How can we improve the quality of life at work for women in stem faculty positions?
Problems faced by underrepresented groups in academic fields are being brought to the forefront of discussions on how institutions of higher learning can improve the quality of professional life, and the quality of life, in general, for these groups. Among the struggles to address include those faced by women in STEM faculty positions. Women are subjected to many stressors in their academic positions in these predominantly male-dominated fields. These can include finding it challenging to balance work and family/personal demands, navigating gender bias in academic, and difficulties in finding institutions that offer and implement family-friendly policies. What are some improvements that can be made in STEM academic departments at universities that will benefit women and allow for equitable treatment of both male and female faculty?
1. Destigmatize seeking a healthy work-life balance
Academics, whether they are graduate students pursuing faculty positions in the future, early-career academics, or full professors, need to have a healthy work-life balance. The pressure to stay up-to-date and make progress in research is always there, but no one should be looked down upon for trying to maintain a healthy personal life with friends and family while also advancing their career. There are certainly some instances where the individual and/or their family come first and that should be respected. Faculty should be able to set boundaries for what they allow when it comes to their work and their personal life for a good balance of the two. If someone prioritizes their family in some situations, it does not mean that they are not serious about their careers. This is especially important for women when it comes to building their families as women are the medium through which a life enters this world. Pregnancy can be longer than nine months, and women, just like any other people who go through a physically traumatic experience, need time to recover, which may require them to take time off. Taking time off for physical and mental recovery, not only from pregnancies but from other aspects of life (this can be for both men and women) should be normalized and not seen as someone taking the easy path or being lazy. There are times when it is important to prioritize the self over work and this should not be stigmatized.
2. Implement and normalize family-friendly policies
Institutions of higher learning are doing better at creating family-friendly policies, but there are still improvements that need to be made. These policies should not be created just to check off a requirement or to make the institution’s reception by the public better. When a woman in a STEM faculty position uses one of these policies, like taking family leave or delaying the “tenure-clock”, they should not be seen as weak or as getting extra time. It should be normal for someone to use policies made available to them and not be chastised for it by their colleagues. Men should be encouraged to take advantage of the policies as well. The departments should also make it known to their employees that there are facilities available to them and that they are free to use them as they deem appropriate. Having the policies buried deep in some handbook does not help as many people may have never heard of them or know that they exist.
3. Eliminate gender bias with seminars and training
While it is impossible for someone to be completely impartial, universities can do better to ensure that their employees are educated on gender bias and how they can eliminate biased practices in their careers. This includes eliminating gender bias in hiring and promotion practices. We have a great program here at Virginia Tech where employees need to go through Diversity and Inclusion training. There should be specific training for faculty and those in positions to hire and promote other faculty. If a man’s family responsibilities are not brought up during an interview, then a woman’s should not be either. Women should be given the same departmental resources as men and have the same networks made available to them.
4. Create positive mentoring experiences for women
Retention of women in STEM fields is low as the focus is on recruitment and there is often no follow-up with those who choose to pursue a career in a STEM field. Women can benefit from seeing other women in STEM faculty positions. As a student, I enjoyed seeing how strong and determined my undergraduate research advisor was and how she balanced her family life and her career. This encouraged me to pursue a career in academia. Other young female students can benefit from seeing female professors succeeding in their careers and not having to choose their work over their family or vice versa. While it is common for students to seek mentors, it needs to be more common for early-career academics to have mentors. Female early-career academics will benefit from having a mentor who may be of a higher rank who can help guide them in navigating the difficulties of a career in academia. Cornell University has a program called Women in Science and Engineering that is a resource for female faculty in engineering.  More universities should think about implementing a similar program to help female early-career academics find their footing as they not only face the challenges of starting their career but also have unique roadblocks associated with being a minority in a STEM field.
There are certainly more ways to improve the experience of women in STEM faculty positions, but the four suggestions made above would be a great place to start. Any university or academic department looking to increase the quality of their working conditions for women in STEM, or in general fields of study, should do the following: Ask your female employees what they want and programs they think can be created or policies that can be implemented that will make them enjoy their jobs and reduce the stress associated with being a minority in their field.