In Evaluating Scientists, Emphasize Quality Over Quantity

In the competition for funding and jobs and the push for tenure, scientists who are also mothers are often at a disadvantage. As Mary Ann Mason and co-authors document in their book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, career interruptions and time demands related to childbirth and childcare can play havoc with a scientist's CV, lowering the number of publications and leaving gaps at which evaluation committees may look askance.

Faculty members on the tenure track generally can stop the tenure clock to accommodate the arrival of a new child. Postdocs, however, often lack comparable opportunities to prevent time away from the lab from weighing against them. The timing of family needs may cause postdocs to miss important events on the academic calendar.

"For example, a short leave period may overlap with yearly opportunities, such as a conference, or the beginning of a research student's project, making it impractical to supervise a student that year," notes Kim Jacobson, who is a senior postdoc at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia, in an essay republished at University World News. "Mothers who are still breastfeeding may forgo conferences, thus limiting their ability to establish their reputation in the field," she adds. What's more, "pregnancies and frequently sick infants can decrease the number of hours available for active research."

Jacobson's essay offers "six steps" that funding agencies can take to ensure "fairer funding for female scientists." Several of them are specific to the Australian grant-funding scene, but at least two are applicable internationally: establishing "[a] clearer method of judging career disruptions for all components of a track record" and valuing "[q]uality over quantity."

In evaluating the records of applicants for funding and jobs, "quantity of publications is often preferred as the main measure of track record," she continues. "Quantity over quality enforces a bias against females who continue to have reduced hours as an active researcher upon their return to work" after maternity leave.

Sandra Schmid, chair of the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, recently suggested in a Science Careers article, that improving institutional decision-making overall, would especially help women. Simply examining a CV "provides little insight into attributes that will ensure future success in the right environment. For example, a CV is unlikely to reflect the passion, perseverance, and creativity of individuals who struggled with limited resources and created their own opportunities for compelling research." Her department, she reported, is using more broadly based methods "to identify future colleagues who might otherwise have failed to pass through the singular artificial CV filter of high-impact journals, awards, and pedigree."

Schmid does not mention the particular difficulties of some female candidates as a reason for adopting this policy, but enhanced evaluation methods like those she advocates could very well help to overcome the problems that Jacobson cites, allowing evaluators more accurately to judge researchers' scientific potential, whatever their gender, and that could only help women.

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