CCNY Biologist Helps Inaugurate New Era of Family-Friendly STEM Policies
Ana Carnaval (4th from left) and other NSF Early Career Scientists invited to announcement of NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative in the White House East Room.
Professor Carnaval Attends White House Ceremony to Launch NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative
A few years ago, Ana Carnaval was a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Berkeley with one baby in her arms and another on the way. With grants to write, a “Science” paper in the works and her spouse living half a continent away most of the week, she literally had her hands full balancing the demands of career and family.
Dr. Carnaval, now an assistant professor of biology at The City College of New York, considers herself lucky. Flexible grants and a supportive advisor allowed her to succeed in her postdoc. But many other young female scientists abandon promising research careers when forced to choose between family and the rigors of academia. “The number of women giving up on their academic careers as they move up the professional ladder is troubling,” she said.
That may soon be changing. At a recent White House ceremony, Professor Carnaval and other National Science Foundation early career scientists joined First Lady Michelle Obama and NSF Director Subra Suresh to launch NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative. NSF expects the initiative to inaugurate a new era of family-friendly policies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone,” said Mrs. Obama during the late September event. “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.”
The 10-year plan is meant to provide greater work-place flexibility in universities and research institutions for both men and women. However, Dr. Suresh noted, it is the professional advancement of women that most often stalls as they make difficult choices between time devoted to their careers or to marriage, the birth or adoption of a child, or caring for children or elderly parents.
"I know from firsthand experience that it’s never easy to make choices between career and family,” said City College of New York President Lisa S. Coico, who raised a family as a young microbiologist and educator. “These NSF policies will reinforce City College’s longstanding mission: to foster world class scholarly research in the STEM fields by pulling from and supporting the full diversity of student and faculty talent.”
A primary goal is to promote retention of women in STEM. Although by 2009 women were earning 41 percent of all STEM PhDs in the United States, as of five years ago they held only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty positions. “Reducing the dropout rate of women in STEM careers is especially important in the quest for gender equality because women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations,” noted a White House press release.
The initiative will standardize and expand upon earlier NSF programs targeting workplace flexibility that the institution previously adopted on an ad hoc basis. “I actually must have been one of NSF’s guinea pigs there," recalls Professor Carnaval. “Thanks to NSF, I was able to stay at home with each one of (my children) for three months after their births, later extending my postdoc to ensure I finished all of my projects.”
She knows of colleagues whose experiences weren't so happy after the birth of a child, however: Grad students unable to finish dissertation chapters when funding ran out, postdoctoral appointments that went unrenewed, and couples unable to find dual faculty positions.
The initiative will
• Allow postponement of grants for child birth/adoption
• Allow grant suspension for parental leave
• Provide grant supplements to hire research technicians that maintain labs while PIs are on family leave
• Publicize the availability of family-friendly opportunities
• Promote family friendliness for grant proposal panel reviewers, for example, allowing virtual meetings in lieu of travel
• Support research and evaluation into the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women in the STEM pipeline
• Encourage academic institutions to extend the tenure clock and allow for dual hiring opportunities
“Mrs. Obama was quick to point out how these new policies can cascade down and function as models for other companies and institutions,” noted Professor Carnaval, “thus helping millions of women – and men – who want to have a successful career and a family, and particularly supporting girls interested in pursuing a career in the STEM fields.”
The early career scientists gathered at National Science Foundation headquarters prior to the White House ceremony to share their stories, “as mothers and fathers in academia: Our frustrations and glories, our experiences – both good and bad,” recalled Professor Carnaval. NSF officials took note and solicited more ideas from the young academics.
Professor Carnaval sees how these policies could make a big difference to young women in her lab. She currently mentors five female undergraduates and two female graduate students, one of whom is also a mother. “I see how she lives this duality every day,” she said.
As for herself, although Professor Carnaval and her husband, Alex, do not plan to have more children, the new policies could ease some of their difficulties. She sometimes rises at three a.m. to begin work before her children – Ana Julia, four, and Rafael, three, – wake up, and she still travels extensively for fieldwork and meetings. The children’s two grandmothers also help out when she is away. They rack up their own frequent flier miles traveling from Brazil to the United States several times a year. The flexibility of virtual meetings would give the family further peace of mind.
"This policy is absolutely a huge first step in the direction of a balanced workforce in the United States, and a pivotal one regarding women’s rights,” Professor Carnaval noted. “The measures will affect both women and men with families, ensure productivity at work and a more diverse workforce, and, above all, inspire young girls in the STEM fields. Everyone wins here!”
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NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative