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A Space for Children

Industry knows that onsite childcare is good for retention. Is academia starting to catch on?

kerry grens
Kerry Grens

Kerry served as The Scientist’s news director until 2021. Before joining The Scientist in 2013, she was a stringer for Reuters Health, the senior health and science reporter at...

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<figcaption> Credit: Courtesy of the Day Care Facility of UCSF</figcaption>
Credit: Courtesy of the Day Care Facility of UCSF

For Jen Thomas-Ahner the day typically begins around 7:00 a.m. She and her husband wake up, shower, dress, and then feed and dress their 15-month-old daughter, Alexis. With precise logistic execution, Thomas-Ahner's husband leaves for work at 7:45, and shortly after Thomas-Ahner takes Alexis to childcare 10 miles from home. She drives another 10 miles to Ohio State University (OSU), and for the next eight hours Thomas-Ahner will leave parenting behind to focus on her research on gender differences in inflammatory responses, as a graduate student in Tatiana Oberyszyn's laboratory in the Department of Pathology.

Alexis spends the day in Columbus with another mother, who cares for several other children, including her own, in her home. On-campus childcare at OSU would make weekday commutes easier, not to mention Alexis would be close by during the day, and she would receive the...

Make Way for Baby

At the University of California, San Francisco, two new facilities serving nearly 200 children, and the doubling of a third facility, are still unable to meet the childcare demand. "There can be waitlists of up to 100 at each site, and sometimes it can take up to two years," says Robert Frank, the early care and education services director at UCSF. At Princeton, spaces for infants is particularly tight. "We have two on-campus centers serving around 160 children. We think we need about double that," says Joan Girgus, psychology professor and member of the Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty in the Natural Sciences and Engineering at Princeton. Girgus is also special assistant to the dean of the faculty on gender issues. "Despite the fact that there are 40 daycare centers in a 10-mile radius of Princeton University, there is not a lot of availability. We're moving as fast as we can, but it's a long process."

The Task Force's report in 2003 outlined initiatives to recruit and retain more female faculty members. One of those initiatives called for establishing affordable childcare. "I think [universities are] beginning to realize this is an issue," says Berry. The waiting lists at centers speak to parents' desire for onsite centers. "That's the advantage. It's five minutes away and I can get to her if something happens," says Tober. It's not only the convenience; she considers it the best childcare in the area. "It's a nice program, kindergarten and daycare rolled into one." The center also offers after-hours care until midnight. "It works really well. Days that are late, she can stay there."

Drago has seen an increase in the rate that onsite childcare centers are popping up on campuses. "Four to five universities a year are building onsite childcare," Drago says. A decade ago, the rate was one to two per year.

Bright Horizons Family Solutions is one of the largest onsite childcare companies that universities contract to run their centers, serving about 20 US universities and more than 600 clients in total. Dave Lissy, CEO of Bright Horizons, says the trend is toward more onsite childcare centers at academic institutions. "In the last three years we've doubled the amount of universities we work with," Lissy says.

The reason for this swell, Girgus says, is that increasingly more faculty members have working spouses, and to get them on board, family support is essential. "Almost all female faculty members have spouses who work, and work full time," she says. Many universities have commissioned their own task forces on women in science, often finding they need to make institutions more family friendly. The National Academies' report on the status of women in science and engineering includes a charge that, in order to improve the numbers of women, universities should "visibly and vigorously support campus programs that help faculty with children or other care-giving responsibilities to maintain productive careers." Such programs would include paid parental leave, subsidized on-campus childcare, and tenure extensions.

Girgus says new faculty members are at a particular disadvantage for childcare. "There's an unfairness in the system," Girgus says. "People who are already here can be proactive and can apply in advance. Someone newly recruited can't do that."

Though the need for more childcare services reflects a rise in the number of working parents, it is unclear whether providing more childcare will result in more female scientists in the workforce.

Daycare Dividends

Many private companies that offer onsite childcare say the investment is paying off. "We know that we have a higher retention rate of employees that use the center," says Lesli Marasco, the director of childcare solutions at Abbott Laboratories. "The turnover rate of parents who have children at the center is lower than the overall Abbott turnover rate."

Abbott's childcare program ends up costing the company money, though it declined to disclose the amount. The same is true at Bristol-Myers Squibb and its four onsite childcare centers. "The tuition that we collect from the parents does not cover the cost of running the centers, but we get the talent, the productivity," says Stacey Gibson, Bristol-Myers Squibb's senior director of work life and diversity programs.

Bright Horizons conducted a survey among a number of its clients to track childcare and employee retention. Turnover rate among employees who used the center was 50% less than employees who didn't use it. The report estimates that these companies saved $3.4 million by having employees remain at their jobs.

Bright Horizons also serves about 100 biotech and pharmaceutical clients. "Many of the pharmaceutical companies were early adopters, and biotech in the last 10 years has followed suit," Lissy says. Bright Horizons centers have a tailored curriculum, called Growing Scientists, for its science-oriented clients, whose children are encouraged to explore the natural world, ask questions, and engage in problem-solving tasks.

"The pharmaceutical industry is doing unbelievably well with onsite childcare," says Barbara Turvett, deputy editor of Working Mother magazine, which annually ranks companies and institutions on their family-friendly policies. Their survey showed that of the top 100 companies, 64% provide onsite childcare, compared with 82% of the top pharmaceutical companies that provide such care.

Care Challenge

Yet even for Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott, meeting the childcare demand is a challenge. Both have waiting lists, and Abbott is partnering with local offsite centers to assist employees with enrolling their children. Aside from waiting lists, childcare costs can be prohibitive. Many onsite centers peg their tuitions to average childcare costs at offsite centers, or operate on a sliding scale based on income. Thomas-Ahner pays about $600 per month for Alexis to be in an offsite, at-home daycare; she estimates that OSU's childcare center would cost about $1,000 per month. The issue is not just about getting daycare, says Drago, but affordable daycare. Harvard, for example, offers about $2 million a year in childcare scholarships for faculty and students.

Some universities, including OSU and Princeton, are implementing policies that include childcare opportunities for recruiting faculty members. The University of Texas Child Care Center, for example, set up a program this year that allows department chairs, while recruiting for faculty, to hold a spot at one of UT Austin's two onsite childcare centers. The policy can also be used to retain faculty members, but only if they've been given an offer elsewhere and childcare is a deciding factor. Drago says one of the biggest new initiatives to help faculty members with childcare responsibilities has been half-time tenure, where they can slow down the tenure clock.

Though the need for more childcare services reflects a rise in the number of working parents, it is unclear whether providing more childcare will result in more female scientists. "European policy makers believe investing in childcare is a precondition for increasing numbers of women in the workplace and for economic growth," says Janneke Plantenga, at the University of Utrecht. At a European Union summit in Barcelona in 2002, countries agreed to target childcare provision goals at 90% of children three years of age until school age, and 33% of children under age three by 2010, according to the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (www.nap.edu/catalog/11741.html).

A handful of European countries have met that goal, though some of those family-friendly countries, such as Finland, Denmark, and Belgium, actually have a lower proportion of female researchers than Greece, Lithuania, and Poland, which scored low in meeting the targets outlined in the 2002 Barcelona summit. Maren Jochimsen, secretary general of the European Platform of Women Scientists, points out the structural and cultural challenges facing women's participation in science. "Childcare might be one," she says, "but it's not the only one." The National Academies' report, for example, that discrimination, bias, and discouraging organizational structures contribute to women's paucity among science faculty.

For Thomas-Ahner, childcare opportunities will remain an important guide in her scientific career. This year she is finishing her PhD and expecting another child. As she chooses the laboratory for a postdoc, onsite childcare will be an important factor: "It could tip the balance."

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