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Perspective: Embrace Flexible Work Arrangements

Joanne Simms and Jim Baker are married. She is a physicist and he is a computational chemist. Both are employed as senior lecturers and are working hard to get good papers published in prestigious journals to earn the notice and respect of their scientific communities. The couple has two young children, ages 8 and 5. For both births, Simms and Baker shared the parental leave. Since returning to work, both have worked 3 to 4 days a week, juggling work and family obligations. Both are on their way to obtaining full professorships.

This fictional picture of hard work and scientific achievement balanced with family life—yes, Joanne and Jim are fictional—would be most unrealistic if they were placed in the United Kingdom. For one thing, part-time professional working arrangements are still uncommon in most leading economies (including the United Kingdom), especially in academia, despite the fact that there is little evidence that working fewer hours leads to lower productivity. Also, childcare provision is still not flexible or cheap enough in the United Kingdom to allow parents to leave their children in a good daycare facility close to their workplace.

To increase the representation of women in STEM fields, make career breaks and part-time work more acceptable to men.

And then there is what Lesley Yellowlees, a leading chemistry professor and the first woman president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, described last June as a “macho culture,” where working hours are inflexible and never part-time, and recruitment is based on “old boys’ ” clubs. In the same interview, Yellowlees berated U.K. science minister David Willetts’s 2010 decision to axe the £2.5 million annual funding for the U.K. Resource Centre for Women (UKRC), the only national body that promoted gender equality in science and technology through grants and career advice. (UKRC has now become a community interest company.)

The three of us would like to join Yellowlees in pointing out the implications of this kind of shortsightedness. We would also like to draw attention to some approaches to improving the working culture in science.

Sunk costs

UKRC's loss of public funding is just one of many examples of how the government has failed to provide the support that young, well-trained scientists need to fulfill their economic and scientific potential. (Broader science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] budget cuts are another egregious example, but that's a different story.) The result is what accountants call "sunk costs."

CREDIT: Nathalie Pettorelli
Nathalie Pettorelli

Training a future scientist is indeed relatively expensive: According to a 2005 report issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the costs of training and supervising a postgraduate research student in one of the most laboratory-intensive subjects amounted to more than £87,000 over the 3 years of his or her Ph.D. studies, including scholarships, bursaries, and fees remission; the salary costs of supervisors, examiners, and lecturers; research consumables; and indirect costs and estates costs.

Every year, however, a high proportion of these young trainees leave STEM, many for jobs that do not offer opportunities to fulfill their economic potential and will not be as fulfilling as their first career choices. The bulk of these STEM-leavers are women: A report released earlier this year by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, for example, showed that 73% of female graduates are eventually lost from STEM fields. (The number for men is 48%, which is bad enough.) Worse, the report went on, 11,000 female STEM graduates are economically inactive in Scotland. (According to a UKRC report, at any point in time, the number is 50,000 for the whole United Kingdom.) The Scottish report estimated that increasing women’s participation in the U.K. STEM labor market could be worth at least £2 billion, or roughly 0.2% of the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product. The personal costs to those former scientists are harder to quantify, but the costs they bear are no less real.

The loss of human potential is always an outcome to be deplored, but it is, we argue, especially deplorable when women leave the STEM community. Perhaps the most compelling reason to regret such a loss is simply that so few females stay in science and reach top positions. In the United Kingdom, the number of female professors is slowly increasing. But according to 2010 U.K. national statistics, about 80% of professors are men, in all disciplines combined. Women only make up some 5% of the fellows of the Royal Society; only two of the 44 fellows appointed in 2012 are female. Even in more female-friendly disciplines, such as biology, men still make up the bulk of editorial boards for international journals. By our count, women make up fewer than 5% of some of those boards.

CREDIT: Seirian Sumner
Seirian Sumner

Several studies have then demonstrated that diversity has a positive impact on financial and organizational performance, highlighting the costs of losing these women from the STEM community: A report by McKinsey & Company in 2008 found that “[o]n average, women use five of the nine leadership behaviors that improve organizational performance more often than men.” In particular, women were found to spend more time developing people, defining expectations and rewards, being a role model, providing an inspiring vision for the work, and fostering participative decision-making (while dedicating the same amount of time as men to intellectual stimulation and efficient communication).

Shifting the culture to achieve gender balance

How can we stop this predominantly female brain drain? If Yellowlees is right, then reaching gender balance demands that we challenge the culture of scientific workplaces. There must be something very wrong with the culture indeed for such large numbers of bright-eyed schoolgirls—who often outnumber boys in science classes—to leave STEM.

The poor provision of low-cost childcare and the paucity of flexible working arrangements send the message to practicing scientists that there is no room for anything less than a 100% time commitment in STEM. Yet, we would argue, many scientists—not just women—see work-life balance as important. Flexible parental leave, part-time work schedules, and affordable childcare are portrayed as female-specific issues, but male scientists have come to consider off-putting the competitive and all-consuming nature of academic careers. The current culture in science, therefore, is not attractive to many of either sex, but it appears to push women out at a faster rate than men.

Yet, you don’t need to be an overly competitive male working long hours to be an innovative and productive scientist. Working flexible or part-time schedules does bring its own challenges, but, we would argue, these can be amply overcome with determination, great organization skills, focus, and efficiency. To increase the representation of women in STEM fields, make career breaks and part-time work more acceptable to men. This has the added, practical advantage of giving women more help at home.

Legislative changes often drive social change, so why not try to change the traditional perception of the roles of men at work and at home by amending legislation about parental leave and rights? Employer incentives could also play a role. The Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science rewards U.K. university departments for good gender equality employment practices. Making such official recognition compulsory for consideration by funding bodies, as Chief Medical Officer for England Sally Davies suggested last year for all medical schools, would be a powerful and achievable beginning toward recouping sunk costs.

Perhaps we would do well to revisit a feminist concept of the 1980s: To achieve gender equality in science, shift men’s perceptions of what's socially and professionally acceptable. School is one of the best places to start changing attitudes, but female scientists can also lead the way both as partners and as mothers. Men who adopt family-friendly attitudes could be held up as role models. Only when it is socially acceptable for men and women to have an equal chance of staying in STEM, taking a career break, or adopting a flexible work schedule will women no longer be the largest component of the sunk cost in science.

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