„For women scientists, children are not the big mobility problem. It’s their partner“

23 June 2014 by Nuria Cerdá-Esteban, posted in ESOF2014, Women in Science

The EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) has sessions of all sorts: presentations of cutting-edge scientific developments of all scientific areas, sessions on science policy, science to business, and also on science careers. I attended a session on new concepts of mobility to foster career development, and got involved in a discussion on the opportunities and challenges that women researchers face as a consequence of mobility. “When I got a job offer in a different country, my husband decided not to follow”, one of the female researchers in the discussion group said. “Whereas when the man gets a job offer, it’s still taken for granted that the woman will follow.”

In fact, a study conducted by Stanford University on dual-career couples shows some shocking numbers: while 59% of women who have an academic partner considers both careers to be equally important, only 45% of men do. Furthermore, 50% of men stated their own career was the primary one, and only 20% of women did. A study performed by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) found a similar trend. So what can the scientific system do to make sure women are not facing yet another wall in advancing their career?

Whose career is primary?

50% of male professors interviewed by the Stanford study viewed their career as more important than that of their academic partner. In turn, only 20% of female researchers considered their own career as primary. Credit: Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University


For Charikleia Tzanakou, a vibrant research fellow at the Unviersity of Warwick and former mobility work group leader at Eurodoc, there are clear steps an institution can take, like setting up dual career services to tackle the “two-body problem”. Tzanakou wanted to raise awareness for this issue and organized a session at ESOF on dual career services for early career researchers. The Stanford professor Londa Schiebinger presented the earlier mentioned report on dual-career couples, and explained that American universities take a great deal of effort in putting in place attractive dual-career programs. For the institutions, it is a way to guarantee excellence, diversity and a high quality of life for their faculty. Many universities have specific policies for dual hiring and funding models in place to secure the second position. They signal dual-couple friendliness on their websites, and have a Vice Provost for Diversity. In the end, what counts is hiring the candidate with the highest quality, and Schiebinger notices that dual hiring is starting to become crucial even for PhD student candidates, and not only for professors.

But how is Europe dealing with this issue? Alexandra Zingg, project leader at swissnex Boston, works on the Euraxess Tandem project. The project analyzed the chances and risks of mobility for researchers in Europe, with a focus on female postdoctoral researchers. The state in Europe is bleak: most European institutions have no dual career services in place, although dual hiring is an important aspect for many young researchers.

The study shows that, unlike in the US, the challenges that most scientists face as a consequence of mobility in Europe are related to language and culture. Pioneering work on this issue is being done by the University of Copenhagen, which puts a great deal of effort into making the family of their international recruitees feel at home. Mark de Vos is responsible for the University of Copenhagen’s Dual Career Spouse Network, but as he puts it: “We work with everybody, not just your spouse, also with your mother.” All family members of scientists hired by the University get access to a program that includes information meetings, social events, individual counseling and career planning. Still, he has words of caution: “Don’t move if both partners need a job immediately. It takes time to find a job, and then the partner that tags along will be disappointed”.

In the end, dual career couples still need to compromise. But hopefully, more and more European institutions will realize how important it is to make themselves attractive for their candidates and start offering dual career services, which would make these compromises less dramatic. Women especially can benefit from these programs and stop putting their careers behind those of their partners.

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