“STEM departments are family friendly”

Faculty at my institution are upset over the family unfriendliness of the academic schedule.  A particular sticking point is that numerous events at the University begin after 5 p.m. – these are lectures, beginning of the year events, graduate recruitment events, and even job talks (leaving aside the necessity to go out to dinner with seminar speakers one hosts and job candidates if one is on the search committee).  For many faculty, an early evening event is on their schedule at least once a week. This is particularly frustrating to dual-academic partners and faculty with young children.

A survey was sent out to the faculty, and various potential solutions were brought forward. Many faculty would like the University to provide sitters at evening events or set up a drop-in sitting facility. Multiple requests were made for a more lenient Travel Fund for Dependent Care: each faculty member can apply for up to $500 once a year to bring a non-family sitter on a trip, but many argued it would be preferable to have this fund to applicable to non-travel situations (i.e., paying for a sitter when both partners are on search committees and need to spend evenings away from home). But far and away the greatest request was for an end to programming after 5 p.m. As one colleague put it, “In my ideal world, no one would expect faculty to be available after 5 p.m. for professional events.”

Many faculty feel acute pressure to be available in the evenings. These faculty tend to be junior faculty in small departments and faculty at all levels who have multi-disciplinary affiliations (often with cross-departmental centers or interdisciplinary graduate programs). Who feels the least pressure to attend evening events? Those in STEM departments, at all levels. For example, in my department, seminars and faculty meetings are always noon to 1 and any event after 4 pm includes children/partners with no perceivable penalty to missing those late afternoon/evening events. A colleague in the Humanities concluded that STEM family-friendly timing of programming likely stems (ha ha) from the longstanding awareness that gender diversity should be promoted in STEM fields.  But I think it’s more complex than that: so how is it that STEM fields at my institution seem to have gotten this right?

Is it because we have research groups, and we generally minimize department-level programming in favor of spending more time in the lab? Based on a small sample size of two departments (mine and one in the Humanities) I found that the male full professors in the Humanities department overwhelmingly have wives whose careers took a back seat when they had children or who never worked outside the home, while the male full professors in my department all have professional wives (physicians, teachers, nurses, lawyers). Senior women in both departments were unlikely to have children but likely to have professional partners. I wonder whether STEM faculty tend to belong to two-career families, making evenings more sacrosanct?

Two insidious imbalances among faculty were brought to light by this survey.  First, minority faculty answering the survey tended to have multiple academic affiliations and thus may feel obligated to attend more evening events than non-minority faculty. Anecdotally, I have heard minority colleagues mention feeling pressure to attend alumni events or events for parents to help showcase diversity in their department or at the university in general. For female faculty of color, the burden seemed particularly heavy; multiple faculty mentioned feeling worried about the consequences of saying no when asked to headline an evening event by their senior colleagues.

The second insidious imbalance?  Teaching load and, interestingly, length of time in class. Colleagues primarily teaching seminars, which meet once a week for 2.5 hours, felt much more frustrated about events scheduled in their day than colleagues whose teaching took place over multiple blocks per class per week (i.e., 90-minute sessions twice a week, or 3 50-minute sessions per week).  Classes in the Humanities are generally in seminar format at my institution, while those in the sciences are not.  And there’s the issue of colleagues outside STEM fields teaching much more than STEM faculty at my institution: the STEM load tends to be a class per semester, compared to two classes per semester in the Humanities and Social Sciences.  Is it that STEM departments have more time to set meetings/events during the day simply because we are teaching less?  TSW readers in STEM fields with heavier teaching loads and who teach labs (which can be very long): do you find your evenings getting eaten up with required departmental events like lectures?

This conversation at my institution particularly centers around the challenges of having young children. As the parent of a young child, I think that’s very shortsighted. The encroachment of work responsibilities into all 24 hours of the day (with the email-based world we work in) is instead a problem for all people: men, women, single people, partnered people, people caring for elders, people caring for children. I feel for my colleagues who are worried their tenure chances would be reduced by not attending numerous evening events and reducing travel. When promotion hinges in part on being perceived as collegial and engaging in service at multiple levels, how can colleagues keep in mind the value of time spent alone (or at least not working)?


10 thoughts on ““STEM departments are family friendly”

  1. I am an assistant prof. in the STEM field at a SLAC so I teach not only lecture, but all the labs for my courses without teaching assistants. I also lead at least one weekend-long field trip per semester. I am trying to be unbiased (we all think we work too much, right?), and I really think I work more hours than the Humanities faculty. What I’ve noticed, in my dealings with humanities faculty, is that they often try to schedule meetings in the middle of the day. Good luck scheduling a day time meeting when you’re teaching labs from 11-2pm or 2-5pm most days! In my department, and probably in most departments at my campus, most of the faculty members are older and tenured, mostly men, and they have stay-at-home wives. It’s easy for them to schedule meetings beginning at 5pm or later, because there is another person at home to make dinner, take care of kids, walk the dog, etc. I don’t have kids or a stay-at-home-wife. If I’m gone for the weekend on a field trip (an expectation in my program), or at a work function until 8:30pm like I was last night, nothing gets done. There’s no food, no clean laundry, no one walking the dog. Not a great work-life balance. I’m not sure what the answer is. You can’t schedule meetings, recruitment events, etc in the middle of the day if you’re always in lab or lecture. In my past career, in the private sector, I also had “after normal business hour” commitments. At least in that case, I could go to work late in the morning if I was expected to be at a meeting until 8 pm. I don’t have the luxury of canceling morning classes, so if I have a night time commitment, it just means I’ll be working a 14 hour day.

    • I totally agree that overcommitment is a problem for everyone, and probably is felt more acutely by those who are perceived as “always free”. It’s interesting to hear about your private sector work. I have always thought that academics should realize other industries have it tough too; I wonder whether your experience of getting to count after-hours commitments as part of your workday is the norm.

  2. I have definitely found this to be true. I am in a science department and my husband is in art. I was surprised by how many evening events he was expected to attend. I was even more surprised when I found out the department also expected me to attend a subset of the events; he received comments along the lines of “we haven’t seen your wife in a while” if I did not show up. I think it comes down to art being a smaller department and the fact that their teaching load is high and their class blocks long so there is no time during the normal workday for seminars.

  3. There is also an expectation that faculty/staff with no children or family have free time in spades, and so they are often asked to cover events in the evenings/weekends when others are unavailable. It’s exhausting and unfair to operate under the assumption that lack of children/family means no need for work/life balance.

    • I have found this to be true at my institution as well. It’s probably fair to assume my schedule is more flexible than those who have children, especially small children, but it’s not fair to expect me to show up to an evening event because I have “no commitments”.

  4. Thank you this is a great post. This is one of my biggest issues with my former (STEM) department. My issue is that it assumes prioritizing work over life. Particularly when people say “there’s no daytime slot when everyone is free”. This is also true in the evenings, it’s just saying that your work is too important to reschedule but your life is not. It’s far from impossible to schedule things during the day. Some departments have a free hour or two in the week with no courses, others just move things around so that it’s not always the same people who miss. It’s all about the administration, and faculty too, prioritizing both life and work. It’s not acceptable to have mcdonalds employees work 14 hour days and it shouldn’t be for us faculty either!

  5. Great post! As a graduate student, we are also expected to attend lectures/seminars/receptions outside of the normal work day and are shunned if we compensate by coming into the lab a little later one morning. On average, I have one commitment after 5 p.m. once/week that has ultimately resulted from others (both faculty and other grad students) being unwilling to be flexible in their workday schedules. I realize we all want the time to prep before teaching a class or run an experiment uninterrupted; however, we also all want to be able to spend time with our families, have a well-cooked meal, and wear clean clothes!

  6. As a grad student Teaching Assistant I was forced to take a schedule that had me on campus for over 12 hours, until an overly late time of evening. WAY past 5pm. Classes are regularly scheduled past 5pm too- we’re trying to accommodate student schedules after all. This impacts the people without power most. I get the idea that we want a department culture and friendly atmosphere, but we need to find a way to do this that doesn’t go beyond normal working hours with only rare exceptions.

  7. As the stay-at-home mother and wife of a social sciences professor, I just want to chime in that I certainly don’t appreciate the evening events scheduled by his department, often at the last minute. I work 24 hours a day for little to no appreciation and no compensation. My husband’s overlap with our children and myself is extremely limited in a normal work day and non-existent when there is an evening event. On occasions I would like 30 minutes to take a shower, go to the bathroom alone, and put on clean clothes.

    And in case you are wondering, I have a MD and have run multi-million dollar research projects, This is the work-life balance we;ve work out. But, for a department (or any colleague of my husband) to assume that I am a stay-at-home ‘wife’, here to enable theirs or my husband’s professional reputation and life, at no cost to them. is insulting, belittling, and simply incorrect.

    I have little patience for those who schedule these meetings and am rarely shy about letting them know that. It is not rocket science (or any other STEM field requiring higher math) to figure out a solutions. It’s not simple, but then there are a lot of smart people in academia who can work on the problem if it mattered to them. Might I suggest that departments put events at which they require attendance on their calendars BEFORE scheduling classes and faculty meetings etc. Block those times for all faculty in your department and then build around that. Yes, I understand it might take a year or two of pre-planning. A department might have to estimate its future time needs. Again, none of that is rocket science.

  8. Pingback: One kid? Fine. 2? 3?! Well, maybe not. | Tenure, She Wrote

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