To have and to hold…and then to go back to work

2016-01-09 12.48.58

It’s fairly well accepted that in the biological sciences roughly 50% of undergraduates are female, with a 50:50 sex ratio also continuing to postgraduate level (see HERE for US data). At postdoc there’s either parity or a slight skew towards men, and thereafter a steadily climbing rate of male occupancy as one climbs up the higher echelons of academia (LINK). (It’s even more male-biased in the physical sciences)

There has been much hand-wringing about this. The high male occupancy of senior positions is perhaps not as troubling as it might appear, as these are positions with long tenure (pun very much intended) so the male bias was likely established some time before gender equality in the sciences became an issue of contention.

Rather, the focus needs to be on the postdoc and junior faculty level. If a 50:50 sex ratio was manifest at this level, then one would expect a gradual percolation of that ratio through the senior positions as they’re replaced following retirement/departure. But that status is currently not being achieved, so we’re unlikely to see a substantial change in the number of female scientists holding senior positions for a while yet.

So why is it that (for the biosciences) a roughly 50:50 sex ratio ends up skewed towards men by the time we reach assistant professor (or equivalent) position? One popular, and probably correct, answer is parenthood. Parenthood often has a very different impact and the careers and work-life balances of male and female scientists.

Leaving aside the impact of the pregnancy period itself (which is considerable), the arrival of a baby causes a massive alteration to the priorities and planning of the working day. There will be a period of complete absence from the workplace, possibly followed by a period of part-time reintegration, followed by full-time return. (Don’t fool yourself – though many do – that a parent is not able to work properly because of the need to leave for collection of child from daycare/creche/nursery as efficiency goes through the roof! What drops off is the number of coffee breaks and visits to internet newsrooms, game forums, and Facebook)

As such, there’s often a covert expectation that a female candidate for PhD/postdoc/faculty position will at some point be absent due to parenthood, while a male candidate can merrily father children while taking only a minimal hit to his workplace attendance and input.

There’s a simple and actually quite obvious solution – more men need to take time off when they become fathers. Not just two weeks but something more substantial – months. Scandinavia is way ahead of the curve here, as they tend to be on a lot of gender equality issues. If men and women can approach a 50:50 time commitment to parenting, then there’s no longer any serious difference between a male and a female candidate for a position. The man is just as likely as the woman to be absent from the workplace at some point following junior’s arrival.

Childcare facilities and parenting entitlements will vary from one country to another, but let’s set that to one side. Whatever the local conditions, it should be possible for men to aim for a 50% contribution. And just as importantly, it should be encouraged if not openly obligated. Male scientists need to be good partners as well as good researchers.

7 thoughts on “To have and to hold…and then to go back to work

  1. Hear, hear. I’d like to extend this appeal to the whole male working community. (Sorry, I know you’re writing a science blog.)


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