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Sally Shaywitz had to make a decision. A physician, she had a young son and had just given birth to twin boys. Her career looked promising following a fellowship in behavioral and developmental pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Should she take a minimal leave and keep on her career path? Or should she interrupt her career to raise her children? "I felt that as a pediatrician, I wanted to be the caretaker for my children," she recalls. After talking it over with her husband Bennett Shaywitz, then finishing a fellowship in child neurology also at Albert Einstein, she decided to take time off until her children were ready to enter the first grade.

Seven years later, in 1979, she joined Yale University in a part-time position. Today, she is professor of pediatrics and, with her husband, co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, and a member of the Institute of Medicine. "I think that had I not done what I thought was important for me, my career might not have developed as it has. It gave me a deeper appreciation for child development and a broader view," she says. Soon after joining Yale, while developing a program in learning, she designed the Connecticut Longitudinal Study, which continues today in its 22nd year. The Connecticut study is the source of much of the federal government's data on prevalence and outcome of learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia.

Shaywitz's leave of absence occurred in the late 1970s--a much different time-- but her experiences are still relevant today. She had difficulty, she says, getting accepted by peers. Today's scientists have an advantage that she did not: the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, which requires most employers to provide 12 weeks unpaid leave for the birth and care of a child, adoption, or to facilitate medical care for oneself or an immediate family member.

But the law is rarely used, says Shaywitz. "Many women don't take advantage of it because they believe that the perception is, if they do, they're not, 'real scientists.' You have to have the attitude to go with (the law), so if a parent does take advantage of FMLA, she's not viewed as being a second-class citizen, or less committed. Women and men are forced to make choices that we shouldn't have to make."

Other sources we talked to agreed that scientists tend to take less advantage of FMLA laws than those in other professions, but there are differences of opinion on the reason why: some think the underutilization of FMLA may have to do with the inherent flexibility of a scientific career. "Progress relies on the talents of individuals even if projects are managed in teams," says Ilene Busch-Vishniac, professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the National Academy of Science's Committee on Women in Science and Engineering. "It is very tough to get replacements, so scientists tend to feel a responsibility to work if at all possible. In return, it is often true that scientists are granted greater flexibility in setting their work schedules than other workers. As a group, I believe we take less advantage of the protections offered by the FMLA."

Still, the law is well worth being aware of. Careers and families often begin about the same time. Although many may not be aware of it, postdocs employed by their institutions are eligible for leave. "I cannot cite a single instance of a postdoc taking a leave using FMLA, although I know many who had children during that time," says Busch-Vishniac.

The Law

The Family and Medical Leave Act requires that companies with more than 50 employees, and all public agencies and schools, provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of leave for specified family and medical reasons during a 12-month period--with a guarantee that their jobs will be waiting for them when they return. To qualify, you must have been employed for one year and worked a minimum number of hours.

Eligible reasons for leave include: birth and childcare; placement for adoption or foster care; care of a seriously ill spouse, child, or parent; and an employee's own serious illness. The time can be broken up into smaller chunks and taken individually, although this can be subject to the employer's approval.

Many states have their own laws that govern medical and family leave. FMLA does not supersede state laws; in fact, the employer is required by law to comply with whichever law is more beneficial to the employee.

But the balance between federal law and state statutes could soon be tipped. The Department of Labor, under pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management, is expected to announce revisions to the law. No one is certain what those changes will be, but possibilities include tightening of the definition of serious illnesses, and elimination of intermittent leave.

Will changes to the law have a deep impact on scientists? Probably not, says Busch-Vishniac. "I think that scientists tend to be given more flexibility than their peers, even in corporate America. Scientists tend to be highly valued. They are very difficult to replace so companies tend to be more understanding about personal needs."

Even so, the professional atmosphere needs to change so that both women and men feel comfortable taking time off for their families, says Aihua Xie, a professor of physics at Oklahoma State and chair of the American Physical Society's Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. FMLA helps raise awareness of this, but universities must do their share to construct a better environment. Xie recommends that universities waive a semester's teaching load for new parents, and that they pause the tenure clock so that new parents will not fall behind in the race to meet the tenure decision.

Perhaps most importantly, says Shaywitz, the scientific establishment must recognize that families are as important as careers. "I mentor a number of young women, and they're so worried that there's only one pathway, and if they don't take it they won't have a satisfying career. We have to create the kind of environment in our institutions that allows multiple career pathways."

Jim Kling is a freelance science and medical writer based in Bellingham, Washington.