Can Academic Research Be a Family-Friendly Career? The Role of Disciplinary Societies in Shaping Workplace Policy

"Over a decade ago, and primarily owing to the work and contributions of its leaders who were women and/or minorities in the sciences, the Biophysical Society began thinking about access and equality issues," stated Jonathan King, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Biophysical Society?s 1999-2000 president. "Over time," King explained, "the society?s awareness focused on the difficult career transition issues experienced by our younger members." Acknowledging that these members would shape the future of the profession, the Biophysical Society has undertaken an effort to support the early careers of these new science professionals.

"In the past, postdocs were transient, and their population was small in number, to the extent that they were not a particularly critical component of the scientific workforce at universities, medical schools, and industry," King continued. "But this is no longer the case. Today?s R&D productivity is dependent on postdocs. Postdocs are respected members of the workforce who need resources, including benefits. There is a gap between the actual role of most postdoctoral associates and their employment status and conditions."

Jonathan King

past-president, Biophysical Society

The Biophysical Society?s increased recognition of the contributions to the discipline made by postdoctoral associates also includes an appreciation that to nurture and retain their intellectual contributions, the society needs the associates? professional partnership. Thus, the society?s board of directors approved an initiative to assist these professionals by identifying and providing appropriate services and programs through an Early Careers Committee, established in 2001. "Through this action," stated King, "the Biophysical Society affirmed its mission as a professional organization, taking the lead addressing various employment needs and concerns of the community."

Patricia L. Clark, Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, is the Biophysical Society?s Early Careers Committee chair. Clark described the committee?s first year of accomplishments as activities designed to "improve the oft-described 'plight of the postdoc' by helping individual members, through networking and career information pertinent to a postdoc?s professional development." Clark noted that the society has been "warmly receptive and strikingly supportive." But she adds that, "future issues for committee deliberations will present a thornier agenda."

"The postdoctoral membership of the society clearly wants the committee to explore the issues surrounding family-friendly workplace policies," says Clark. The issues that the Biophysical Society?s postdoc members have brought to the attention of the Early Careers Committee include:

  • Alternative work schedules that allow flextime options.

  • Flexible spending accounts that allow employees to convert certain personal expenses (e.g., child care) into pretax fringe benefits.

  • Family or maternity leave.

  • Family health and wellness programs, as well as medical and dental insurance.

  • Child-care subsidies or services.

"And because the average length of a postdoctoral appointment is much longer than a year, there are other employment terms and conditions that have significant impact on the postdoc?s family," said Clark. Those issues, which also have implications for family-friendly standards, include:

  • Clear, written offers of appointment stipulating compensation, benefits, and the duration of the position.

  • Written statements describing other pertinent labor practices, such as vacation time and tracking sick leave, as well as regular and periodic performance evaluations.

  • Access to conflict resolution services.

  • Access to pension plan options.

"Addressing these concerns will be more difficult for the committee and the professional society," Clark reflected, "because standards for employment policies typically elicit sensitivities regarding resource allocations and institutional change. Implementing pro-family benefits programs and policies is perceived as costly to excellence in science and in its productivity."

Patricia Clark

chair, Early Careers Committee

Biophysical Society

Postdocs and PIs are likely to see themselves as powerless or voiceless regarding employment conditions. "Academic institutions are complex," King remarked. "If there is no uniform policy for postdoctoral fellows, there is no place to effect change, there is no one claiming responsibility and accountability."

Absent a policy, the principal investigator?s decision-making may rest on allocating scarce research funds either to the cost of research supplies or a postdoc?s benefits. The trade-off within this rationale becomes one of "more science" versus "less science." Unfortunately, the fact that satisfied employees may be more productive is easily overlooked. Can science productivity and excellence really only be accomplished through labor practices that might raise questions in human resource management circles outside the scientific and academic communities?

These concerns and questions are not new to the workplace. Similar efforts to balance work and personal life were reported by the private and government sectors in the 1990s. Lessons for academe and for the postdoctoral associate might be learned from management scholarship and the continuing development of responsive, state-of-the-art human resource programs.

Helpful Advice These links to scholarship and activism in work/family or work/life issues will lead you to the many centers and think tanks in this arena.

The Center for Work and Family, Boston College

Sloan Work and Family Research Network, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

College and University Work/Family Association

One example is the 1991 U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) report Balancing Work Responsibilities and Family Needs: The Federal Civil Service Response . The report described an environment where the federal government and other major employers found it "increasingly in their own best interests to offer some combination of benefits programs that can assist employees in meeting their personal needs and obligations while still becoming or remaining a productive member of the workforce." Chief among the considerations was demonstrating the benefit/cost ratio of implementing work/family employment practices.

Employers and management scholars working on these issues over the past decade, including the Center for Ethical Business Cultures, have concluded that although the calculation is difficult and the proper measurements often lacking, productivity for an institution versus benefits and satisfaction for the employees are not mutually exclusive choices. Rather, considerable evidence exists that well-designed and effectively implemented work/family policies strengthen an institution by boosting productivity and lowering costs through improved retention, reduced absenteeism, lowered employee stress levels, and enhanced employee commitment. More employers are beginning to acknowledge that the work and family separation is an artificial one that stifles productivity.

Traditional work culture dictates that an employee's career would be hurt if "personal" issues interfered with their job. As a consequence, employees may be reticent to avail themselves of benefits. Therefore, successful implementation of work/family policies depends on establishing a culture of active management and support, without which the MSPB report suggests "old ways of thinking will inhibit both employees and management from realizing the benefits of work and family programs."

Understanding organizational conditions, employers? priorities, and cultural values is key to positioning issues and creating strategic partners for work/family initiatives. Drawing on the services of a professional society and identifying pertinent resources from other disciplines including work/family centers and think tanks (see sidebar), literature, and benchmark studies, may well serve to expand the knowledge base and enhance the leadership around work/family issues for postdoctoral associates in the workforce.

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