The ivory tower gets more flexible

Universities alter policies to keep from losing PhDs – especially women – to industry.

July 1 is a significant day for Harvard University. That's the day that Lawrence Summers will no longer be Harvard's president. It's also the day new family-leave guidelines kick in – partly a result of faculty demands that grew louder last year after Mr. Summers's controversial remarks suggesting that innate differences between the sexes might help explain the small number of high-level women in the sciences.

The incident instead brought renewed attention to academia's structural and cultural barriers to women – particularly in the sciences. In recent years, diversity offices, task forces, and new policies have gained momentum in bringing down some of those barriers.

Flexibility is one battlefront: To compete with corporate America, campuses want to make it easier for faculty to care for family members. Another front is fairness: chipping away at discrimination that sometimes flourishes behind closed doors. Both require some changes to an academic model rooted in an era when most professors were men with wives at home full time.

The prevailing metaphor for the challenge of retaining women is the "leaky pipeline." In chemistry, for instance, women earn nearly one-third of the PhDs but make up just 13 percent of the faculty at schools offering advanced degrees.

"If we look at it as a global issue – maintaining competitiveness in the United States in research and development and other kinds of scholarly initiatives – then we can't afford to lose [people who have pursued PhDs]," says Gloria Thomas, who promotes flexibility as an associate project director at the American Council on Education (ACE) in Washington. "Academe should make it so that we find ways of helping people balance [work and family]. It's particularly critical for women, but it's not just a women's issue," she says.

Some of the "leaks" have apparently been plugged. In engineering, women are being hired as assistant professors at about the same rate at which they earn PhDs, according to a national data analysis by Donna Nelson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

"The progress that women are making in science and engineering is really great – perhaps long overdue but very, very encouraging," Professor Nelson says.

One element in the spotlight is the path to the permanent status of holding tenure, an arduous one for many. A career can hinge on proving oneself through research and teaching in a five- or six-year probationary period, years that tend to overlap with childbearing.

ACE reports that among married scholars with children under 6, men are twice as likely as women to enter tenure-track jobs.

About half of all American colleges and universities now allow people to add time to their tenure probation if they have a new child. Among them is Princeton University in New Jersey. But when a task force surveyed science and engineering faculty there a few years ago, it found that many faculty were afraid to take advantage of this benefit.

"There was a lot of anxiety, particularly among women assistant professors, that it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness," says Joan Girgus, a psychology professor and a special assistant to the dean of faculty, with a focus on gender equity.

Last fall, Princeton became the first school to make tenure-extension automatic. Anyone who has a new child, through birth or adoption, now has one year added to their tenure "clock." A limit of two such extensions was dropped. People can still apply early to be considered for tenure if they wish, a policy that has always existed.

As a result, 20 people received extensions this academic year, compared with an average of about six in previous years, Professor Girgus says. Men previously used the policy proportionally more than women did, but now that's evened out. "We're really pleased to see this big bump up in usage .... [There's a] sense that there's more fairness in the system now," Girgus says.

Wolfgang Richter, an assistant professor of chemistry at Princeton, received the extension this year for the birth of his second child. When his first child arrived in 2003, he asked around before requesting the extension. "I talked to my neighbor who was in the social sciences. She had a child, and she said she didn't apply because she thought her department would look down on her," he says. But the culture in his department seemed more friendly, so he applied. The new automatic policy "would have changed the situation for her," he says of his neighbor, "and I think that was the purpose."

Along with good on-campus child care and housing, Professor Richter says Princeton's new policy "is a great recruiting tool."

Harvard recently announced a similar automatic tenure- extension policy that takes effect July 1. It's part of a $7.5 million work-life initiative and one of a host of steps being undertaken campuswide by the new Office for Faculty Development and Diversity.

"These work-life issues are at such a critical point in the academy, [for] Harvard to make a serious commitment ... is something that most people see as a long time coming," says Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard's first senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. "It's just the beginning. We're going to keep at it until we feel we have really met the needs of our faculty and staff."

"It's good when those big-name institutions say, 'We're going to step out and do this,' because other institutions will certainly follow – they want to remain competitive," says Ms. Thomas of ACE.

This summer ACE will announce the winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Faculty Career Flexibility. Five $250,000 prizes will accelerate the progress at universities that have a proven track-record. The awards are funded by the Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit group in New York.

Flexibility is important, yet when it comes to retaining women in science, it's just one ingredient. "The harder issue of changing the culture – people either think it's too hard or they don't have any ideas," says Geraldine Richmond, professor of physical chemistry and materials science at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Whether they're in graduate school or on the tenure track, scientists need advice on how to navigate their careers, particularly women in climates where they're a tiny minority. Recognizing this need in the late 1990s, Professor Richmond helped form COACh, the Committee On the Advancement of Women Chemists. In small day-long seminars, COACh has helped more than 1,000 female scientists.

Often, "they feel like everyone else is controlling their lives," Richmond says. "They can't decide when to have kids, they can't get the kind of laboratory space they need.... They're not getting promoted on the level that the men are getting promoted.... You just go down the list." The seminars focus on everything from negotiating for a better salary to how to identify harassment and discrimination. "We coach them on how to get past the barriers and build their self-confidence back up to the level at which they can then feel like they're in control again."

Following up two to three years after the workshops, Richmond has been heartened to hear about women networking locally and asking for better lab space and promotions. One wrote back: "When I enter negotiations, I know that I am valuable and know that the dean needs me. The feelings make the entire process very stress-free and almost fun."

"We're really proud of the fact that our statistics show that 90 percent of the women believe that the COACh workshops lowered their stress level," Richmond says. "If we can start defusing the stress, they can focus more on their science ... and that's the reason they became a scientist – to do science, not fight people."

Statistics

38% Percentage of women among faculty at US colleges and universities

23% Percentage of women among 'full professors' (highest rank)

80% What female faculty earn on average, as a percentage of what male faculty earn

12% Percentage of women among tenured or tenure-track faculty in the natural sciences at Harvard

51% Percentage of colleges and universities that offer unpaid family and medical leaves beyond what's required by federal law

49% Percentage that let people request "stopping the clock" on a tenure probationary period because of family demands such as a new child

Sources: American Association of University Professors; Harvard University; The Center for the Education of Women, University of Michigan.

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