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    Academic Workplace Bias Hurts Everyone
    By News Staff | March 31st 2014 09:49 AM | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    People who have worked in both academia and the corporate world claim that the bias in academia is worse - which sounds odd, given the nature of academia. But statistics bear that out. Undergraduate representation of political views and handicapped people, for example, matches the general population, but once you reach the graduate, staff and faculty levels in colleges, diversity for people who are outside the political super-majority or who are handicapped disappears.

    But even if you are part of the in crowd, it seems being a parent can take you right back out. 

    Parents have reported before that trying to balance work and family obligations in academia comes with career costs that are not evident in the private sector - lots of female doctors are mothers without harm to their futures - and a new paper from Rice University and the University of California, San Diego quantifies that and finds that university workplace bias in
    science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)
    fields against those who use flexible work arrangements increase employee dissatisfaction and turnover - and it even impacts people who don't have children, e.g., there is no point toiling for 10 years as a post-doc if you are going to be penalized for having a family anyway, you might as well go into the corporate world sooner.


    The work included 266 STEM faculty members - "ideal workers" - at a top-ranked university with preeminent science and engineering programs. The respondents answered online survey questions about whether mothers and fathers with young or school-aged children are perceived as less committed to their careers than women or men who are not parents, and whether individuals choosing to use formal or informal arrangements for work-life balance experience negative career consequences. The sociologists then examined whether this 'flexibility stigma', the devaluation of workers who seek or are presumed to need flexible work arrangements, created a mismatch between workplace demands and the personal lives of academics.

    "As researchers, we're interested in understanding the gap between the traditional 9-to-5 work setting and what workers actually need," said Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice and the study's lead author. "The majority of parents are in the workforce today, yet the expectations and arrangements of work have stayed more or less the same as they were post-World War II. We're trying to understand this mismatch and its consequences."


    The corporate world does not have this issue, at least in larger companies, or there wouldn't be so many females in the workforce, and that typifies what people outside non-academia do not understand about university research; it is funded by politicians and a school like Johns Hopkins may get $1 billion from the NIH and be gigantic, but each lab is a small businesses in a sense. So if we recognize that an employee on maternity leave would impact a 5-employee company we have to recognize how it will impact a small lab. A McDonald's can find someone to run a cash register, finding a 'temp' with a PhD in a very specific area is not as easy and a Principal Investigator who has to apply for a new grant is not going to get a sympathetic response from bureaucrats if they explain they had someone out on maternity leave.

    Academics who reported an awareness of the flexibility stigma in their departments -- regardless of whether they are parents themselves -- were less interested in staying at their jobs, more likely to want to leave academia for industry and less satisfied with their jobs than those who did not report a flexibility stigma in their department. They also felt as though they had worse work-life balance.

    "Flexibility stigma is not just a workers' problem," said study co-author Mary Blair-Loy, an associate professor of sociology at UC San Diego and founding director of the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions. "Workplaces where this bias exists are more likely to have a toxic culture that hurts the entire department, not only in terms of work-life balance but also retention and job satisfaction, which may affect department productivity."

    Blair-Loy said that the work-devotion schema – the idea that one's career requires intense time commitments and strong loyalty – is a mandate that is unconsciously part of most professional workplaces and underlies the flexibility stigma.

    "Work devotion is useful for employers because it helps motivate senior management, but is destructive to people trying to care for family members," Blair-Loy said. "It underlies this stigma that is damaging to all members of the department, not just the ones that are parents."

    Blair-Loy noted that the silver lining of their research suggests that many faculty who are not currently parents are aware of the flexibility stigma.

    "These individuals can be real allies in making a more inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone," Blair-Loy said. "It provides the opportunity to broaden awareness of problematic work environments and educate others about this bias."


    Citation:Erin A. Cech and Mary Blair-Loy, 'Consequences of Flexibility Stigma Among Academic Scientists and Engineers', Work and Occupations, February 2014; vol. 41, 1: pp. 86-110. doi: 10.1177/0730888413515497