Over the weekend, The New York Times Magazine published an illuminating read explaining the lack of women in the sciences. The question we could also be asking is, what aren't we doing to keep women in the sciences? And one answer is paid maternity leave.
"If Americans would take the issue seriously they’d have paid maternity leave to assure employers don’t think twice hiring women in their fertile years who haven’t yet reproduced. If you want more women in science, that’s where you should start, not with complaints about dress code schizophrenia," writes Sabine Hossenfelder, an assistant professor for high energy physics at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics. Hossenfelder is quick to make sure that maternity leave isn't a magic bullet, but rather sees it as a necessity that can help even a playing field.
Sweden, where Hossenfelder works, has laws which give parents 480 days [!] per child which they can take at any time until the child is 8 years old, NPR reports. "They can share these days, although 60 are allocated specifically to the father. And they are entitled to receive 80 percent of their wages, although this is capped at a certain level," they add, noting that this is a shared cost between employer and the state.
That's way more generous that what you typically find in the United States. And Hossenfelder is on to something. Anne Marie Slaughter, in her widely-shared "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" essay for The Atlantic, explained that changing family leave and changing the way that fathers help care for children could help keep women at — and striving for — high-powered jobs. "I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job," she wrote. That observation cuts sharply when it comes to the sciences.
Hossenfelder isn't the first to point out this idea — that helping women through parenthood — could encourage women in the sciences. Any money would help, actually. Peter Woit, a physicist/ mathematician at Columbia, points out that men and women in the science field aren't paid that well and that makes it unattractive to women who want to have families:
$26,508 for a lab manager with a science bachelor’s degree, which is less than what a typical Starbucks barista makes here in New York (see here, where my location automatically gives the NYC data)
Imagine that we paid postdocs, say, $75,000/year. This is a modest increase from current rates, but for individual postdocs, and the structure of academic science, it would be transformative. It would allow postdocs to actually afford childcare. ... These types of changes certainly wouldn’t catapult postdocs into the realm of the rich, but they would make all the difference to a 32-year-old woman who wants children and is considering her next career move.
While granting more money seems like a pipe dream, it's actually one of the more tangible solutions. The Times article points out there are other factors like girls needing more encouragement in math/science and how that plays into the U.S. school system (girls from other countries do better on math than girls from the U.S.); gender bias (from females too); and psychology of girls vs. boys (some of the women in the Times piece share a common anecdote of being afraid of asking for help) which all factor into why women might not pursue a job in the sciences.
One of the awesome attempts at changing the way young girls think about science, is actually a contest from Marvel in promotion for the Thor sequel, which asks young girls to find a successful woman working in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and interview them. Those young girls then have to answer why they're Jane Foster, a genius astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman. And it would be a shame if one of the things that keeps these girls from becoming the next Jane Fosters would be a lack of maternity leave.