Keeping Talented Women in the STEM Workforce is Good For Us All

Biologist Kate Jackson is part of a research project tracing the evolutionary history of amphibians, reptiles and their internal parasites in the lowlands of Central Africa. Forests in the Congo Basin are renowned for their immense biodiversity, but the area is plagued by violence, as fighting continues between the government and rebel groups.

This collaborative research project received NSF funding just as Kate was having a baby. With the demands of her family and the need to do research in a place that had become very dangerous, Kate asked for her field work to be delayed until her son was older and the political situation in the Congo more stable.

Through NSF’s Career-Life Balance initiative, Kate was able to receive an extension at no cost to NSF, giving her more time to perform the work tied to the grant.

NSF is using Career-Life Balance to attract and keep talented women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, work force. Research funded by NSF shows that women often leave research positions when family demands take over.

In addition, many women scientists have scientist spouses and partners. Relocating together can be difficult for these women, a reality that NSF is starting to address through our ADVANCE program.

“The number one reason women in STEM decline a tenure-track faculty position is that their partners are not offered appropriate employment as well,” says Santa J. Ono, president of the University of Cincinnati (UC).  “We also know that women are more likely to stay in faculty positions if they have a partner in a similar field and employed locally.”

With NSF funding, the university is laying the groundwork for a dual-career regional network that will help spouses and partners of faculty secure employment at UC or with the area’s other institutions and businesses.

Putting the best minds together to address the progress of women in STEM was the goal of the third international Gender Summit held in Washington, D.C., this past November, with NSF as a partner.

Attendee Isabelle Blain of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada noted, “I came out of the GS3 with pride and hope. I will follow the progress of women in science and engineering, both in terms of representation in academia and in terms of inclusion of gender dimension in research.”

I’m proud of what we’re doing to further the success of women in STEM, with solid research as the foundation of our efforts. One example: Our report, Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities, is an excellent resource for researchers, media, and others to take a deeper look at underrepresented groups, including women, in STEM disciplines.

I’ll end with another story. Biologist Melia Nafus was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow studying the impact of humans and climate change on desert tortoises’ habitat in the Mojave Desert. Through Career-Life Balance, NSF was able to pay a research assistant to keep Melia’s field work going during her pregnancy, when temperatures in excess of 110 degrees would have been harmful to her. Now, mother and child are doing well. Nafus has completed her Ph.D, and will soon join the research staff of the San Diego Zoo.

Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the National Science Foundation.

Cora Marrett is the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation. 

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