Can we make Science more family-friendly?

A couple of weeks ago, Jon Eisen tweeted a link to an article in the Atlantic: For Female Scientists, There’s No Good Time to Have Children

Over the past decade these issues have come to the attention of universities in the United States and abroad. Many sensible policies have been introduced in an attempt to make academia more family friendly. Two of the most common are tenure-clock stoppage and parental leave. Although these interventions are important, they are not enough on their own. They raise numerous complications, but in the interest of brevity I’ll name only two. First, these policies need to be entitlements, rather than special accommodations that have to be requested and approved. Second, they need to be available to and used by men and women alike.

I was talking to some of my colleagues with young children at a conference last week, which reminded me of the linked piece. Tenure clock extensions and parental leave are good things. However, there is a limit to how much this kind of institutional support can do if taking time off affects the productivity needed to get and keep funding.  That means that stronger parental leave benefits are may not be used by either men or women even if they are available.

There are things that could be done by both employers and the broader community to be more supportive of parent/scientists. Unfortunately, some of these things, like making day care more available and accommodating can run into regulatory hurdles. For example, when I was an organizer of the Phage Meetings I had a lot of discussions about how to make day care more available for conference participants.  On the one hand, the local day care center could not take additional children without violating local rules on the ratio of caregivers to children.  On the other hand, liability issues meant the meeting could not recommend potential external day care providers.  I was under the impression we could not even help organize parents to share childcare with each other.

For some participants the partial solution for meetings was to hire their own extra child care, either on site, or to look after kids left at home with the other spouse.  I know of a couple of universities that offer benefits to support extra child care so parents can attend conferences… but don’t tell parents about them.