less likely for one to ever make groundbreaking contributions to the field, male or female. Thus, considering that when a woman with the potential to make such a discovery has children, she is more tempted than a man with the same skill set to avoid the work necessary to make such a discovery, proportionally more women will make such discoveries in the American system, where they are forced to make a choice between doing the brutal work necessary to make such a discovery and never working in science again (or sometimes risk her family’s livelihood), rather than in Sweden, where she can opt to take a year off and then work in a stable non-demanding research associate type position. Putting the gender issue aside, the American system gives incentive for more scientists with the potential to make groundbreaking discoveries in science, to actually do the work necessary to make them. Since there are a lot fewer people, male or female, with this exceptional skill set than there are people who would make great lab techs or science teachers, this is a net benefit for science.
    (I completely agree, availability of affordable high quality creches, year-long teaching/committee relief childbirth, and avoidance of faculty meetings during school hours would also give incentives for scientists to spend time on science…)

  13. I would have stayed in Canada if I would have found a job there (almost did, just didn’t work out in the end). A major reason was the maternity leave policy and how it would have positively impacted Mrs Juniorprof’s career and both of our lives (no kids now though, we’re thinking about it). Policies here in the US are absolutely atrocious. Currently Mrs. Juniorprof effectively has no maternity leave (and work full time as a medical professional). This conservative state takes vacation time to cover maternity leave beyond the very first weeks (I believe two). It is criminal.

  14. Author of DFFHA, to the net benefit for science: Could you please provide some data and/or reference how the US outperform Scandinavia in science? Per inhabitant, Scandinavia seems to do better, see for example Nature 430, 311-316 (2004) or a more recent study by the Austrian Science Fund.

    DrdrA pointed out that this might be due to Scandinavia’s spending more resources on science, do you have data on this issue, which would support your claim?

  15. At the time of writing I was thinking of the rankings by Hirsch index (a country (equivalently a scientist, or a journal) has index h if h of its N publications have at least h citations each and the other N-h have at most h citations each), which in practice favors countries with more publications only in that it allows them to produce more bad papers for every good one…
    If you look at citations per document (in some sense a measure of efficiency), the US also comes ahead of every other country with over 10,000 publications in the decade 1996-2007.
    (data taken from

    Considering science is largely a public good (non-rivaled) it doesn’t seem to make much sense to consider output per inhabitant (if some scientist in a country of a million writes a paper proposing a cure for cancer, all else equal, each citizen will benefit from it as much as if the country had 100 million people).
    Maybe dividing total citations by money spent on basic research would be a better indicator, but I only have this data for the US. (Dividing the number of citations by total spent on R&D would probably be misleading since compared to Scandinavian countries the US spends a lot more of its R&D budget on defense rather than basic science).

  16. I have to correct myself:
    “If you look at citations per document (in some sense a measure of efficiency), the US also comes ahead of every other country with over 10,000 publications in the decade 1996-2007 [except Switzerland].”

  17. DDHA, thanks. Personally, I still think measures more convincing that take the difference in population at least somewhat into account and also think that citations/person are more relevant than citation/paper, but at least I now understand where your assessment comes from.

  18. Well, I don’t have a heckuva lotta coherent thoughts about this topic, which is so complex. Instead, I unload a what I see as a very sad anecdote.

    Some time ago, my wife was at a memorial service for a prominent doctor. A series of fellow docs got up to praise him, doing the eulogy thing, saying how great he was, how smart, etc. Then one of his daughters got up, and said something to the effect of, “Well, that’s very nice to hear. Now I understand what my dad was doing all the time he was at the hospital working.” She was obviously still quite bitter. To which I say, screw that. There’s no way I want either my son, or the soon to be added member of my family, to ever say that.

  19. Nat-

    A sad anecdote indeed. I think about this often, actually- because no matter how much I justify the time I spend with daughters as ‘quality’ time- there just isn’t a way to make up for some of the necessary quantity of time with me that they miss because of the demands of my t-t position. They are only little once, I can never get that time back- I took 3 months off when each was born, I can count on one hand the school events and soccer games that I have missed- and I’d like to keep it that way. I would NEVER trade that for rising faster up the academic hierarchy.

  20. my favorite family friendly-ness story:

    my wife’s PI told her that he would fire her (she is a grad student) if she got pregnant in his lab. of course…he was joking…or so he immediately said.

    but dude…come on, why would you even say that in jest?

  21. In my enlightened European home country with a female head of state there are many PI’s who say such things with complete honesty and seriousness (that is if they welcome women into their group at all).

  22. But hey-at least theres plenty of maternity leave for us to take time off the jobs we can’t get anyways…

  23. Anon-

    In the US making the kind of remarks you and Pinus comment on can get a PI in trouble with the law because firing someone based on a pregnancy is ILLEGAL. Personally, I think it isn’t any business of the PI when or where family decisions about childbearing are made… but if that isn’t enough then the threat of an expensive lawsuit can and should be keeping PIs from making stupid-ass remarks like this.

    And, as I was saying somewhere else in the comments to this post or the last post, just because a country has more progressive policies for maternity leave- DOES NOT mean that the scientific hierarchy is more enlightened than in countries that have less progressive maternity policies.

    To me these are different, but related issues. #1- an enlightened maternity leave policy, and #2 the enlightened (or not) nature of the established scientific culture to allowances for family friendliness.

  24. Pingback: Tenure Clock Stoppages and Productivity: Re-post « Blue Lab Coats

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