Birgeneau, at White House, promotes career-life balance for researchers

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau joined First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Monday, playing a featured role in an East Room event to emphasize the need to clear hurdles for girls and women with aspirations to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Birgeneau in Green Room

Chancellor Birgeneau checks his messages as he waits for the call to the East Room (David Trinkle photos)

The panel discussion coincided with the announcement by the National Science Foundation of the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative,” a 10-year plan to provide greater work-related flexibility to women and men in research careers. Key elements of the plan, which would broaden foundation policies to allow researchers to delay or suspend their grants for up to a year to care for a baby or fulfill other family obligations, are already in place at Berkeley.

During a panel discussion with NSF director Subra Suresh and others from academia, government and industry, Birgeneau said eliminating obstacles to raising families while pursuing research careers is “not only an issue of equity, fairness and justice in our treatment of women, but also a critical issue for the success of our country.”

Under Birgeneau, Berkeley has been a leader in fostering a family-friendly workplace for faculty, students and staff. The campus established the UC system’s first initiatives to address the work-family issues of faculty and graduate students.

As the chancellor noted during his East Room presentation, campus researchers led by Mary Ann Mason, whom he called “a national leader in these issues,” also undertook an extensive examination of the role universities and federal funding agencies like the NSF play in the loss of promising researchers, largely women and minorities, from the academic pipeline.

“The recommendations of that report,” he said, “played an influential role in the establishment of these new NSF policies.”

 Birgeneau alsoBirgeneau during panel discussion cited the campus’s “family-friendly package,” which includes tenure-track stoppage of one year for faculty parents with caregiving responsibilities for a newborn or new adoptee. “These are entitlements available to men, women and same-sex partners,” he added, “and importantly, faculty are not made to feel that they are asking for special treatment. This is very significant for our faculty.”

According to White House figures, women today earn more than 40 percent of Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and math — so-called STEM fields — yet make up only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in those fields. 

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone,” Obama said in introducing the panel. “We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

“The First Lady,” observed Birgeneau after the event, “is clearly very committed to these issues. She is very supportive of what we are trying to do at Berkeley.”