NSF Announces New Family-Friendly Policies

The measures aim to keep women in academic research from having to choose between work and family.

The White House and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have announced a new series of policies, the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative,” that aim to give researchers—particularly women—more flexibility in balancing parenthood with workplace demands, reports insidehighered.com. By allowing scholars to delay or suspend NSF grants for up to one year to take care of young children or fulfill other family responsibilities, the 10-year plan helps remove some of the hurdles to women’s advancement and retention in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. In addition, STEM researchers who review their peers’ grant proposals will be able to conduct virtual reviews instead of traveling to a designated location.

Former Kennedy School faculty member John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the policy changes will help both fathers and mothers, but that “it is much more common for women to give up STEM careers” than it is for men, and that the shifts are designed to prevent those departures.

Specifically, the NSF will:

  • Allow postponement for one year of grants because of childbirth or adoption.
  • Allow grant suspension for parental leave.
  • Provide supplementary funds to cover the cost of hiring research technicians to maintain laboratories when grant recipients are on family leave.
  • Permit those serving on peer review panels to meet with their colleagues virtually, rather than in person, to reduce child-care needs created by travel.
  • Fund more research on the effectiveness of policies that are designed to keep women in the science pipeline.

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone,” said First Lady Michelle Obama during an event at the White House held to announce the initiative. “We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Harvard Magazine recently reported on the barriers facing young women in science in “Professorial Permutations,” citing Graduate School of Education research associate Cathy Trower and Research Professor of Education Richard Chait who made the case—with data to back it up—that a main problem for women in academic fields like science was an “unaccommodating culture.” In the wake of President Lawrence H. Summers’s controversial remarks in 2005 about women in science (see“Gender Gap,”), two task forces appointed by the president (their work organized by then-dean of the Radcliffe Institute Drew Faust) made several important recommendations about women pursuing academic careers at Harvard, including one that led to the creation of the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.



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