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Can dual-career couples juggle the lab and children more effectively?

The emerging phenomena of dual-career couples and the strategies employed by companies to deal with this issue was discussed at the conference 're-searching women in science and technology' on 15 May. Panellist Daniela De Boca of the University of Turin, and author of the sec...

The emerging phenomena of dual-career couples and the strategies employed by companies to deal with this issue was discussed at the conference 're-searching women in science and technology' on 15 May. Panellist Daniela De Boca of the University of Turin, and author of the section on dual careers in the recently published 'Women in Industrial Science' (WiST) report set the scene. She noted that while in the past, social life was organised according to a specific gender arrangement, in which men were the breadwinners and women the care providers, this has now changed. In recent years, more highly educated women have chosen to work continuously, irrespective of the presence of children. This growth in the presence of highly educated women, coupled with less segregation in education between the sexes, has led to an increase in partnerships between women and men of the same educational calibre, explained Ms De Boca. While one would think that 'dual-career couples', with their higher incomes, should find it easier to balance their home and work life, Ms De Boca argued that the problems they face are actually heightened. 'The balance between work and family is complicated in fact by greater commitment to high demanding jobs, higher costs of interruptions during child bearing years, and more difficult coordination of work schedules and job locations.' Different issues arise in different periods of the life cycle. 'The difficulties implied are certainly less when there are no children and mobility does not involve the organisation and the stress of delegating child care,' noted Ms De Boca. Also on the panel of experts was Laure Vincotte of Gaz de France, who explored these difficulties further. She presented a survey undertaken at her company in 2003, which showed that stereotyping was still defining 'masculine career patterns' that implicitly require a spouse's domestic support. Ms Vincotte referred to a collection of life stories which illustrated that, in managers' careers (characterised by numerous trips as well as leisure time), the work balance was still generally resolved at the cost of the spouse's occupation. The few female managers with children explained that they needed to be very efficient, and that they planned work to accommodate the long hours and responsibly which often include arriving early in the office, skipping lunch or working in the evening when the children had gone to bed. However, the 'life accounts' also showed strong aspirations emerging among young women who want a better work-life balance, and for men to be more available as fathers. Both experts suggested that any work-family policies should therefore be gender neutral so that neither parent is penalised for taking care of the children. 'Given the sizeable human capital investment that firms make in their highly-educated professionals, firms should develop polices that offer opportunities to balance work and family in order to attract and retain highly qualified workers of either sex,' argued Ms De Boca, adding that supporting and protecting workers was not only important for the workers' welfare but the welfare of the firm itself. Some of the companies that participated in the group's initiative have already put in place actions which they believe are helping to mitigate the problems experienced by dual-career couples. Representing Schlumberger, an international oil and gas company, Deanna Jones responded to participants' questions on how companies can make it easier for women who wish to return to the workplace after long periods of parental leave. Schlumberger supports a project entitled 'Next', which specifically targets women who have been out of the workforce for a minimum of ten years, providing them with technical training. Given the limited number of trained personnel for the gas and oil industry, Ms Jones noted the importance of tapping into the potential of these women. Schlumberger is seen by many as a leader when it comes to tackling issues related to the dual-career families. In 2000, the company set up PartnerJob.com in partnership with seven other multinational companies. www.partnerjob.com is a career Web site designed to enable geographic mobility by helping the partners of employees posted abroad to find appropriate employment in their new country. CVs and details of job vacancies are posted on the site by the member companies, which now number 45. Schlumberger is also a founding member of the Permits Foundation, an international non-profit corporate initiative to promote access by accompanying spouses of international staff to employment through the improvement of work permit regulations. While companies have been fairly quick to respond, and to adapt their policies to suit societal needs in order to attract the much needed additional human resources, universities have been slower. This rang true for many of the participants in the audience, who noted that due to the lower number of jobs available in academia, women lose out if they choose shorter working hours. 'There would always be someone who could take their place and work those extra long hours to produce publications and get ahead,' said one participant. Another participant, Johannes Klumpers - Head of Unit for Women and Science in the European Commission - noted that the companies included in the WIST report could serve as role models for the public as well as the private sector. 'These companies are more advanced in social thinking than not only other companies but also most academic institutions in Europe,' he told CORDIS News. 'Academic institutions are far behind in thinking about life-balance challenges such as those faced by dual-career couples.' Dr Angela Risch, a researcher at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, was also participating in the discussions, and elaborated further on the challenges in academia. Dr Risch started her career at Oxford University in the UK, where she obtained the equivalent of a post-doctorate in biochemistry at the age of 25. Following this, Dr Risch returned to Germany, leaving her British boyfriend behind. 'Luckily, I was able to persuade him to come follow, and he was able to convince his company that they need an office in Heidelberg,' she told CORDIS News. Back in Germany, Dr Risch obtained a post at the Centre and obtained the last remaining qualification needed to become fully integrated into the system. 'Like all long scientists, I worked all the hours that were available,' she said. However, since the birth of her son last year, things have changed. 'Now, I am in that classical position of trying to hold down a full time job and balance everything, she said, noting that she still works a normal 40 hour week. 'Thankfully, I have a very supportive environment where I don't have to be in the lab for all those hours, and can work from home.' While happy about her situation, Dr Risch is aware that she is missing out on some opportunities. 'I am not able to react as quickly as I used to, to very short deadlines as my colleagues still can, meaning I have to let certain project opportunities fall by the wayside,' she said. 'I had hoped that by obtaining my post doctorate at the young age of 25 and working at 150 per cent, I had jumped all the hoops I needed in order to secure a permanent position and arrive at the stage of motherhood without the pressure of losing out,' said Dr Risch. Her contract runs out in less than two years.

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