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Career vs. Family - How "The Man" Can Help

by Sarah Gibson

Sarah Gibson is a solar physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). For this article, she worked with David Hosansky, an editor and writer for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) who wrote about the organization’s family-friendly benefits in NCAR/UCAR’s Staff Notes.

January 2006

As a tenure-track scientist and the mother of two little boys, aged 5 and 2, the issue of balancing career and family is of preeminent interest to me. Luckily, I have found a balance that works, to the benefit of my work, my family, and my personal sanity.

My secret? Help from two manifestations of “The Man”. First and foremost, my husband Mark, also a scientist, has been an equal partner in raising the children. We take turns with everything, from dirty diapers to bedtime stories, and so share the often exhausting duties of parenthood but also its many joys. The second great help to me has been, at the risk of propagating a gender stereotype, “The Man” in its colloquial meaning, i.e., “Working for The Man.” This is the primary subject of this article, which will demonstrate how a company or university can work with the women (and men!) they employ to create a flexible enough environment to allow both career and family to flourish.

I am a staff scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is governed under the auspices of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). Just as in a university tenure track, staff scientists progress through an “up or out” process of reviews until moving from term appointments to an indefinite appointment. Just as in the university, the pressure is on to prove oneself with ground-breaking research and multiple publications. As a mother of two small children, however, spending twelve hours a day (or more) in the office to reach this goal is a price too high to pay for tenure. On the other hand, I am lucky to truly love my job, and completely giving it up for months or years while the children are young would be, quite frankly, a depressing option for me. What I want to do, and what working for UCAR has enabled me to do, is to design a slower, more flexible work plan than the traditional tenure-track treadmill.

UCAR has made an effort to cultivate a family-friendly atmosphere over the years, leading to employment policies that are widely recognized for their excellence. In particular, Colorado Parent magazine announced in August that it had ranked the organization as the top nonprofit employer in the state for working families. A panel of judges, composed of community leaders, used such criteria as flexible work arrangements, child care assistance and support, adoption benefits, extended leave for new parents, subsidized health and wellness benefits, and community involvement. The magazine’s October issue profiled the winners.

“We are very honored to be recognized as one of the best employers in the state,” says UCAR president Rick Anthes. “UCAR has long prided itself on providing top-tier benefits to its employees, enabling them to balance their lives between work and personal pursuits.”

Rick can speak from experience. While his kids were in school, he worked a flexible schedule, arriving at the office before dawn and leaving in the mid-afternoon so he would be home for them.

Katy Schmoll, UCAR vice president for finance and administration, says the organization’s rationale for the excellent benefits goes beyond supporting healthy lifestyles. “We’re really selfish,” she says. “We like to attract good people and we like to keep them. In my mind these programs are essential to accomplish that in today’s workplace.”

I can testify personally to the benefits of these programs to the working parent, as my husband and I have taken advantage of just about every family-friendly policy UCAR provides. These include:

  • The UCAR child care center. Established last year just a few blocks from the Center Green and Foothills campuses, the center offers exceptionally low teacher-child ratios as well as discounts for UCAR employees. Our two-year-old son, Jeremy, attends the center, and our five-year-old, Nicholas, who is in kindergarten, is able to use it on a drop-in basis when the local schools are closed.
  • Flexible work arrangements that allow many staffers to telecommute or to adjust their schedules according to family needs, as long as they can get their jobs done. Mark and I have taken turns working part-time, and also often work evenings or weekends as needed.
  • NCAR’s Salary Continuation Plan enables new mothers to take fully paid leave after the birth of their child as recommended by their doctor (usually between six and eight weeks) without having to use more than two weeks sick leave. At the time Jeremy was born I had not been employed long enough to accrue six weeks sick leave, so this recently enhanced program was directly beneficial to me.
  • A family sick leave policy that allows staffers to take time off when children or other family members are ill. This annual ten-days benefit can also be used as paternity leave. In addition to this benefit, if a staffer cannot easily take the time off from work, UCAR helps defray the cost of hiring a designated child care professional to watch a sick child at home.
  • A “stop the clock/slow the clock” policy that allows early-career scientists to take time off without being penalized for failing to adhere to a fixed schedule when moving up the scientific ranks. Because I worked part-time after Jeremy’s birth, I will have the option of extending my current term appointment and being evaluated on a pro-rated basis.
  • Leave donation, which allows staffers who have accrued more PTO (paid time off) than they will use to donate to a pool for staffers who need to take time off for themselves or their families. We have not needed to use this recent addition to UCAR’s benefits, but it is reassuring to know it is available.

Many of these benefits have been developed or enhanced over the past few years, in part in response to a UCAR site visit in 1999 by the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics of the American Physical Society (APS). This group interviewed employees and presented findings on how to improve the atmosphere for women at UCAR. A day care center and improvements to maternity leave were specifically recommended. The quick action taken by UCAR in response to these findings demonstrates first of all the value of such site visits, and second that it is possible for a company or university to make significant improvements in a short time.

In conclusion, I think it is important to emphasize to young women starting out in Astronomy and Physics that no, you cannot have it all — or at least not everything all of the time. My work has definitely been slowed down by having children. However, by making good choices, I can try to make this result in a diminishment of quantity of work, not quality. In fact, at a time in my career when I am overwhelmed with offers to collaborate or be on committees, and it is all too tempting to do everything, perhaps being forced to slow down and make careful choices is a good thing. A pell-mell rush to success is all very well, but sometimes it is a good idea to stop and smell the diapers.

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