Developing Family-Friendly Policies: The Role of Institutions

Last March, a group of women leaders came together at the Cathedral Hotel in San Francisco to discuss issues surrounding professional women in university settings. The symposium, called Women Leaders 2002, was coordinated by the Center for Gender Equity at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and was the third leadership conference devoted solely to topics concerning working women in the UC system.

Held on National Women?s Day, the conference was well attended by members of the UCSF community. Even with the ever-growing awareness toward problems concerning women in science, a number of challenges still plague female graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty. Surprisingly, juggling a scientific career with a family life remains a major concern. "Science is thought to be an equalizing career, but it is important to address whether it really is," said Quita Bingham, special projects coordinator at the Center for Gender Equity (CGE).

Located atop a woody hill overlooking UCSF?s main campus, the primary mission of the CGE is to promote tolerance, understanding, and inclusion through programs that advance social, economic, and public service. Events coordinated by the CGE focus on women working at all levels within the UC environment. Some examples of CGE projects are self-defense classes, luncheon workshops for women faculty, and discussion groups for women of color and senior women managers.

There wasn?t always an institution like the Center for Gender Equity at UCSF. It was more than 20 years ago, in 1979, that Amy Levine, the current director of the CGE, started a rape prevention education program to deal with sexual abuse cases at the university. Levine?s first office was a small desk in the UCSF police department. As the number of female graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty grew, so did the need for a larger organization devoted to handling specific problems arising from gender issues. This spurred the opening of the UCSF Women?s Resource Center in 1984, which in turn evolved into the Center for Gender Equity in 1999.

To fulfill its current mission, the close-knit group working at CGE has designed a number of outreach and educational initiatives, one of which is the Women Leaders symposium. Most of the funding for these projects comes from the University Advancement and Planning budget. Every event sponsored by CGE is subsidized, and often, depending on the program, other organizations and departments at UCSF pitch in money to assist with costs.

Women Leaders 2002 was a 3-day conference focused on women in the workplace, be they in science, law, or business. Many sessions dealt with issues that all people, male or female, face in the workplace: honing communication skills, negotiating salaries, and building competent teams. There were also a number of symposia that touched on more sensitive topics, such as problems that lesbian, gay, and transgendered women face; multiculturalism; and exploring a gendered approach to developing a new work environment.

Although programs coordinated by the CGE focus primarily on gender, lesbian, gay, and transsexual issues, anyone is welcome to approach them for help. With projects like the Women?s Leadership symposium and its sister conference Tools for Transition, CGE hopes to help female researchers and staff handle difficulties encountered while searching for academic jobs and working in science.

"I wanted to be involved in women?s activities at UCSF, so the women?s conference seemed natural," said Kendra Rumbaugh, a former postdoctoral fellow in the department of anesthesia at UCSF. Rumbaugh worked with the CGE to organize Tools for Transition, a UCSF-wide conference devoted to the professional development of female scientists, held in November of 2001. As a new postdoc, Rumbaugh?s major concern was how to balance a family with a career in science. Feeling disillusioned about her future, she wanted to interact with other women with stable home and work lives. So she got involved with CGE and helped to plan a session called Work/Life Balance: Part Work in Progress, Part Balancing Act.

"For women postdocs and faculty, providing ample opportunity to raise a family while also having a career is really needed," Rumbaugh said. As an example, she recommends policies that extend tenure decision timetables for women faculty. Unfortunately, even when women succeed in establishing equilibrium between work and family, other problems still loom on the horizon, from less than adequate on-site day care to poor maternity leave policies. Fortunately, these are issues that the UCSF Chancellor?s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women (CACSW) and the UCSF Postdoctoral Scholars Association (PSA) want to deal with sooner rather than later.

An Institution?s Institutions

UCSF?s CACSW was created to examine issues pertaining to women faculty, staff, and students. More recently, female postdoctoral fellows were included, and there is now a postdoc representative on the UCSF CACSW board. Other University of California campuses have similar organizations that serve as sounding boards for professional women?s concerns. UCSF?s CACSW is split into a number of subcommittees, including a women?s faculty leadership committee and one for staff equity and diversity. These subcommittees work together with the UCSF chancellor, Michael Bishop, to handle grievances and difficulties beleaguering working women at the university.

Like the Center for Gender Equity, groups like CACSW and PSA are always looking to recruit people interested in helping with programs and policy development. However, these organizations only manage to woo a small percentage of postdocs to take time out of hectic schedules for work on nonlaboratory ventures. The problem again seems to lie with balance. Many postdocs do not feel that they can afford to lose valuable lab time for work on external projects and many have lives outside of their work that demand attention. Often, lab chiefs can be less than enthusiastic about their postdocs shifting focus away from the ever-important research project.

The finite time of the postdoctoral appointment is partly to blame. To acquire a job in academia or industry, postdocs need to produce their publications in a relatively short time to demonstrate a solid research track record. Many lab chiefs feel that getting involved in outside activities will lower productivity and hurt a postdoc?s chance for a job later on. Not all lab chiefs feel that way, however. "My boss at UCSF was incredible," Rumbaugh said. "She was very supportive and encouraged all of her postdocs, especially the women, to get involved with things outside the lab, like policy planning, etc."

Forty-eight percent of postdocs at UCSF are women, according to a 1999 survey by the UCSF director of institutional research. But this statistic could vary widely across discipline, said Christine Des Jarlais, assistant dean of postdoctoral affairs. Her job is a new post at UCSF. Des Jarlais plans to work closely with CACSW, the Postdoctoral Scholars Association, and the Center for Gender Equity.

On their end, Bingham, Levine, Des Jarlais, and the CGE are adding women postdocs to their mailing list as an important audience. The CGE welcomes input from current postdocs and other UCSF scientists to address any resource gaps that may exist, Bingham said.

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