Gettin’ a Reputation…

I gave birth to two babies during my training (well…, 3 if you count the thesis as my baby in another sense). I was the first graduate student to become a parent in the lab where I did my thesis work (I’ve written about this before I’ll dig up the link for you), and only the second lab member to have a baby while in that particular lab.  Despite my fear of how this might go with my thesis advisor- he/she handled the whole situation quite wonderfully, and since that time he/she has had multiple employees on maternity leave simultaneously. When you get a reputation for family friendliness…you get a reputation…

That seems to have rubbed off on me… All of the graduate students/postdocs in my lab were already parents when they joined the lab, and we’ve had two babies born to lab members since I started (< 5 yrs)… and there may yet be more soon.   I seem to have gotten the  reputation for family friendliness as well, and I like it that way.

How do I handle pregnancy among my employees? Well, first, I’m excited about it. Insanely excited. I know how it is to be someone’s mom- to hold that little perfect creature for the first time, to know all the joy that comes with this challenging responsibility. Second, I try to be flexible and prioritize- I know that those 9 months can have their ups and downs, and we will just try to work around them as best we can. As for maternity time (I don’t have experience giving paternity time yet… but I’m sure there will be a chance at some point)… I have 3 months off in my head. I usually ASK the expecting party… how much time they anticipate taking off after the baby comes… and we just work with that. But I’ve got 3 months off, in my head.

Now with that said – I was having a conversation with some science friends recently-  about this crossroads of 1. maternity ‘down time’ = lost productivity for 3 month stretches with 2. labs with reputations for family friendliness.  See, those labs with reputations for family friendliness – end up having way way more downtime, than those labs that don’t,….. because the ‘family friendly’ labs end up having whole runs of employees on maternity leave. In three month blocks. Take my own lab for example- let’s just say I’ve had a lab for 5 years (now I’m just making shit up)- and I’ve had 4 employees out on maternity leave… for three months each-… that’s an entire productive person year gone… during the most critical (pre-tenure) time of my career.

And that’s just for the maternity leave itself. When my younger daughter was born- she was ill for about the first year of her life.  I slept at my desk, took her to the doctor, and wandered through my project, as only a person enduring a solid year of complete sleeplessness could. Poorly. I use this to illustrate that when your lab members become parents and the maternity leave is over, it may be back to business as usual- but ‘business as usual’ after the baby may be dramatically different than ‘business as usual’ AFTER the baby…and changes in productivity can stretch on beyond maternity leave. These changes in productivity are compounded in ‘family friendly’ labs that carry the weight for the rest of academic science.

So- what to do- we want to promote ‘family friendliness’ and encourage young women (especially), and also young men who someday want to have families and actually participate in them, to stay in academic science. Yet- actually becoming that ‘family friendly’ lab -… is bad for the productivity of your group… and your career!

How to reconcile.

20 thoughts on “Gettin’ a Reputation…

  1. Build it into the tenure-review. Did the PI have children pre-tenure? Did the PI foster an environment that was supportive of people who had children/disabilities/whatever? If yes, then extra brownie points that really count for something (say a pub). That would make a difference IMO.

  2. Although I am still on the fence about children, I considered the fact that my post-doc lab was family-friendly a bonus and it was factored into my decision. And like you said, you do get a reputation. I knew this lab was family-friendly long before I ever visited because I had heard it mentioned several times.

  3. drdrA — an awesome topic! I have had multiple children during my training, in both family-friendly and not-so-friendly environments. The experiences have solidified to me, just as they have seemed to you, that my lab will be a family-friendly place. And I truly don’t see any other way to eliminate corrosive influences on science, including ‘leaky pipeline’ gender effects, and the idea that one must be miserable and sacrifice their own personal life at the altar of science. Young PI’s have to walk the walk, period. But I, too, am worried about how this will impact productivity. There are three things I wonder about this topic that maybe you and others can address…

    1. One aspect of this I am hoping is not underrated is trainee loyalty — the fact that nobody is going to burn the midnight oil if they don’t feel like their PI is on their side. Have you found that family-friendliness has motivated those who might otherwise be distracted or unmotivated? Or that your reputation has attracted better trainees?

    2. That one person-year lost to maternity leave — what percentage of the total person-time was that (for your wholly-made-up statistics)? If you had 5 years and an average of 5 people per year, then that one lost year is only 4%. Factoring in extra lost productivity, this might come out as high as 8 or 10%. Would this make the difference in a tenure review? 12 papers published instead of 15, but my lab has been family-friendly seems like a reasonable tradeoff to me. I know that sounds naive and that there are many places covered in green leafy vines that might only care about those 3 lost papers, but would this really be the difference between getting tenure and not getting tenure?

    3. What about projects that can’t wait three months? This must get thorny but has to happen. Trainee needs maternity leave, flexibility, and fewer hours, but the project is urgent, either scientifically (will get scooped) or professionally (need it for grant/tenure package). On one hand, it seems like the PI has to sit down with the trainee and explain that the project will have to move on and that he/she will have to share credit (but likely remain first author or first-among-coauthors since, let’s assume, he/she has the project in good-but-not-yet-publishable shape). On the other hand, the trainee may see this as punishment for having a baby. What to do?

  4. There’s no easy answers here and every case will be different. We had the Wee One during my post-doc and even though my wife got maternity leave I ended up having to rush back after three days because I got a job offer a day after coming home from the hospital and had a time sensitive project on the go. Let me tell you, I was just taking up space at that bench for the first 4 – 6 weeks. For a woman, especially if she chooses to breast feed or does all the bottle feeding, I think three months would be a minimum before you had any hope of being productive again.

    However, as you point out, there are effects for both the trainee and the PI. The idea of having 5 people per year in your first 5 years might be a bit of a stretch, especially in the early years. Maybe it would average out to that, but I think having someone take family time in the first 2 or 3 years, in particular, would have large consequences for the lab.

    I think Science Woman’s point is what really needs to happen if we’re going to encourage families in our labs – there has to be a break for the PI as well. Without that, you push PIs into a spot where they might be upset at losing a body, even for three months.

  5. Interesting topic… and one I’m personally invested in at the moment. I wonder how often a PI might consider the relative employ-ability of someone they deem more likely to take a family leave of absence compared to others in their hiring decisions… I know in interviews it’s not legal to ask questions about marital and family status, but surely it comes up in conversation during interviews, if not with the PI him/herself, then with other lab members when discussing the lab atmosphere or living conditions of the new city. I certainly think ScienceWoman’s suggestion of building family friendliness into tenure decision making is a step in the right direction and might ease some of the burden, but there are still questions surrounding allocation of grant money, “hot” projects, etc as MBench pointed out so nicely.

  6. 1. In the immediate, you just have to be willing to pay some prices for your principles. We do this all the time on many issues from having a family life, to spending the extra time in class prep, to nurturing struggling trainees, to accepting committee work and review burdens to upholding our personal standards for data / manuscript quality. A family friendly lab is no different.

    2. Because they *are* our principles, we believe fairly strongly that this is the best way for not just ourselves but others to behave. And that we are in some small way leading by example.

    3. Getting denied tenure or otherwise forced out of one job seems like an unbearable cost (yes to me too). And yet for those that I’ve seen have this happen, they always seem quite happy and perhaps even happier five years down the line. This should be of some comfort to those that wish to stick to their principles and fear career costs.

  7. bikemonkey took the words from my fingers. There’s usually a cost associated with doing ‘the right thing.’ I’m not a PI, but I find it difficult to believe that a family friendly scientist would be happy at an institution that discourages family friendly labs.

  8. I applaud you for being excited for the new parents (to be). Having children is too often treated like an inconvenience (though perpetuation of the species and all–you’d think that it would be more celebrated). Bravo to you!

  9. Hi- I stumbled on your blog. It is an interesting topic. Maybe the plus side of the “family friendly” reputation is that you get more candidates for positions in your lab?

    I left academia after grad school, and now work at the interface of biology and IT in industry. I don’t have any insight on the academia-specific portion of this topic, but the general problem is by no means unique to academia- there are time pressures in industry, too, and failure to deliver on projects can cost people their job. I suspect industry is a little ahead in figuring out how to handle this at the whole organization level, though. I would not be expected to plan for how to handle an employee on leave without the help of the rest of the organization, whereas it sounds like you are left to figure out how to handle this within your own lab.

    I’ve had one maternity leave and am about 3 months away from my second. I took 3 months off and worked a 4th month part time the first time around, and plan to do the same this time. (I also once took a 4 month leave of absence from a job to travel the world- so reproduction is not the only way in which I’ve inconvenienced employers). I now manage a small department, so I’m gaining some additional appreciation of the problem from the manager’s point of view, too.

    I have a few observations that you may or may not find relevant to your case:

    1. Can you work with the employees to minimize downtime? Whenever I take leave, I expect to work with my boss to figure out a plan for making sure my work gets done while I am out. The first time around, I arranged for someone to cover my project while I was gone. This was the obvious thing to do because I was working as a consultant, and they wouldn’t be paying me to do the work, so there was budget to pay someone else to do the work. Since the person who took over for me was less experienced than I was, I agreed to answer questions while I was out. This worked out well. Everyone understood that my first priority was the baby, but I did have time to reply to emails once a day or so. I actually liked the arrangement, because I felt less overwhelmed with the need to catch up once I got back in the office. I think it can work if you set boundaries and your colleagues respect them.

    This time around, I am the head of a small department and a biotech company. Work can’t just stop and wait for me to return, so I sat down and wrote up a detailed plan for how my department would function in my absence. This plan includes a budget for a consultant to cover some of my tasks while I am gone. While I am out, my salary is being paid by either disability insurance or our state family leave insurance. Therefore, my company has budget to use for this consultant. We already work with this consultant, so there is no need for training. If that weren’t the case, I would have used some of the budget to have the consultant around for a couple weeks BEFORE I go out on leave, for training. I have also built in the same system about answering emails as I used the first time.

    Now, I’m recognize that a postdoc or grad student will have his/her own project, and won’t necessarily want to relinquish control over it to a temporary person. I can see that a grad student’s project may just need to be put on hold. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask a postdoc to help develop a plan to move the project forward at some level during his/her absence. This actually seems like excellent management training to me! Perhaps you could hire a temporary technician and have the person heading out on leave plan out some experiments to be done. I also don’t know how the funding for maternity leave works at your institution, but if it is considered disability leave, chances are all the institution is paying is benefits, not salary. It would seem only fair that you be able to access some of the “unpaid salary” funds to cover a temporary worker.

    2. As for the differences in how you work before and after the baby… I completely agree about the effects of sleep deprivation. My daughter is only now starting to sleep through the night with any regularity, and she is two years old. The first 10 months of her life, My husband and I counted ourselves lucky to get 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. We developed plans to get each of us enough sleep to be able to function, and I developed systems to help me function at work while sleep-deprived. I blogged about this at the time, but the main features of my systems were lots of lists and “standard procedures” to compensate for my degraded memory and planning the tasks that needed me to be particularly sharp for times of the day when I would be at my sharpest. I’m sure you figured out ways to cope, too. Perhaps you can help coach your returning employees on what to expect and how to cope, so that they can keep their productivity up. I’m sure they don’t want to have delays in moving to their next career step, so I’d hope they would appreciate some constructive coaching. I certainly appreciated any useful advice for dealing with sleeplessness that I received (as long as that advice didn’t stretch to how I should parent my child).

  10. Jenn- I don’t know how often this happens. I actually never think about it when I’m hiring someone. I think about whether they are a good fit for my lab, whether they are smart and interested, and whether we will work well together… and of course what their prior training is. Not necessarily in that order.

    Sciencewoman- Maybe. But lost productivity can lead to less papers, which leads to less grants … which leads to no tenure. So even if this gets built into the tenure process, for most biomedical scientists- it is still all about grants…and aint no one on study section thinking about the lower productivity in family friendly labs.

    MBench- You are quite right about trainee loyalty. I once asked an employee of a ‘family friendly’ colleague why that colleague’s lab ran so well – and she said ‘professor X treats people like he/she wants to be treated’. … and I can tell you Prof X people are insanely loyal, and really go all the way to the mat for him/her.

  11. All I can contribute is that–my PI has been so incredibly supportive of me, both during the IVF and during the pregnancy, that anytime anyone asks me what I think of him as a PI, I pretty much start babbling incoherent streams of praise. I mean, he’s also crazy smart and a great, thoughtful scientist, but let me tell you, if word of mouth counts for anything, his behavior towards pregnant women is getting rewarded amply every time I go to a conference or catch up with friends.

    A friend told me that when she got pregnant, her PI’s reaction was, “Well, you’ll have to be a superwoman, but I’m sure you can do it.” It’s a measure of how great my lab atmosphere is that I immediately thought her PI was an asshole (what ridiculous pressure!), although she had thought his response quite supportive.

  12. Hi drdrA,
    I already admire you and your lab without seeing both! I agree with MBench, bikemonkey and matthew too!
    Here in India, it seems strange but women scientists are the least understanding and helpful with regard to maternity issues. This is even though their positions are currently very safe irrespective of grants received or number of publications! My wife was asked by her PI when she was interviewed for the lab she is working now as to whether she was planning to become pregnant!!!! – This PI also keeps telling lady graduate students that they are not supposed to marry before completion of their PhD. (But she allows her much younger daughters to get married!!). The attitude of Indian lady bosses in corporate labs too is no different.
    drdrA, as has been mentioned by others, I too believe you will get more people to select from because of your reputation of family-friendliness and you will have a bunch of committed warriors – if the situation is discussed with them, they will readily pool in their bit to make things happen!!
    All the best!!!

  13. Over the long term, do you really lose that much productivity, or is it made up for by parents being more organized and productive per hour, loyal staff and students less likely to quit, etc.?

  14. Lab Lemming- Excellent point. One of my people has two kids- and she is the absolute most productive person that I know of. Organization counts for quite a lot!

  15. Great topic.

    I’ve always wondered why we can’t request a no-cost extension from NSF to accomodate family/maternity leave (in addition to their regular no-cost extensions). I took maternity leave from my institution during an active NSF grant and really wanted to include it in my annual report (but didn’t). I would also like to include it in the “results from prior support” of my next proposal. Seems like it is relevant to broader impacts, right?

    My lab is small, and at a not-exactly-spectacular institution, and I have had problems recruiting students and postdocs. I believe my developing family-friendly reputation has actually helped me pull in some great people who otherwise might not consider joining my lab (which is not to suggest that grad students or postdocs who want kids have to settle for less-than-spectacular positions…). I know several PIs who have openly said that they would never hire a female postdoc who wants to have kids. This used to really piss me off (and still does). But now I realize that it leaves more talent for the rest of us. Fools.

  16. I’ve always wondered why we can’t request a no-cost extension from NSF to accomodate family/maternity leave (in addition to their regular no-cost extensions). I took maternity leave from my institution during an active NSF grant and really wanted to include it in my annual report (but didn’t). I would also like to include it in the “results from prior support” of my next proposal. Seems like it is relevant to broader impacts, right?

    Have you asked your Program Director about this? I’d be curious as to the answers.

  17. Anonymous and Odyssey- Yeah, someone should ask. I’m curious as well. And I know you are right Anonymous- I hadn’t thought about ‘family friendliness’ as a recruiting tool for postdocs when one is otherwise challenged by unchangables like location.

  18. I’m with lab lemming. Having children and an academic career is very demanding, and it selects for people that are highly productive and efficient. Personally, I believe, having a *life* outside the lab makes people more productive, and when one has a familiy one has to partition the time as good as possible. I have seen now >5 PhD students, all female, having children, all took three month off, and all of them but one are highly productive. The one wasn’t that efficient before.

    About the personell problem: if you know early enough about when, can’t you schedule task in a way that someone else (lab tech) could do them?

  19. If I get knocked up again, and still have NSF funding, I’ll be sure to ask! (Maybe after my next proposal gets funded).

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