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The Children They Never Had

The Children They Never Had
August 9, 2011

Nearly half of female faculty members in top science departments wish they'd had more children, but didn't because of their careers, while about a quarter of their male counterparts feel the same way, according to a new study.

The analysis comes at a time of continued interest in why women -- even those with degrees in science and technology fields -- are less likely than men to pursue science careers. The findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, are the first in a series of papers on related topics planned by two sociologists, Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University and Anne Lincoln of Southern Methodist University.

The study is based on a survey of 3,455 scientists (graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and tenured and tenure-track faculty members) in astronomy, physics and biology in "top 20" departments, as judged by the National Research Council in 2005 and by U.S. News & World Report.

At each of the career stages examined, men were more likely than women to be married and to have had children. They also had more children than women did -- and were less likely to regret not having more children. Women reported working roughly the same number of hours per week as men in graduate school, but more at later stages of their careers.

Scientists and Family Status

  Hours Worked Per Week % Married % With Children Average Number of Children % Who Had Fewer Children Than They Wanted Due to Science Career
Grad students          
--Male 52.1 26.1% 8.8% 0.11 20.3%
--Female 52.2 24.2% 5.5% 0.08 39.4%
Postdocs          
--Male 54.9 60.3% 35.8% 0.53 39.0%
--Female 56.1 51.0% 22.4% 0.26 55.4%
Faculty          
--Male 54.9 82.8% 74.6% 2.05 24.5%
--Female 56.1 72.2% 64.2% 1.88 45.4%

The survey also asked those in the earlier career stages whether they were considering careers outside of science, and one in four graduate students and one in five postdocs said that they were. Further, those who believe that they have fewer children because of their career are more likely than others to consider a career switch.

"Given these findings, universities would do well to re-evaluate how family-friendly their policies are," the authors write.

Ecklund of Rice said in an interview that it was important to note that the regret over not having more children is not an issue just for women, but for many men as well. "We can do a disservice to the issue if we focus on this only as a women's issue," she said, even if these challenges fall disproportionately on women. Further, she said that while the scientists who are the most senior in these departments, generally men, advanced in part through the help of wives without outside careers, the men entering the academy today are more likely to be married to people with career ambitions themselves.

For a next stage of the research, male and female scientists are being interviewed about family-friendly policies they have enjoyed, or wish they had. Ecklund said several trends are emerging. Many scientists, she said, especially those who are married to other scientists, spoke about "the amazing help" of having on-campus day care available.

But at the same time, she said, interview subjects spoke about issues beyond traditional day care. Top scientists regularly travel abroad either to conduct research or to share results. So Ecklund said some form of "child care credits" that could be used to pay for nannies for short-term needs might be useful, especially for junior faculty members.

Ecklund also said that she thinks that universities need to think more about mentoring issues with regard to life outside the lab. "People need mentoring on how to balance their careers with their families," she said.

 

 

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