The following article is presented by the Societal Impact Operating Council (SIOC), to foster discussion and provoke thought. We welcome your comments and input.
Last week at a lunch I struck up a conversation with a senior professor sitting next to me. A few minutes into the conversation I learned that the professor, an attractive woman with delicate silver lining around her hair, was distraught about a young assistant professor in her department. The assistant professor, a medical physician, teacher, and researcher, was in the senior professor's words, reaching her "tipping point." The young assistant professor had two young children and was pregnant with her third child, and had started to feel the heavy weight of responsibilities at home. "She's feeling completely overwhelmed. I've tried to talk her into staying and working part-time, but another person in our department told her it couldn't work."
The scenario facing this young, already accomplished assistant professor is not uncommon and plays out in corporations and academic departments around the country. A linear career path - where individuals pursue an undergraduate and then advanced degree, enter the workforce and then stay for thirty years - is not necessarily common for women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) professions due to competing priorities. The problem is that many women, perhaps trying to 'lean in' to their careers, tell themselves that they can either be 'all in' or exit the workforce when other priorities arise. At the same time, companies and academic departments reinforce this notion by being inflexible with work-life balance options. Why?
When does productivity really peak?
One primary reason is that we have a model of career success that is rooted in assumptions about the age at which productivity is highest. Cognitive scientists know that our brain mass is most dense at age 25. It has long been thought that as we age and lose brain mass, our cognitive abilities lessen, and so it is very important that individuals persist in their careers through their 20s and 30s because this is when they will make their most important contributions to science. Recent research in cognitive science suggests that this model of decreasing cognitive ability as early as our late 20s is wrong. Studies suggest that cognitive ability remains strong in our 30s, 40s, and even 50s, suggesting that the once 'pressing' need to have individuals focus solely on their careers in their 20s and early 30s, precisely when women are reaching child bearing age, is misplaced.
Taking the long-term view
A new career model needs to take hold where we take a long-term view of career success. Women should not feel as though a flexible work arrangement - such as working part-time when their children are young - indicates their best opportunities to make scientific contributions are foregone. Additionally, employers should not view individuals that modify their work arrangements to be more flexible as though they are cheating their organizations. Yet far too many employers take precisely the view of some in the academic department of the young medical professor mentioned above. In the case of this young medical professor, staying or leaving the workforce shouldn't be an "all or nothing" proposition, because her best career achievements are likely before her, not behind her.