NSF and White House Address Work-Life Balance for Scientists

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Agency initiative aims to retain more women in STEM fields.

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The White House and the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched a major initiative last week designed to provide greater flexibility in the career paths of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with the goal of reducing the rate at which women drop out of these fields.

The initiative consists of a 10-year agency-wide plan primarily aimed at postdoctoral fellows and early-career faculty who receive research grants from the NSF.  According to the White House, while women receive approximately 41% of STEM doctorates, they constitute only 28% of tenured or tenure-track academic faculty.  The conflicting demands of a research career and family responsibilities sometimes serves as a barrier to women who wish to pursue STEM careers beyond the doctoral level.

Many of the policies within the initiative address work-life conflicts directly.  For example, the initiative permits grant recipients to postpone or suspend their grants without penalty during parental leave.  Through the initiative, the government will seek to ensure that eligible grant recipients are aware of their options and will also continue monitoring the effectiveness of such policies at retaining women in STEM fields.

The NSF will also seek to encourage academic institutions to adopt more flexible workplace practices. Because the NSF supports approximately 20% of federally-funded academic research in STEM fields, this new initiative could lead to more family-friendly policies at colleges and universities across the country.