The summer issue of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) magazine features an invited four-page article by Barbara Pearson, linguistics and office of research development, and Rebecca Spencer, psychological and brain sciences, that introduces the campus’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) Family Travel Initiative (FTI) to the nation as an innovative program supporting women faculty and postdoctoral fellows at UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges while advocating progressive policies.
Since 2010, the STEM FTI program on campus has worked to remove travel-related barriers to the advancement of STEM researchers with dependent-care responsibility to provide both “funding and inspiration,” Pearson and Spencer write. The program is made possible by a grant from the Elsevier Foundation and support from campus and several centers. It provides professional travel grants up to $1,200 per calendar year. To date, STEM FTI has helped with dependent care support for 104 trips by 59 faculty and postdoctoral researchers.
STEM FTI director Maria Santore, polymer science and engineering, says the national magazine’s recognition is a welcome honor. “I am extremely pleased that this powerful program is being recognized at the national level. The success of STEM FTI is a testament to the hard work and commitment of everyone involved, from those of us who run the program to the travelers who have advocated for childcare benefits and promoted STEM FTI across the country.”
As Pearson and Spencer point out, women in STEM research often reduce professional travel after starting families, despite the professional importance of travel-related benefits in tenure and promotion packages. “Among family-friendly practices, support for child (and elder) care during professional travel is potentially easy to address; it requires few physical resources and yet provides immediate benefit. For UMass, it required the will to do it, dedicated funds and – importantly – key policy changes. That is why our proposal to Elsevier coupled travel funding with advocacy.”
Spencer adds, “Across the country there has been interest from a lot of women asking who does this well. I think the magazine heard from a number of sources that our STEM FTI is doing a good job and might well serve as a model for others.”
Santore adds that in many fields, travel increases after tenure as part of activities such as joining editorial boards, organizing meetings and accepting other research leadership roles. Researchers declining such opportunities can become invisible, ultimately falling behind colleagues who are able to meet the need for increased travel. The small numbers of women promoted to full professor in some fields is evidence of this challenge, she notes.
Santore says that the campus program has approached 61 professional societies and meeting organizers to increase awareness of family needs and to offer assistance in developing support programs within professional societies. STEM FTI has partnered with universities across the country in grant applications and policy forums, she adds. Other family travel programs are modeled on the STEM FTI model and look to UMass Amherst for resources. Spencer and Pearson write that they “look forward to the day when everyone can take these benefits for granted.”