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The Ticking of the Clock

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Biological clocks and academic clocks tick along, paying no mind to one another. The question of how to heed both at the same time is tricky, particularly for women. The Center for American Progress recently released a report based on the National Science Foundation's Survey of Doctoral Recipients finding that female scientists who are married and have children are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure track position after obtaining their doctoral degree than their male, married-with-children counterparts. The report also finds that family considerations, such as having children, are the main reasons that women do not pursue those positions. However, some institutions, such as Stanford University have implemented polices to help bring those two clocks into sync. "I think that if we don't act in a way that is family friendly, you cut out about 50 percent right away of the population," says Stanford chemist Richard Zare. "This is ridiculous."

Policies

A few years ago, Stanford implemented a university-wide childbirth accommodation policy to help female graduate students who also want to have a family. Modeled after an MIT program, Stanford offers a slowing down — but not a stoppage — of the academic clock while female graduate students are expecting and then have a new baby. "I sometimes call this the anti-leave of absence policy because the whole idea of this policy is to make it possible for new mothers to not have to take a leave of absence — to remain enrolled — which is often advantageous to a graduate student in stages of doctoral work," says Ann George, the assistant dean of research and graduate policy at Stanford. Other institutions, such as Brown University, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have similar policies.

During Stanford's six-week accommodation period — other schools offer different timeframes — women may pare down their effort in the lab. For these weeks, women can arrange their schedule as they choose — they are expected to be away, but can continue to work at their discretion. "Assuming it is safe for the woman to be working, what our policy [says is] that during the quarter in which the baby is born, the woman is entitled to reduce her effort in the lab by six weeks," George says.

At the same time, women who take advantage of this program receive an automatic one-quarter extension of academic requirements and deadlines.

This reduction in effort doesn't, however, lead to a reduction in support. If a woman is funded on a fellowship or a training grant, George says, she can take advantage of this policy without any effect on her funding. If a woman is funded through a salaried research assistantship, her funding is cut in half, but she then will receive a stipend to make up the difference from the provost's operating budget.

Since postdocs are not students, they are not eligible for this program. As employees, George says, they may take six weeks' worth of disability leave.

Zare's chemistry department at Stanford goes a little bit further: female graduate students there may take a 12-week accommodation period.

The response

At Stanford, George says that about 15 students a year take advantage of the childbirth accommodation policy, and the response has been favorable. "The response that we get from women is that it is great. We get lots of appreciative notes about it and it helps that group of student for whom this is an issue," George says.

Zare adds that he's also received positive feedback — and some of it from men. "By doing this in my department, I broke a taboo of what it means to become a parent, either mother or father, and how that changes your responsibilities in life," he says. "I've declared our department to be family-friendly and I've backed it up by a lot of action. It's made a big difference. It actually changes the color of the place."

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