UF Study: Women Scientists And Engineers Face Delicate Balancing Act

July 10, 1998

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Americans stand to lose some of their most talented women scientists and engineers because of the difficulties of juggling career and family responsibilities, a new nationwide study by the University of Florida suggests.

A survey of 68 women scientists who received research grants from a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) program last year showed that 62 percent considered balancing work and family responsibilities the biggest challenge they face, said Sue Rosser, director of UF's Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research.

That women at the pinnacles of their careers have difficulty combining work and family is discouraging to bright young women contemplating futures in science or engineering and looking for female role models who successfully manage both, Rosser said.

"The notion that a scientist or engineer is somehow perceived very much as a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week occupation is difficult for women, or men, also wanting to have other things in their lives," Rosser said.

At colleges and universities, one of the biggest problems for women scientists and engineers is conflicts between tenure and their biological clocks, said Rosser, who is presenting her findings to the NSF July 16 in Montreal. By the time professors complete graduate school, obtain academic positions and finish the six-or seven-year tenure process, according to the traditional timetable, they are in their late 30s, near the end of a woman's childbearing years, she said.

In a famous 1980s study tracking Illinois high school valedictorians, the incompatibility of science and engineering with family life was the most frequent answer the women gave as college freshmen for dropping out of these fields in larger numbers than men, even though their grades were better, Rosser said.

"There are plenty of data showing that women who drop out of science in colleges and universities are not doing so because they have less ability," she said. "The women who enter these programs actually have somewhat higher grades and test scores than men. They wonder whether becoming a scientist or engineer is being compatible with having a relationship or family."

Academic institutions and grant agencies could remedy the tenure and biological clock conflict with financially rewarding policies allowing greater flexibility, Rosser said.

For example, the Sloan Foundation has a new program matching funding to institutions that attempt innovative polices to solve the tenure/biological clock dilemma and permit women to maintain their research after giving birth, she said.

"In part, family responsibilities remain challenging because employing institutions continue to operate as though a full-time caretaker is available at home to provide all back-up necessary to support the participation and performance of the employee," agreed Mary Frank Fox, a sociology professor at Atlanta's Georgia Institute of Technology. "This 'back-up' is decreasingly available to men -- and it is virtually absent for women."

Balancing committee responsibilities with research and teaching -- time management -- was the second most frequent concern identified by women scientists and engineers in the UF study (24 percent). Women often get more requests than men to serve on committees because their numbers are so few and people want female representation, Rosser said.

Other challenges they mentioned were isolation as a result of low numbers of women (24 percent); gaining credibility and respectability from peers and administrators (22 percent); and balancing their spouse's career with their own (20 percent).

"Some described the laboratory climate as a hostile environment with a boys' club atmosphere, where women were seen as a problem, an anomaly or deviant," Rosser said. "In particular, computer labs were frequently seen as dominated by macho cliques or 'computer jocks,' with their culture and behavior tending to intimidate and turn off most female and even some male students."

Attracting more women to science might not only improve the working environment, but eliminate research biases, such as those which have occurred in drug trials from having drugs tested only on men, Rosser said.

University of Florida
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