Recently, when visiting a potential graduate school for an open house, a faculty member spoke pointedly about their program being “family-oriented” and supportive of students getting married and having children during their time at the university. While I did not think much of this at the time, as I don’t plan on having a family until well after I have finished my degree, as weeks went on, I began to realize that this may be an important factor for many people.
Many people I have interacted with at UConn, whether in Ph.D. programs, Master’s programs or even undergraduates, have families. At times, it seems everywhere we look these days, classmates and colleagues are getting married or having children. Thus, while the “family-friendliness” of a graduate program might not be extremely important to me personally, it makes a huge difference to many other there. However, it is important to realize that often, the family aspect that this professor emphasized is not typically valued by large, research-based universities.
A recent article published by “Nature,” expanded on this issue, reporting that over 40 percent of women and 23 percent of men with full-time STEM careers either become part-time employees or completely leave their professions after having their first child. These numbers are fairly high for both genders, but especially for female scientists, illuminating real evidence of a gender imbalance in many STEM career paths. We often hear about the lack of gender diversity in STEM fields, especially as we are young minds in a STEM-focused university, and these figures shed some light on one of the possible reasons this exists. Of course, this is not the only reason for the lack of gender diversity within academia, and this field is slowly becoming more diverse. With continued attention brought to this issue, we can hope that careers in academia will continue to become more common in people from all walks of life.
Regardless of whether the struggle of balancing a family and a career in science or research is a contributor to the lack of diversity within STEM fields, this difficulty needs to be alleviated. Unfortunately, this is not an easy problem to solve and many organizations have been unwilling or unable to provide extra support services for their student and employees in the past. However, this is slowly changing, even in our own community. Recently, the University of Connecticut Institute for Brain and Cognitive Sciences (IBACS) announced a partnership with Educational Playcare to provide a fellowship program for new parents.
This fellowship would provide up to 20 weeks of free childcare for new parents involved with IBACS-affiliated research at UConn. While this award may only cover 20 weeks, this is still a huge amount of time when parents would not have to worry about paying for childcare—an already expensive task that is made more frightening on a student’s budget. Initiatives like this do not make raising a child as a student challenge-free, but they do help to give financial support to students. Even more so, they show students that their university—and subsequently, their employers—care about them and their well-being. It shows more than just financial support, but emotional and personal support, which can be extremely important for new parents.
UConn may not be perfect in supporting students with families and children, but the university is taking steps forward in increasing their support. In the past, the world of academia has not been viewed as “family-friendly” or understanding of the difficulties associated with maintaining a family. This stigma has led to a lack of diversity in academia, and might also dissuade future students from pursuing a career in academia or research, if they feel their hopes of having a family will not be supported or possible. Steps need to be taken to show better support of families in the STEM world, so as to not darken the current and future bright minds of the field.
Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.