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Vol. LX, No. 13
June 27, 2008

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Women, Families Targeted
Improvements to Intramural Worklife Sought

On the front page...

NIH is trying, on a variety of fronts, to narrow the gender gap in science careers and to make it easier for families to balance work and family life. Solutions range from funding studies to determine how to enhance women’s opportunities for success in science, to building a new child care facility on campus, to bolstering mentoring programs.

Also under way are plans, and proposals, to modify regulations on child care subsidies, broaden donation of leave, re-set the tenure-track clock and lengthen parental leave.

The array of improvements to intramural, and NIH in general, worklife was presented June 2 at a forum in a mostly full Lipsett Amphitheater, sponsored by the women scientist advisors committee and the Office of Research on Women’s Health.


  NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington said evidence is key to forming worklife policies.  
  NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington said evidence is key to forming worklife policies.  

NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington said that assuring opportunities for success for all scientists at NIH, particularly women, is “vitally important for the success of this agency.”

He, along with NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn and many other top NIH and institute/center officials, is a member of the NIH working group on women in biomedical careers. The group has been charged with addressing issues raised in a National Academies report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.

The report’s principal author, former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, “challenged Dr. Zerhouni that NIH must respond to the report in a substantial way, not just put it on the shelf,” said Pinn.

Not much is known about the effectiveness of interventions to promote women scientists’ careers, Kington said. Many institutions have experimented with some combination of mentoring and networking, plus improved child care, but the programs have tended to be small, new and narrowly tailored to specific institutions. “There’s a perception of efficacy, but it’s mostly anecdotal,” he reported. “There’s very little rigorous data on how effective the interventions are, and why.”

Kington said there is much to be learned from career choice patterns, and offered two dramatic examples. “There has been a truly extraordinary increase in the percentage of women in veterinary medicine, with enrollments above 90 percent at some schools,” he said. “And this has occurred without any organized intervention program.”

In 1980, he reported, the field was mostly men—about 61.2 percent. In 2007, the field was 77.7 percent female. “We can only speculate about why,” he noted.

Similarly, the gender distribution in the field of psychiatry shifted dramatically in the United Kingdom between 1974 (37 percent female representation) to 1999 (67 percent).

The opposite is true in orthopedic surgery, which remains male-dominated.

Kington touched briefly on factors influencing career success, including quality of mentoring and the role of committee service, but concluded that a series of forthcoming NIH studies of the topic will offer the only reliable basis for policy. “We believe that evidence matters in the development of policy,” he stated.

Dr. Vivian Pinn (l), director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health Dr. Joan Schwartz, assistant director of the Office of Intramural Research
Speaking at the June 2 meeting on improvements to NIH worklife were Dr. Vivian Pinn (l), director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, and Dr. Joan Schwartz, assistant director of the Office of Intramural Research.

Pinn emphasized that science and data take the emotion out of gender gap debates, and reminded the audience that there are multiple ways to stay abreast of improvements in NIH worklife, including the site http://womeninscience., which reports regularly on the working group’s progress and has an associated listserv that sends email to subscribers. She added that, in April, parental leave under the Kirschstein Award mechanism was extended from 30 to 60 days.

Offering most of the meeting’s headlines was Dr. Joan Schwartz, assistant director of the Office of Intramural Research, who helped found a task force on women in research in 2003 and has been deeply involved in policy details. Acknowledging that many scientists are so consumed by their work that they are unaware of the spate of workplace flexibilities implemented recently, she said brochures have been prepared by the Office of Human Resources (OHR) to make explicit options such as telework, leave and work schedule flexibilities and the availability of disability insurance.

She reported that the scientific directors recently approved re-setting the tenure-track clock, adding an extra year for those who may have family obligations. The SDs also have approved the appointment of temporary laboratory managers when a principal investigator must take time off for family leave. This is a win-win situation, Schwartz explained, because it also benefits staff scientists who may have been displaced from their positions and can fill these positions while looking for a new job.

She said that OHR would pilot a “leave bank” in an NIH institute. Unlike the Voluntary Leave Transfer Program, which requires that a donor select a specific beneficiary, the leave bank would be more flexible.

“The real crunch,” she continued, “is that the amount of child care is woefully inadequate.” Though NIH has three Bethesda-area child care centers that serve a total of some 450 children, as well as a fourth site at NIEHS in North Carolina, there are 1,100 kids on the waiting list at any given time. “Clearly there is a huge need.”

The Office of Research Facilities has long planned a fourth on-campus center, to be sited near the Children’s Inn with room for 150-250 children, she said, “but there is no money for its construction. And even if it were built, demand would exceed supply.”

Her working group subcommittee has approached the Foundation for the NIH and FAES about raising funds to build the center, or to pay for use of outside facilities.

The Office of Research Services has a child care referral service, for families who can’t enroll their child in an NIH center, Schwartz said. Her group is also working with NIH’s legislative office to extend a federal child care subsidy to postdocs and trainees, but it will require congressional action.

Schwartz briefly mentioned three other efforts to make NIH more family-friendly: a pilot with FAES to reserve some space at local child care facilities for children of tenure-track recruits; NIH’s founding membership in the Mid-Atlantic Higher Education Recruitment Consortium, which helps find jobs for spouses of dual career couples; and a new trans-NIH mentoring committee, which Schwartz has put together with Dr. Sharon Milgram, director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education, with a goal of improving the quality of mentors. NIHRecord Icon

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