Elusive Balance

An international survey of scientists finds that many are unhappy with the lack of career opportunities and family-friendliness at their institutions.

March 9, 2012

Will scientists who aim to strike a healthy balance between work and family end up leaving the STEM fields?

Experts raised  the question Thursday, after the Association for Women in Science published an international survey that showed that a majority of researchers and scientists had conflicts between their work schedules and personal lives at least two to three times a week.

The survey includes answers from 4,225 scientists and researchers from across the world. Sixty-four percent of those who responded work for universities; 24 percent were from the United States. Seventy percent of the respondents were men; 80 percent were married or had a partner.

The results suggest that complaints heard in American university laboratories about the lack of family-friendly workplaces may be similar to those made by scientists around the world.

“If there’s one-third of scientists who are unhappy, then we might lose a lot of people who are playing a role in science,” said Donna Dean, an AWIS board member and former president of the organization. She said there were no wide disparities between the numbers across countries, genders or disciplines.

“The goal, of course, is to have robust, diverse and enthusiastic workplaces,” Dean said. “We have to question what these numbers mean for those coming into the system.”

About 63 percent of those queried said they were satisfied with their career opportunities. “Satisfaction is linked to job security (permanent positions), a clear progression path and having a good work-life balance. Those dissatisfied mention lack of permanent positions, low salary and lack of funding,” the survey said. China and the United States led the countries where job satisfaction was the highest, with numbers of 74 percent and 67 percent respectively.

A third of those surveyed said that their spouse or partner received significant support from their workplace. “Of those agreeing, some report that their institution has a spousal hire policy while others note that flexible working or benefit plans support their spouse,” the survey said. About 29 percent of U.S. scientists said their spouses or partners got significant support from their institutions, while the figure for China was 65 percent.

Other key findings include:

  • About 60 percent of scientists were happy with their work-life balance. The rates for women were lower, at 52 percent.
  • Forty percent of women surveyed said they put off having children because of their careers, and wanted to wait until they had permanent jobs or better salaries.
  • One in 10 people questioned said they wanted to leave their current job in the next 12 months because they were seeking career advancement.

Gerlind Wallon, a manager  at the EMBO Young Investigator program, an initiative based in Germany that helps young European scientists with their careers, said scientists should work together to help one another find a better work-life balance.

“The community needs to understand their needs outside the lab. A scientist is more than a head and a pair of hands,” she said. “If we don’t address this, they are going to leave science altogether.”



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