Why young STEM researchers are calling for paid family leave

mother pats baby with one hand while working on laptop with another

The gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs is nothing new – women are significantly underrepresented. A group of young scientists and engineers has stepped outside of their discipline to publish a policy memo aimed at helping to address this longstanding problem.

The authors, all of whom are graduate students at NC State, focus specifically on paid family leave for new parents – which they argue would help retain more women in the STEM workforce. Their paper, “Paid Family Leave to Strengthen the STEM Workforce,” is published open access in the Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG).

We recently had the opportunity to talk with the authors about their policy recommendations.

The Abstract: Your paper focuses on paid family leave and how federal legislation on paid family leave could strengthen the STEM workforce. Why does the STEM workforce need strengthening?
 
Ryan Tam: The United States STEM workforce still has a gender representation problem. Women remain underrepresented in certain aspects of the STEM workforce, such as in computer (25%) and engineering (14%) occupations. Achieving gender equality in the STEM workforce will have profound beneficial impacts on productivity, innovation and economic growth. Furthermore, we as a society have a social and moral imperative of equity in society. Creating a more gender diverse STEM workforce is an important step in the right direction. Secondly, the number of STEM jobs in the U.S. is predicted to grow faster than all other occupations. We need more women in the STEM workforce to fill the expected surplus in STEM jobs. Finally, employing more women in the STEM workforce will greatly contribute to maintaining the United States’ role as a global leader in STEM, a fundamental goal of the National Science Board’s Vision 2030 report.

TA: What specifically are you recommending in your policy paper?

Hanna Berman: We make a policy recommendation of instituting 12 weeks of paid family leave through the proposed Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which has been introduced in both the House and Senate. In the U.S., qualified workers are currently guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical reasons including childbirth through the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. New mothers leave the STEM workforce at a faster rate than new fathers, and studies show that paid leave increases the likelihood of mothers returning to work after childbirth. This policy would be one step in the path to retaining women in the STEM workforce.

TA: In the paper, you note that 26 weeks of leave is necessary for maternal health after childbirth, and that 40 weeks is important for infant well-being. But the paper only calls for 12 weeks of paid leave. Why the disparity?

Ryan Dudek: This is a great question and it really highlights a key difference between scientific thinking and policy analysis. As scientists, we rely on experiments and data to determine the most effective and efficient solutions to the problems we study. We mention the consensus among the medical community that a 26-week leave best meets the needs of new mothers, while 40-week parental leave could be most beneficial for infant health. In an ideal world, we would propose a policy that reflects this scientific consensus and provides for a 26- or 40-week paid family leave, which would certainly be effective in addressing a part of the “leaky pipeline” problem; many countries mandate PFL of 26 weeks or more.

However, a good policy proposal must be not only effective and efficient, but also politically acceptable and achievable. Congress only just passed the first-ever PFL legislation in late 2019, providing most federal workers with 12 weeks of paid leave on the birth or adoption of a child — most workers in the private sector still have no guarantee of PFL. At least for now, to propose anything more than 12 weeks of PFL for all workers would not be meeting U.S. lawmakers where they are. Given that employers would need to make significant changes to accommodate longer periods of PFL, such a proposal would likely meet significant opposition in Congress and not gain enough support to pass into law.

TA: You’re all graduate students in STEM disciplines, ranging from materials science to veterinary medicine. How did you connect with each other in the first place? And what made you decide to write a policy paper on paid family leave?

Alex Hsain: We definitely are an unlikely bunch! We all connected thanks to a club called Science Policy Pack at NC State. A subset of us co-founded the club at NC State in 2019 as a chapter of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). We’re a group of a dozen or so graduate students who are civically minded scientists and like to work at the science-policy interface.

Personally, I’ve been interested in this topic since getting to work with many international female scientists throughout my Ph.D. and learning about parental leave in their respective countries. Comparing our policies with theirs is truly astounding. There are 37 democracies with large market economies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). We are the only one that does not have universally mandated paid parental leave, whereas the average paid parental leave duration in OECD countries is 41 weeks. The JSPG editor of our policy memo, who is a British citizen, even admitted in our peer review that, “from a European perspective it’s quite mind-boggling that these recommendations need to be made.” We feel the same way!

TA: Historically, discussions about the need for increased gender diversity in STEM have focused on the “leaky pipeline.” But, increasingly, the discussion has shifted to include issues related to retaining women who have entered the STEM workforce. This paper is focused on the role paid family leave can play in retaining women in the STEM workforce. What are other policies that could support that goal?

Ishita Kamboj: COVID-19 has highlighted major inequities in the American workforce that persisted before the pandemic, and will continue to exist after it unless addressed by concrete policy action. For starters, ensuring equal pay for equal work across genders and closing the wage gap would enable parents to decide who should leave the workforce if it becomes necessary based on more than just who is the lower wage-earner.

Recent articles in the New York Times and NPR explain how hundreds of thousands of women have left the workforce since the pandemic began because they are more likely to make less than their partners and are disproportionately affected by layoffs. A large chunk of women also left the workforce during the pandemic due to a lack of consistent child care, like Aimee, a former tech CEO whose departure from the workforce is described here. The lack of consistent and affordable childcare in America has also historically played a role in determining which women could enter the STEM workforce in the first place. Instituting a universal pre-K and/or childcare option for American families would be a second way to improve recruitment and retention of women in the STEM workforce (which several states, but not North Carolina, already have).

TA: You mentioned earlier that you’re all part of a group called Science Policy Pack. Could you tell me more about that? Do you plan to do more on the issue of gender diversity in the STEM workforce? Are there other policy issues that you plan to work on?

Hsain: Absolutely! Science Policy Pack, or SciPolPack for short, is an NC State student group composed of graduate students, post-docs and young professionals passionate about science policy. Our club hosts professional development seminars, workshops and projects aimed at equipping graduate students the skills required to work in the policy sphere. We also collaborate closely with other student science policy groups across North Carolina. We’re a collective science policy mind-hub, if you will. I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with members across a variety of science policy topics – climate change, parental leave, legislative advocacy, and voter education, just to name a few.

On the issue of paid parental leave, our team’s next plan is to disseminate the message. We’re presenting flash talks and posters at the NSPN Annual Symposium and the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. We’re also planning to schedule legislative visits in 2021 and advocate for our policy recommendations to newly elected NC officials.

As far as other projects go, our membership is quite diverse and we have students interested in a variety of science policy topics such as synthetic biology, agriculture, neuroethics, renewable technology, and more. If you’re interested in joining SciPolPack, don’t hesitate to visit our website, check out our Twitter, or reach out to me directly (hahsain@ncsu.edu). We’re excited to see where our club goes from here.

This post was originally published in NC State News.