Plumbing advice for the leaky pipeline (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Having children is a critical issue for many early career researchers in academia. Whether grad students, postdocs, or new faculty, having a child can create a lot of stress and difficulties in the workplace for women as well as men who want to be involved dads. Parental leave policies can make or break a parent’s decision to stay in academia, as it can literally cost upwards of $10,000 — or one’s job — if there are no paid leave policies in place.

Putting the squeeze on early career parents forces out many bright young scientists. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s how you can help:

1. Help put parental leave policies in public view. Institutions with terrible policies need to be known – not just so that you can avoid them if you plan to become a parent, but also so that there is competitive pressure from other institutions for change. I was only able to examine policies at a fraction of universities that offer ecology programs, and I probably made some errors. Look up the parental leave policies for postdocs at your university – or even better, get an interpretation of them from your HR rep – and put them in the comments. I’ll update my charts with the new info. Make sure your PI, your department head, and your dean see how your institution stacks up. Email them, forward them the statistics, show up in their offices. Don’t assume they already know — they probably don’t.

2. If you are a faculty member who has grad students or postdocs, find out what the parental leave policies are at your institution. I am constantly amazed that so few faculty know what their employees’ benefits are. And I’ve heard story after story about PIs being horrified when they discover what the benefits actually are for those they supervise (usually too late to be very helpful). Be a responsible PI; know what your employees’ benefits are, including parental benefits.

3. If you’re a PI who hires postdocs, think ahead of time about how you could run your project if your postdoc were to be gone for three months. Could someone else keep the project moving in the meantime? Could it be put on hold? Letting a newly hired postdoc know that there’s a plan in case she or he needs to take a few months of leave will reduce the stress and conflict the postdoc might feel about the decision to start a family. (Believe me, telling your PI that “hey, you know that project we’re both excited about and working on? Yeah, I’m going to take off and leave you in the lurch for three months,” is not something to look forward to.)

4. If you’re in a position of power (tenure-track faculty, especially), lobby your institution for better parent-oriented policies and leave:

  • At a minimum, make it a written policy that postdocs can take three months of unpaid job-protected leave. Better: six months.
  • Next, encourage the institution to offer employee postdocs short-term disability insurance; it shouldn’t cost the institution much, if anything, to offer such a policy if postdocs pay the premiums. Better would be for the institution to automatically cover all postdocs with short-term disability insurance at the university’s expense.
  • Third, lobby for a policy in which both mothers AND fathers can take sick leave to care for healthy newborns and newly adopted children. Better: the same, without restrictions.
  • Next, lobby for a sick-leave policy that allows postdocs to take sick leave when it’s needed, within reason, without regard to number of days.
  • Finally, lobby for paid parental leave; while universities might balk at the expense, it’s worth pointing out that many new mothers leave the workforce all together because they’re forced back to paid work before they’re ready. Having to rehire for a postdoc position mid-project is disruptive at best and possibly fatal to the project; many projects can better withstand a 3-month pause.

5. Lobby funding organizations for better parent-oriented policies. Both NSF and NIH (and others) have begun making steps to make sure their grants are “family friendly.” But both typically still defer to the awardee institution, which does not guarantee any protection to postdocs with regard to family leave policies. Funding organizations have a lot of power in determining how their money gets used, and they have the leverage to even the playing field among institutions when it comes to parental leave. They also have a mandate to ensure that the system they fund doesn’t disproportionately force out women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences. A lack of strong policies by funding organizations isn’t just lazy, it can waste funding dollars. In addition to explicit parental leave policies for postdocs, funding organizations should adopt comprehensive policies that provide bridge funding while postdocs are on parental leave. These will reduce disruption to funded projects, as well as reduce potential conflict between postdocs and PIs. They should also ensure that no-cost extensions are available for projects in which a postdoc has taken time off for family reasons.

Do you have more ideas for bettering university family leave policies? Horror stories? Happy stories? Do tell.

Parental leave, beyond the numbers (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

My series of posts on the statistics of parental leave has prompted responses like

Sorry for bringing you down the past couple Mondays. I’d like to stress that not all university parental leave policies are bad. Indeed, someone commented that her university leave was better than her leave at her former employer, a non-profit. The issue is that there’s so much variation and that leave policies are hidden and not well known. One of my goals is to bring this information out into the daylight.

Simon Goring tweets:

And this, I think, is a very good question. How many grad students are sitting around with multiple postdoc offers? It’s not likely that postdoc parents-to-be are going to choose their positions based on parental leave.

Instead, I hope these posts open the eyes of PIs and administrators. If you’re a PI hiring a postdoc, you should know what your parental leave policies are at your institution. Full stop. If they’re good, you can advertise that fact. If they’re not, then you should prepare a lab policy for what happens when a postdoc has a baby. Because if you hire postdocs regularly, sooner or later one will.

“But wait,” I hear some of you arguing, “in my lab it doesn’t really matter what the formal policies are. Postdocs just take the leave they need and our PI is fine with that.” Or: “our department is really family friendly and I can’t imagine postdocs being fired for not coming in after a baby.”

I want to argue that formal policies are really, really important. Without them, it becomes incumbent upon each parent (and especially mothers) to negotiate their own leave and accommodations (like working from home). What that means is that everyone is not treated equally and some are treated unfairly. I’ve heard and read a steady stream of horrible stories since I was pregnant for the first time in 2009 about the difficulty of women who are having babies being accommodated by their institutions.

Even mine has a murky lining. Yes, Harvard grants 12 weeks of maternity leave (great!). But what’s lost in the small print is that 4 of those weeks are “parental leave,” which is paid for “by the funding mechanism that normally pays the parent’s salary.” In my case, that’s an NSF grant. But NSF does not allow grant money to be used for maternity leave. (After all, with a 50% overhead, parental leave OUGHT to be coming out of fringe.) I had to point out the fact that they couldn’t use my PI’s NSF grant to pay me for parental leave, because neither my PI nor the administrator in charge of managing my leave knew it! But Harvard the University doesn’t have a fund for parental leave. So where does the pay for my paid leave come from? In the end, I believe they raided my PI’s start-up funds to pay for my 4 weeks of parental leave. (Although I’m still trying to confirm that.)

My PI is thrilled.

And that brings to my final point, and maybe the most important. It’s not the raw numbers that really matter. It’s the difficult decisions, the straining of interpersonal relationships, the feelings of moral and ethical unease, the emotional turbulence that really push women (and men) who become parents to leave academia in the end.

A while ago, a friend wrote to me:

I just started my postdoc and got pregnant soon after. I’m starting to feel SUPER guilty. My poor boss, hiring a new postdoc and then having me lose half of my productivity for the first trimester, with the promise of a completely unproductive field season after the baby is born!


This here is the problem. My smart and talented friend should not be made to feel guilty by the academic system just because she wants to do a very normal thing and have a family. This, Academia, you need to address. First, by having formal parental leave policies so new moms and dads don’t feel like they’re shirking their duties or scamming their employers when they take extended leave to have children. Second, by addressing the very real difficulties faced by PIs when postdocs need to take extended leave (for whatever reason).

When a series of entirely reasonable decisions leads to biased outcomes: thoughts on the Waterman Award

The National Science Foundation just announced the winner of the 2014 Alan T. Waterman Award, the highest award it gives to a scientist or engineer under the age of 35. The winner is Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute and Harvard. In addition to being a huge honor, the award comes with $1 million dollars of research funding. It’s a big deal. And, for that reason, I was concerned to see that, just like the previous 10 winners, this year’s winner was a man.

Now, I want to be clear: Feng Zhang is clearly a very impressive scientist, and is highly deserving of this award. So is each man who won the award in the previous decade. But when male scientists win an award 10 times in a row (in one year, two men won), I would suggest that argues that it’s worth examining the process for unintended biases.

Why this focus on the Waterman Award? Because, in my opinion, this is a good example of a common phenomenon that happens often in academia, including in ecology. It happens with society (another link) and university awards, faculty searches, invitations to speak at meetings, and in departmental seminar series – a committee of well-meaning people who are not trying to be exclusive end up selecting primarily men.* In each case, there’s a pool of people who might be deserving of the award (or position or seminar/talk slot); the concern is when the people chosen from that pool end up being a biased sample.

As I said, even in cases where each individual decision or outcome seems entirely justifiable, if there is a consistent pattern, the process as a whole needs to be examined. Let’s split the process into two halves to consider:

1. The nomination process. It is really, really common for people to initially think of men when asked to nominate people, either for awards or talks. This is part of why things like Anne’s List of women neuroscientists is valuable. People interested in increasing diversity of a seminar series, for example, could skim such a list to look for people to consider inviting. As far as I know, no such list exists for ecology and evolution, though I know that my Michigan colleague Gina Baucom has been doing some behind-the-scenes work to try to get one going.

For something like the Waterman Award, this is more challenging. I would guess that a lack of a diverse pool of nominees is probably a large part of the problem. Given how many of the winners have also won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), one option would be to write to the departmental chairs of all PECASE winners to suggest they submit a nomination. The program contact for the Waterman Award, Mayra Montrose, already writes to PECASE winners to suggest that they ask to be nominated for the Waterman Award – they are clearly trying to increase the number of nominations (which is good!) I have no idea what percentage of PECASE recipients ask someone else to be nominate them, but I’m guessing that, given things like imposter syndrome, women and underrepresented minorities might be less likely to follow through on that suggestion. (This piece in The Atlantic also suggests this would be the case.) Asking the chairs directly might help overcome this. If you have other ideas for how to increase the diversity of the pool of nominees for this sort of award, please suggest them in the comments!

2. The selection process. Everyone has implicit biases, and this affects how we evaluate women and people of color. As the title of this Nature correspondence piece by Marlene Zuk and Gunilla Rosenqvist puts it, “Evaluation bias hits women who aren’t twice as good”. So, one key step is (after soliciting a diverse pool of nominees) to try to evaluate nominations in a way that reduces bias (e.g., by being aware of biases and by having a set of specific criteria – agreed upon prior to reviewing any of the nominations – on which nominees are evaluated). Another important step is to acknowledge that there is a history of implicit biases – letters written will tend to be shorter and less glowing (pdf link), grants tend to be harder to get, etc. (Here is a pdf from the University of Michigan STRIDE Committee on best practices related to faculty awards.)

For the Waterman Award, coming up with a single, specific set of criteria seems like it could be particularly challenging. The award goes to one person, but that person could be in any of a wide range of fields, so the awards committee presumably needs to find a way to compare a sociologist, an astronomer, a cell biologist, and an engineer. Each field will have differences in terms of productivity – I have no idea how to try to compare the publication records of a pure mathematician and a computer scientist, for example.

Another potential challenge with the Waterman Award is that, because it goes to people under the age of 35, it will be evaluating people on their productivity at an age right around where many women have children. (This article talks about the “baby penalty” faced by women in science.) Again, I don’t have good ideas for how deal with this for this sort of award (other than for the selection panel to keep it in mind), but hopefully others will.

Hopefully it is clear that I don’t think there is an easy solution to the male-bias in Waterman Award winners, and I am most definitely not saying that there is any intentional bias going on. But I am saying that having 11 consecutive male winners suggests that there might be biases, and that possible ways to improve the diversity of awardees should be considered. My goal here is to try to start a conversation. Moreover, my hope is that thinking about the biases that might influence this one particular award will hopefully lead us to also examine biases in society awards, hiring, and seminar/talk invitations, which affects most of our readers more directly.

Does the diversity of award winners matter? I think so. In the case of the Waterman Award, there is a lot of prestige (and money!) that come with having won it. For society awards, there usually isn’t much money, but there is prestige. Plus, for younger scientists just starting out, seeing pictures of winners (of the Waterman Award or a society award) and seeing that very few look like them sends the message that maybe they don’t belong. Women and people of color in the sciences often ask “Should I be here?” We want to make sure that our seminar series, our faculty, and our award winners send the message that they do.

If you have thoughts on how to deal with this problem – either for the Waterman Award in particular or for the more general problem – please share them in the comments!

*This pattern tends to be even more extreme for racial and ethnic minorities, of course.

Other posts on related topics:
1. Supporting other women in science (from Tenure, She Wrote, by scitrigrrl)
2. Creating a diverse speaking series (from Jabberwocky Ecology, by Morgan Ernest)
3. Best practices in faculty hiring (University of Oregon)

Gender-blind faculty searches

In discussions of gender biases in evaluating candidates, an example that often comes up is the case of blind auditions for orchestras. The use of blinded initial rounds of auditions makes it 50% more likely that a woman will make it past the preliminary rounds, and the proportion of women in professional orchestras has increased dramatically since blinded auditions became common. However, it never seemed to me like it would be possible to use this approach for faculty searches. How would you blind the process?

Thus, I was quite interested when I recently came across this article by Jones and Urban in BioScience that describes an attempt by the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut to have a gender-blind faculty search. (Based on their description, it sounds like they were also aiming for a race-blind search process.) Given the evidence for the implicit biases that we all have, this seems like a laudable goal.

However, as expected, carrying out a gender-blind search proved logistically difficult. They weren’t able to advertise it as gender blind for legal reasons and, therefore, couldn’t request that the application materials did not reveal gender. Instead, they had a department administrative assistant go through the materials to redact names, pronouns, and other identifying information (e.g., minority postdoctoral fellowships). The administrative assistant sat in on meetings to answer questions about how prestigious the redacted fellowships or awards were. The process of redacting the information in the files took 100 hours – that is a huge investment!

Sadly, they say that this ended up not being effective in many cases. It doesn’t take much to figure out a person’s gender. For example, “he” takes up less space than “she”, so it was sometimes clear what the gender was based on the size of the redacted area. However, only some committee members (one in particular) cued in on the length difference, and most of the committee members were unable to guess the gender of the applicants in cases where the materials were fully redacted. That italicized phrase is key, though – it sounds like at least one gender-revealing word or pronoun managed to slip through in many applications; all it takes is one slipping through to make all the other redacting for naught.

So, I would say that it seems like this was an interesting experiment to try, and that the UConn EEB department should be commended for being concerned enough about this issue to try this experiment. But, given the challenges, it seems unlikely that this will catch on.

If any readers know of other institutions that have tried something similar, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Women Ecologists, Wikipedia, and Ada Lovelace Day (part 1) (Updated x2!)

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which seeks to increase the profile of women in STEM fields. Who is Ada Lovelace, you ask? She was the world’s first computer programmer. I was recently thinking about Ada Lovelace and prominent women in science after seeing a tweet from NatC, which featured this photo

(source: NatC, used with permission, featuring art available from here)

The tweet with the photo said “These awesome women are just hanging out in my office, helping me work.” That got me wondering: which pioneering women ecologists would I find inspiring as I worked in my office? Which do I think should be featured like Lovelace, Curie, Franklin, and Hopper?

I started thinking about this again last week after reading that, as part of Ada Lovelace Day, Anne Fausto-Sterling and Maia Weinstock are organizing a mass Wikipedia edit day, focusing on female scientists. Here is the Wikipedia page of suggested topics. At present, there is one ecologist on the list, Monica Turner. This got me wondering about what other women ecologists (or evolutionary biologists, to broaden things a bit) should have a Wikipedia page. (Actually, this list of ecologists with Wikipedia pages makes me think we could use more ecologist entries on Wikipedia, overall.)

Why Wikipedia? As Alex Bond pointed out in this article (aimed at ornithologists, but relevant to ecologists in general), “The first search of a topic for many, scholars and public alike, is Wikipedia … As such, Wikipedia presents an excellent opportunity to communicate science to a general public”. The idea that we need more prominent role models is also made by Langenheim in her excellent review of pioneering women in ecology. In that, she says, “The lack of role models is still considered by some as an important impediment in the professional advancement of women scientists. However, Brattstrom (18, p, 143) recently suggested ‘There are role models out there, we just need to talk more about them! . . . And we need to start it now!’”

With all this in mind, I turned to twitter to ask for suggestions of prominent and/or important women in ecology and evolutionary biology. I was completely overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the response. So much so that I’m going to split this into a few posts. Fortunately, the women who were highlighted by Langenheim are already in a list of ecologist pages needed on Wikipedia, so I have chosen not to add them to this list for now. But I hope everyone reads the Langenheim paper, and that some people are inspired to tackle Wikipedia pages for some of these women! On a related note, one of the women feastured by Langenheim, Lucy Braun, was featured in this excellent post by Jacquelyn Gill in honor of an earlier Ada Lovelace Day. (UPDATE: I missed that Jacquelyn also has an Ada Lovelace Day post on EC Pielou, another pioneering ecologist. This one is also worth reading!)

For this post, I will focus on current US National Academy of Sciences members who are women ecologists and/or evolutionary biologists. Obviously there are many, many more women who also deserve to be featured, but this seemed like a reasonable (and manageable!) starting point. I have categorized the NAS members into four groups: women who have solid Wikipedia pages, ones with Wikipedia pages that could use some work, ones with Wikipedia pages that need substantial work, and ones who need Wikipedia pages created.

I am really excited that so many people have been suggested, and look forward to compiling those into a larger list for a future post. There is just no way I could get that post pulled together in time for Ada Lovelace Day! In the comments, feel free to suggest the names of women who you think should be on the list. (Update 2: I have put the current list in the comments. Feel free to suggest more!) Also, if any of you know of good resources on how to go about actually editing/creating Wikipedia pages, I would love to hear about those, too. (I haven’t had time to do research on this yet, but plan to in the future.)

Solid Wikipedia pages:
Jane Lubchenco
Mary Jane West-Eberhard

Wikipedia pages that could use some work:
Sallie Chisholm
Gretchen Daily
Pamela Matson
Monica Turner

Wikipedia pages that need substantial work:
May Berenbaum
Rita Colwell
Margaret Davis
Rosemary Grant
Mimi Koehl
Trudy Mackay
Nancy Moran
Tomoko Ohta
Ruth Patrick (recently deceased, but I’m including her anyway; she would probably be my top vote for a woman scientist whose picture I’d want on my wall to inspire me, similar to NatC)
Barbara Schaal
Joan Strassmann

No existing Wikipedia page (yet!):
Mary Arroyo
Jody Deming
Margaret Kidwell
Johanna (Annie) Schmitt
Sandra Díaz (though this Spanish language Wiki page appears to be about her)
Estella Leopold
Mary Power
Susan Trumbore

Thanks to Andrea Kirkwood, CackleofRad, Morgan Ernest, Aimée Classen, Emilio Bruna, Dr. Wrasse, Karen LipsNick Tomeo, Perry Fight’n, Frank Aylward, Terry McGlynn, Alan Townsend, Elizabeth Quinn, Jessica Blois, Natalie Cooper, Chris Harrod, Rich Lenski, James Waters, Kendi Davies, NOGLSTP, Sciencegurl, AlbatrossPhD, Arvid Ågren, Aerin Jacob, Leslie Brunetta, Simone Vincenzi, Ainsley S, David Mayhood, Linda Campbell, Michael Hawkes, Simon Leather, Stuart Auld, Anna-Liisa Laine, Jamie Estill, Erica Garcia, Jennifer Fox, Sara Thomas, and Joe Mendelson for suggestions via Twitter and Facebook! As I said above, I will continue to compile a full list and will post that in a future post.

What is the currency of equal division of parenting?

Terry McGlynn’s post on gender, parenting, and academic careers has had some renewed discussion of late, both in the comments on his post, and on twitter. I read his post when it first appeared (and thought I had linked to it, but don’t see the pingback, so maybe not?) I agree with much of what he has to say, but there are a few things that I’ve been mulling over that I wanted to follow up on.

In particular, I wanted to follow up on part of the twitter discussion. There, Terry said:

How? I mean “how” in a very specific sense. I think this is part of why these questions are so tricky. What is the currency in which we try to keep things equivalent? I am the one who is up at night with the baby, since I am the lactating parent. How much time in terms of dinner prep is my increased exhaustion equivalent to? I have major constraints on my schedule every day, driven by a need to break every 2-3 hours to pump. How many loads of laundry counter that fragmentation of my day? What amount of vacuuming makes up for missing talks and informal interactions at meetings because, every time I need to pump, I have to go to a different building to find a lactation room and wait for it to become available? How many diaper changes offset cracked nipples?

There are no answers to these questions, of course, which is my point. I’m sure this is part of why this issue is so tricky. But I sometimes find it frustrating when the discussion seems to imply that it’s just a matter of making sure dad does as much as mom. I certainly agree with Terry’s point that equivalent parenting (not equal, because there’s no real way to do that) is important. And, of course, having a partner who is really on board with trying to split things fairly is essential, as Terry says. I just have no idea how you really know if you’re achieving that (or whether it’s even likely to occur) when a child is very young.

With tasks that are not specific to gestating, birthing, or nursing a baby, I think it’s easier to have a common currency: time invested in a task. As Margaret Kosmala indicated, it often doesn’t make sense to split each individual task evenly, but I can offset the amount of time my husband spends at the grocery store by spending a similar amount of time mowing the lawn. But, as indicated in the examples I gave above, some of the things that are specific to gestating, birthing, and nursing a baby are things that are much trickier to account for and, therefore, for the non-gestating/birthing/nursing parent to offset.

And that argument that the pregnancy and lactation are relatively short-lived? Well, maybe in the grand scheme of a lifetime, but 9 months of pregnancy plus somewhere around a year of nursing isn’t exactly a short amount of time for an early career academic, especially if a woman has multiple children.

So, yes, absolutely, women need partners who are fully investing in parenting. And surely different families will work out different solutions. But, in my opinion, the tasks that have to fall to the birth parent make this balancing particularly tricky.