Guest Post: UC Postdocs Demand Paid Parental Leave

I am a postdoc researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley, which is widely regarded as the most forward-thinking university in the country. Berkeley’s progressive reputation and more broadly the reputation of the University of California as a whole would suggest an academic institution on the leading edge of promoting gender equity in science. Indeed, UC administrators consistently emphasize the importance of keeping women in academia.

However, the solutions suggested are often superficial and fail to address the real structural issues for women in their careers. For example, a recent “Postdoc Newsletter” produced by University of California administrators offers the trite advice that female postdocs “accept the challenge” and not be “discouraged or waylaid by hurdles.” Wow, that never occurred to me!

UC’s lack of commitment to improving gender equity in the academy is evident not just in the superficial nature of its rhetoric, but also in its failure to act on its stated goals. In the past several years, University practices have led to our union filing discrimination grievances after postdocs were fired or laid off following pregnancy leave. There is no defense for this practice, and yet at all turns UC has resisted efforts to remedy these injustices.

As an elected member of our union’s bargaining team this year, I was optimistic on the first day of negotiations when UC representatives responded to our opening remarks by stating that improving gender inequity in the academy was a goal they shared. Since then, I have been disappointed as the UC has repeatedly and resolutely rejected the union’s proposals that would address these problems. Our proposals would reform the failed sexual harassment policy, provide childcare support for postdoc parents, and match the standard of eight weeks of parental leave at full pay set by the National Institutes of Health.

Given that the attrition of women from research is in fact the subject of much academic research, we must view UC’s resistance as a case of willful ignorance if not outright hostility towards gender equity. To this point, the scholarship of UC Berkeley Professor Mary Ann Mason has shown that the “baby penalty” is a leading factor in the persistent gender inequity in academia. As Professor Mason describes, “For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is a often career killer.”

Professor Mason’s findings demonstrate that women who have children during their graduate student or postdoc years are more than twice as likely as fathers to leave academia. Mothers are also far less likely than fathers to obtain tenure-track positions. This is not because academic mothers lack a “can-do” attitude. Balancing work and family is challenging for all parents in academia, but as with so many injustices, the burden falls disproportionately on women.

If a lack of gender equity policies lead to attrition of female researchers, then improving the policies should lead to improved hiring and retention. Professor Mason’s research found this exact result. When UC implemented a package of policies and benefits for faculty – including expanded parental leave, childcare support, and flexible scheduling – the hiring of female faculty increased significantly in only a few years and many felt the campus climate was greatly improved. But as many researchers leave academia long before reaching the tenure track, these policies need to be extended to graduate students and postdocs.

It is frustrating, angering, and exhausting to hear empty missives on the value of keeping women in research while simultaneously bearing witness to the UC’s refusal to enact policies that its own researchers have proven to retain women scientists. Postdocs, particularly women, feel like we are being asked to make a choice between family and career. One easy and inexpensive policy would be to offer 8 weeks of paid parental leave to all postdocs. An Institute for Women’s Policy Research study looked at employers who offered paid family leave across sectors. The authors found that 87% of employers reported no cost increases, and 8.8% actually reported cost savings, while 89% reported either no decrease or an increase in productivity. This is a common sense policy that would help retain more women in the research career track.

Most postdocs are in their early 30s, a time when many people are starting families, and having a child is often a tipping point that pushes women out. At the University of California, the closest we have to paid family leave is short-term disability, but this is not the same as parental leave. As a disability benefit, this covers only the birth mother at 70% of her salary for five weeks which is not enough for most postdocs to make ends meet. As fathers are excluded, this places more childcare responsibility on mothers. For adoptive parents, neither parent is eligible for disability leave.

This is an unacceptable situation. It is insulting to be told by UC administrators to “not get discouraged” at career hurdles when many of those exact hurdles are due to UC’s own policies. As discussed earlier, there is already a precedent for paid family leave for postdocs: the NIH offers eight weeks of parental leave at full pay for all of its postdoctoral fellows, some of whom already work at UC. If the university wants to demonstrate that it truly values gender equity in science, it should recognize that eight weeks of paid parental leave for all postdocs would benefit both postdocs and the University. If paid parental leave is good enough for the NIH, then why shouldn’t it be for UC?

 

Lydia Majure is a postdoc in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley and a member of the Executive Board of UAW Local 5810, the union for over 6,000 postdocs at the University of California.

 

 

 

Where are all the award winning women scientists?

With increasing numbers of women completing PhDs in science, it’s only a matter of time before major scientific awards reflect the gender diversity of our world, right? Not so much, when women still earn much less than 50% of PhDs in some fields, so we have a whole lot of progress to make to even get a candidate pool that truly reflects the world around us. (Here and throughout the problems are even worse for women and men from other under-represented groups.)

If we shift our standards to having scientific award winners reflect the gender diversity of their scientific fields, we still fall significantly short of that benchmark. Nobel Prizes still go dominantly to men, in the past two decades, newly elected members of the US National Academy of Science are only 10-20% women, and the UK Royal Society does even worse. Look at the list of fellows for your favorite professional society, and you’ll probably find similarly dismal statistics. These overwhelmingly male roll calls aren’t just because of the long lag times built into that sort of late career recognition, but all of the large and small barriers and slights that women accumulate over their careers.  Seemingly small things like women being less likely to be asked to speak at conferences and having lower rates of self-citation accumulate over time to produce less impressive CVs and lower H-indices for women than men at similar career stages.

But even for awards designated for young researchers or for specific achievements, women are often substantially under-represented. NSF’s Waterman Award, its pinnacle award for an early career scientist and one which comes with a $1,000,000 award, has been given to women <13% of the time since 1975 and no woman has won in over a decade. Again, check your favorite professional society or division/section for evidence of this in the discipline closest to your heart and see how they are doing. In my world, my professional society division gives an award for the “best paper” published within the last few years. This award has only gone to one paper with a woman first author in the entire history of the award, and that was over 10 years ago. This is despite women publishing many wonderful papers in our field. Also in my world, in another society, in one division, 1 woman has won the early career award in the 8 years the award has been given, while in another division, 2016 mark the first year that a woman has won an early career award in the 7 year history of the award.

Why do we see the under-representation of women award winners even at the early career stages? Early career women are already accumulating those slights that slow them down relative to their male careers. Women whose timelines differ from their male peers because they had children during or after their PhDs may “time out” of eligibility for early career awards before they recover from any productivity dips associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and any maternity leave they may be able to take. And implicit bias is working against women at both the nomination to award stage.

Increasing the number of women nominated for awards is absolutely critical for increasing the number of women winning these awards, which means that when we think of “award winning scientists” we need our colleagues to picture women (and people of color) and not just older white men.

How do we increase the number of women nominated for and winning awards at every career stage? Here are some of the things I’ve been doing and I’ve seen others promote as best practices.

Nominate someone. If you are able to nominate a woman for an award, do so! For many of these awards, the nomination process involves writing a nomination letter saying how great your candidate is, gathering some supporting letters of recommendation, and maybe including some other supporting materials (their CV or papers). The hardest part of this process is finding other people to write letters on behalf of your candidate. But if you have identified someone worthy and are sufficiently in advance of the deadline, most people you ask are happy to write a letter in support of someone they like.

Start a whisper campaign on behalf of a deserving nominee. For things like Fellowship in professional societies, nominees may have to come from other fellows. And if those fellows are mostly older white men, that’s probably not you. But you probably know some fellows amongst your PhD advisor and professors or senior colleagues or collaborators. When the call for Fellows nominations comes out (or even before), mention that to your local Fellow and how surprised you were to discover that Awesome Woman X is not yet a fellow. Depending on your relationship to your local Fellow, maybe be more blunt in suggesting he nominate Awesome Woman X or even offer to help with the leg work to make it happen.

Use your formal and informal networks to develop “binders of women” to be nominated for awards and to encourage people to nominate diverse candidates. For example, the Earth Science Women’s Network has an awards group that keeps track of potential candidates and award opportunities, offers help to its members in preparing awards packages, and provides peer support for efforts to nominate women.

Call attention to under-representation of women and people of color in awards. The professional society division that had its first woman early career winner this year? This was also the division that noted in its email to members calling for applications that it had yet to award a woman. That caught my attention and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought long and hard about deserving woman as a result of that email.

Get on a nomination or award committee. Influence the process from the inside. If you are on a nomination or award committee, there are some good guidelines here http://sites.agu.org/honors/files/2014/11/AWARDS-SUGGESTED-BEST-PRACTICES-MAY2011.pdf for minimizing the effects of implicit bias.

Can you be physically incompatible with a career?

For all that academia is a ‘brainy’ pursuit, many disciplines also rely on an impressive array of motor skills and physical abilities. Perhaps you need to be able to carry those archaeological samples out of a desert canyon, or you need to be able to dissect a fruit fly’s brain under a microscope. I remember an old Grey’s Anatomy episode where a resident was dismissed for not having a surgeon’s “hands”.  In an ideal world we could surmount, bypass, or move any physical barriers to our academic dreams – but is that always realistic?

Sometimes it just means altering one’s expectations. In one of my prior research positions I mentored a student with cerebral palsy. The project they worked on required many different abilities that I took for granted in myself and other students – the ability to perform precise measurements quickly, walk long distances quickly, and enter data quickly (you are probably seeing a pattern here). Ultimately he could do 95% of what all of the other students could, it just took him a bit more time and effort. In the end his project went so well he came back for a second summer, and it was a rewarding experience for both of us… he on track for a successful career in science.

Sometimes it means a lot of hard work and effort. Perhaps a task requires good hand-eye coordination – better if you have it innately, but with enough practice and experience you can become an expert. Perhaps you need to get over a fear of the water and learn how to scuba dive. Or perhaps those archaeological samples that need to be carried can be an inspiration for better health and physical condition. Last semester I took some students on a walk for our last lab. I realized halfway through that one of my students was really struggling with our pace, and she was very embarrassed that she couldn’t keep up. At one point in my career I was like her… I remember how horrible I felt when I realized that I was holding my PhD supervisor up in the field. It took a lot of concerted effort over many months to get myself in shape enough that I could keep up. Even today I’m not a superstar in the field and I have to acknowledge my limitations when planning sampling.

It can be a real challenge to motivate yourself physically, and not everyone is going to choose that path. However, it’s not only cardiovascular ability and physical strength needed. Many fields require long days (and nights) in uncomfortable conditions in sometimes remote locations. This can really be a barrier early in students’ careers – if the first experience a student has is exhausting, embarrassing, and uncomfortable, they are less likely to stick with that field. This could be a real hindrance against diversity in certain fields.

Sometimes, however, all the hard work and effort isn’t going to lead to success. One of my dissertation experiments was almost a complete wash because I couldn’t pipette at the required level of precision due to a physical condition. I ended up needing help with that part of my project, and after that, I knew that I couldn’t specialize in that area. I do think that there are some physical barriers that are serious enough that not every person can do every job, no matter how we strive for equality and opportunity. If the barriers are in the sample collection stage an academic could become an expert in analyzing the data, interpreting the materials, and/or writing – but that’s more feasible later in your career. Students are expected to be able to succeed in all aspects of their research projects. How do you help students understand or work past their limitations? How do we, as mentors, provide support and realism at the same time?

What to do before a reporter calls…

So you have a snazzy new result and you want to share it with the world? There are plenty of reporters out there looking for a good story.

Interactions with the press can lead to good things – recognition by your institution, your department and even funding agencies. But there is risk involved — interactions with reporters can be problematic if the story they tell isn’t one you like.

In the best cases, stories are a collaboration between scientist and reporter. Here are 10 tips on how to foster productive press interactions.

BEFORE THE PRESS CALLS (OR YOU CALL THEM):

  1. Work with your institution’s public relations staff.  They can help you prepare.
  2. Ask for the major theme and angle of the article.
  3. Ask for the interview questions in advance.
  4. Anticipate misconceptions.
  5. Write down short sound bites and talking points.  Stick to them.
  6. Test communication ideas on novice audiences.
  7. Be careful of what you say – chopped quotes can come across terribly.   Don’t ramble or an offhand comment may be the quote that takes the prime spot.
  8. Ask for permission to check your quotes before publication.
  9. Be ready with images to share and let reporters know how they can use them.
  10. Be prepared for short turnaround times.

This last point is important. Some interviews have to be arranged and conducted within 48 hours. Other times you may work with a reporter over weeks or months, but still need to respond quickly to the initial contact.   If you want to work with the press, you should be ready before they call.

Guest Post: Publishing without supervisors

Today’s guest post is by The Blundering Ecologist, a Ph.D. candidate at a research university in Canada. In addition to research, she is passionate about asking uncomfortable questions and learning the rules so that she can break them properly. 


I can’t do this.

That was my only thought when my class professor told me on the first day of classes I had to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors on all the work I submitted to his class. I anxiously took notes until class was over. Loitering in the hall, I waited until all the other students had left so that I could ask for his advice. Why was I supposed to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors when they have not significantly contributed to my work?

“For my dissertation my PI was just like that. The whole four years I struggled alone and the last thing I wanted to do was put his name on my work. In the end, I didn’t have the guts to publish alone. It was just easier to put his name on it.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I mean, if I was you, and I had the [expletive] to do it I would go back and publish without him… Put him in the acknowledgements. That would really show his co-workers what kind of researcher he was.”

“But, for now?”

“For now, put their names on your work and keep your head down. He has complete control over your M.Sc. and the headache isn’t worth it… at least, not yet. Don’t make things difficult for yourself.”

One of my supervisors was an urban geographer (primary M.Sc. supervisor) at my university and the other an ornithologist (secondary M.Sc. supervisor) at a university in another city. My M.Sc. work was in Ecology and on mammals. My project was handed to my primary M.Sc. supervisor from the funding agency. The funding agency’s questions were clear and decisive, all I needed to do was the fieldwork, data collection, statistics, and interpret the results.

Twelve months later… Continue reading

Guest Post: Searching for an academic position on maternity leave

Today’s guest post is by Chicken_little. Chicken_little is a postdoc in clinical psychology in the midst of an existential career crisis – but officially in search of an academic position. She studies the impact of mindfulness interventions in various populations, although she very often forgets to practice mindfulness in her daily life. When she is not working or reading funny academic tweets, she is the proud mom of a baby boy. 


I’m sitting at the kitchen table trying to finish a manuscript. I can hear my son yelling in his crib, refusing to take his nap. As I try to concentrate on bringing the finishing touches to my soon-to-be submitted paper, I can’t help but feel incredibly guilty of, once again, favoring my work over my son. The appeal of a tenure-track position is big, and so is the pressure to be productive and to get out several manuscripts this year, even though I am (supposed to be) on maternity leave.

Thank goodness my spouse is home and is there to soothe the baby. Being a postdoc and working from home does have benefits : I was able to transfer my maternity leave to my partner, so we can both spend some time with our son in his first year of life. But let’s be honest here : having him at home only means that I can get more work done, as he watches the baby. I am trying to make things happen for my career all the while he is putting his own on hold. This better pay off.

This is what I have learned so far on being a mom and a postdoc in search of an academic position at the same time : Continue reading

Getting out of a hole

Last year sucked for me in an epic way. Health problems and personal losses, compounded by a long-distance spouse, made me realize just how tenuous pre-tenure life is. When your everyday status is “barely treading water,” there’s no leeway for life to throw curve balls*. I was already overcommitted and doing too much service. Then I hurt myself. My dad got cancer. I had a string of demoralizing events. I ended a couple of long-term close friendships that had become toxic over the years.

I got behind. A lot. And I felt like I didn’t have much of a safety net yet in my new job, so I didn’t ask for help. I avoided the things that were stressing me out. I stopped taking care of myself, partly because of my injury, but partly because I just couldn’t muster up the energy. I dropped balls. A proposal never got submitted. A paper was late, and another one stalled. I didn’t make progress on a workshop commitment. I missed a couple of reviews.

I felt like a failure, and this just exacerbated my anxiety and depression. Lack of progress on my health goals meant pushing back trying for a baby by another year. I regretted not having gotten my reproductive act together sooner, before I lost my dad. I felt like I had no one I could talk to about any of this. I didn’t want my mentors to think I wasn’t worth the time they’d put into me. My family was already suffering and didn’t need me to worry about. I didn’t want to lean too much on my friends or my partner. I felt so self-conscious about not being invincible.

I made a lot of mistakes in the lead-up to my Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year that set me up to have a harder time than I needed to. And then I made poor choices in how I handled (or didn’t handle) what life threw at me. Once you’re in a hole, it’s hard to get out. Much harder, I think, than avoiding the hole in the first place. So what should I have done differently? Continue reading