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University parental leave policies are difficult for grad students and postdocs to navigate

Parental leave is guaranteed by law; why don’t most know about it?

by Linda Wang
January 2, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 1

An illustration of a female grad student split between her job as a mother and as a scientist.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN

When her daughter was born via caesarian section in mid-December 2011, Debbie Mitchell had a difficult choice to make. Would she return to graduate school at the beginning of January or defer her education for a quarter?

“Deferment meant that we could have no income for two-and-a-half months, and I would completely lose my health insurance benefits,” says Mitchell, who is now an assistant teaching professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Denver. Because she was the sole income earner for her family, she decided she had to return to work after the New Year.

“I was dealing with post-partum depression, my body was struggling to recover from childbirth, and I was bringing my baby to work,” says Mitchell. “I almost left chemistry because of it, and this is something that needs to change.”

Starting a family is one of the main reasons why women in the U.S. leave academia, says Mary Ann Mason, author of the book, “Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower,” and professor of the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. “Even though at least 50% of graduating Ph.D.s are women, they just don’t get represented in the faculty, and the main reason for it is having children and the lack of policies that really help,” Mason asserts.

She and others are trying to raise awareness among grad students and those postdocs who are classified by their institutions as students rather than as employees that, under Title IX, federally funded academic institutions are required to provide students with medically necessary leave, which includes time off for childbirth and bonding. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in higher education and is often associated with sports and sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are incorporating paid medical leave into their support for grad students and postdocs. “NSF’s paid medical leave option for NSF Graduate Research Fellows signals to the universities the importance of family leave for graduate students and NSF’s support for this,” says Gisèle Muller-Parker, program director of NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). “Together with the Career-Life Balance Initiative, GRFP’s family-friendly policies and practices show NSF’s support of efforts to retain and advance graduate students in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields.”

Around the U.S., parental leave benefits are gaining national attention. Companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix have recently expanded their already generous benefits for new parents. Netflix, for example, now offers up to one year of paid parental leave, showing just how far companies will go to attract and retain their top talent.

Chemical companies are following suit. FMC Corp., for example, has increased its paid leave for new mothers from six weeks to 12 weeks. Fathers and spouses are eligible for six weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a baby. And at BASF in the U.S., starting this month, all new parents—maternal, paternal, and adoptive—will be eligible to take eight weeks of paid parental leave. For new moms, this is in addition to the typical six to eight weeks of paid maternity leave already available.

In academia, university policies on parental leave vary widely. Whereas some institutions offer generous paid family leave packages, others have no policies on parental leave.

A student’s window of opportunity to start a family often coincides with the time the student is completing graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships. For female students who put off starting a family until later in life, it could mean an increased chance of infertility and miscarriage (C&EN, Feb. 8, 2016, page 33).

“There is no good time to have a child,” says Richard N. Zare, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University who instituted a paid maternity leave policy when he was chair of the university’s chemistry department. “It will always affect your profession. What you’re looking for is a profession that has a healthy work-life balance.”

“In some ways, graduate school is a great time to have a baby because your schedule is so flexible,” Mitchell says. “I could just start my experiments at 1PM instead of at 9 AM and then work until 10 PM.”

The problem, Mitchell says, is that grad students and postdocs often don’t receive the support they need during this difficult period of juggling work and family life.

“Right now, students and postdocs are sort of just on their own to hunt through these policies. It’s very challenging because often what you see on paper is not necessarily what you get with the institutional culture,” says Jessica Lee, a staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who is helping institutions develop and implement best practices related to pregnancy and childbirth accommodations and Title IX’s mandate prohibiting sex discrimination in higher education.

Ryan Yanashima, a graduate student at Arizona State University, says even though she was allowed to take six weeks of unpaid leave, she “only took three weeks off because I was feeling really guilty that someone else was covering for me,” she says. “I felt that I had to get back to work as quickly as possible.”

For new parents, getting the time off is invaluable. “If you have a new baby, it’s important to take at least a few weeks off because you’re never going to get that time back,” says Hannah Sayre, who had a baby as a graduate student at Virginia Tech. “You can always read papers later, you can always do experiments later, but a newborn baby is only going to be a newborn baby one time.”

For eligible employees, such as most university faculty and staff, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected family leave. But FMLA does not cover parenting students or postdocs at academic institutions unless they are also considered employees and have worked enough hours to qualify. “Grad students and postdocs are kind of in this gray area and are mostly overlooked in terms of benefits,” Mason says.

What many students and postdocs don’t realize is that under Title IX they have a legal right to parental leave.

Title IX makes it illegal to discriminate because of sex, which includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, or related conditions, including recovery. Title IX also ensures the right to take medically necessary leave and to be free of harassment, intimidation, or other discrimination because of pregnancy-related conditions.

Every school is required by law to have a Title IX coordinator, but there remains a lack of awareness that Title IX also applies to parenting students, Lee says. “A lot of institutions may not realize that Title IX covers pregnancy and also some parenting issues as well,” she says. The individuals C&EN spoke with for this story said they were unaware of their Title IX rights.

“If a doctor says the student needs 12 weeks to recover, and it’s medically necessary for them to have time off, the university has to provide it,” Lee says. “There’s no exception in the regulations.” Adoptive mothers and fathers are also protected from gender discrimination related to their parental status under Title IX. In rare cases, academic institutions that are not compliant could be stripped of their federal funding, Lee says.

To help students navigate the complexities of Title IX, Mason, Lee, and Joan C. Williams, UC Hastings Foundation Chair and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law, launched the website the Pregnant Scholar, which not only offers information for students, but also offers information for institutions. In fact, it provides a sample policy that institutions can draw inspiration from when developing their own policies.

Despite the protections, students are at the mercy of their adviser. “At some level, it almost doesn’t matter what your leave policy is if you can’t take leave,” says Kathleen Ehm, who wrote “A Postdoc’s Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave” for the National Postdoctoral Association in 2011. “One of the biggest problems is there’s really a feeling you can’t take a break from research for very long.”

To help set a family-friendly example, some federal agencies have added paid parental leave to their research grants. The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program gives NSF Fellows up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave while they are receiving their fellowship support. It also offers grants of up to three months and $12,000 of funding to pay for someone else to continue a fellow’s research while the fellow is on medical leave. NIH’s Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards provide up to eight weeks of paid leave for their recipients.

For institutions that do offer paid parental leave, they say the investment is well worth it. In the chemistry department at Stanford University, new mothers are given 12 weeks of paid leave. “The cost to the department has been minimal, absolutely minimal,” says Stanford’s Zare. “We have 200-some graduate students. It probably costs me overall each year the cost of supporting one graduate student, and I’m not even sure it’s as much as that. But the gain is huge. It puts my department at an advantage compared with others in terms of recruiting.”

The chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, uses gift funds to provide paid parental leave. “If you’re a birth mother, you get a total of 12 weeks, of which six weeks is basically sick leave and then six weeks is parental bonding. The partner would also get six weeks of parental bonding,” says Robert Hamers, a chemistry professor at the UW Madison. “It’s one of these things that has had a really positive impact on student morale and really has not cost very much.

“We want to see our students succeed,” Hamers continues. “If students view graduate school as not compatible with being a mother, then they may start choosing other careers. It’s good for the field to have that diversity of gender. We want to make sure we don’t discourage people from going into a field because they somehow feel it is not family-friendly.”

Virginia Tech offers a work-life grant, which provides six weeks of paid leave, which can be used for either childbirth or adoption, and it’s given to both men and women who are starting or adding to their families. “At universities, we have focused more on recruitment, when actually what we need to do is focus on retention as part of the recruitment process. Specifically, we need to focus on creating an affirming environment such that they truly feel welcomed throughout their degree,” says Karen DePauw, vice president and dean of graduate education at Virginia Tech.

Lee says the Pregnant Scholar is working on an online database for students to learn what parental leave benefits different institutions offer, and she plans for the information to be updated through crowdsourcing. She hopes to have this resource available on the website later this year.

For academic institutions, family-friendly policies are increasingly part of the equation in recruiting and retaining top talent. “Students are growing more savvy about these issues,” Lee says, “and are more likely now to demand paid family leave and avoid those institutions that don’t provide it.”


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