A “soft” approach to innovating science education

December 8, 2009 posted by Theresa Johnston

Originally posted December 7, 2009 on Gender News from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research

Stanford Professor Richard Zare is renowned for his work in laser chemistry, with more than 700 publications, four books and 50 patents to his name. Zare is the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science, a 2008-09 Faculty Research Fellow with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and winner of the 2010 Priestley Medal, honoring a lifetime of achievement in chemistry. Yet while Zare’s laboratory is cutting-edge, it also boasts something on the softer side: a comfortable private room where student and staff mothers can retreat to nurse or pump breast milk for their babies.

Setting up a lactation room might not sound revolutionary – corporate workplaces have had them for years. But in the rigid world of academic science, Zare is a family-friendly pioneer. Shortly after becoming department chair in 2005, the chemist startled colleagues by announcing that he would tap department funds to give graduate students 12 weeks’ paid leave for late-stage pregnancy, childbirth and/or care of a newborn – one of the most progressive policies in the country. He also declared that pregnant students could maintain their full-time status while on leave, thus easing their return to class work, research and teaching duties.

Zare, 70, describes himself as a “recovering sexist” whose attitudes about women, careers and childbirth evolved while he was raising three daughters, including one who became a midwife. In his own field, he has been frustrated by the low numbers of women going on to postdoctoral work and academic careers. “I suggest that three factors are at work: subtle but real discrimination, the failure to take into account the asymmetric burdens of childbirth and child care as well as elder care, and the failure to structure faculty jobs to better reflect a balanced lifestyle,” he wrote in the May, 15, 2006 issue of Chemical & Engineering News. “Currently, the reward structure of the academic rat race in science, engineering and mathematics presents a real barrier to women choosing a career in academics. We must dispel the notion that working day and night equates to productivity.”

Under Zare’s policy, eight graduate students have delivered nine babies in the past five years, compared to zero in the previous ten years – a significant jump but hardly the baby boom that critics feared. Among the new mothers is Julia Woertink, a 28-year-old doctoral candidate specializing in inorganic spectroscopy, who gave birth to twin girls at Stanford Hospital June 2008. “Prof. Zare has done a wonderful job raising awareness in the department about the need to accommodate women who choose to start families while in school,” she notes. “The year following the birth of my daughters has been the most productive and successful year of my graduate career.”

Since shaking things up at Stanford, Zare has spread his family-friendly message to other universities, including Dartmouth and the University of Wisconsin. He’s also been vocal in the national debate over Title IX – whether it should be used to promote gender equity in science as it was in college athletics. While some like the idea of tying federal funding to quotas for female scientists and engineers, others say the need is long past. Zare takes the middle ground, arguing that if the government systematically collects and publishes data on women in university science departments, change will occur naturally. “The right approach is that we see inequities and smooth them out,” he explains. And if that means giving new mothers a little more time and space, so be it.

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