Scientists: We Want More Children

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We Ecocentric writers have the privilege of constant exposure to the most cutting-edge science research around – we’ve written about sexy birds, Arctic oil, paper solar panels, and countless other incarnations of the weird and wonderful. But sometimes it’s easy to overlook the hardworking folks behind these discoveries, and it looks like they’ve had to forget things too: their families. Almost half of all women scientists and a quarter of their male colleagues at the nation’s top research universities – Harvard, Princeton and Stanford among them – feel their careers have prevented them from having as many children as they had wanted, according to research by sociologists at Rice University and Southern Methodist University (SMU).

And the generation following them has noticed: the researchers found that a worrying one in four graduate students and one in five postdoctoral fellows is considering a career entirely outside science, largely because of these perceived limitations.  But while this is troubling, it’s hardly surprising. A career in science means committing to the long hours and high stress that come with grant-writing, the pressure to publish, and colleagues who are all smarter than you, or at least scarily competitive. None of these things exactly screams “mom of the year.”

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“We’re going to lose a lot of scientists at the top research universities,” study author Elaine Howard Ecklund said. “They’re going to go into industry and other professions and leave science altogether.”

Ecklund and her colleague Anne Lincoln of SMU surveyed a mix of 3,455 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and tenure-track or tenured faculty members in the country’s top 20 Ph.D programs in astrophysics, physics and biology, as ranked by the National Research Council in 1995 and correlated with the 2008 rankings of the U.S. News & World Report. The surveys, conducted as part of the Perceptions of Women in Academic Scientist (PWAS) study, covered mostly Ivy League and large state universities in the U.S.

The pair found that while nearly twice as many women scientists as men – 45.4% to 24.5% – said they had fewer children than they preferred, it was actually the men who were less satisfied with their lives in large part because of the career roadblocks to having more kids. This was even after adjusting for confounding factors such as marital status, weekly hours worked, and satisfaction with life outside work. “We were pretty shocked to find men are struggling with this issue to the extent that they are,” Ecklund said. But men and women are equal in one key measure: time logged on the job. Both sexes with children work put in about the same number of hours at work, and both put in fewer hours than their childless colleagues.

So is the United States doomed to have its best scientists leave the lab for the Little League pitch and ballet class? Not with more family-friendly policies in place at universities, Ecklund said. “It has to start with two kinds of things,” she explained. “Mentors [should feel] freer to talk about their own family life and the balance between work and family; and [existing] programs to help women … ought to extend discussion about family issues to both men and women.” Ecklund’s hope is that her study will catch the eye of  academic institutions. A career in science can be grueling enough; it’s folly to make it less appealing still by denying  the scientists themselves the pleasure of family.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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