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.




8 thoughts on “Guest Post: UC Postdocs Demand Paid Parental Leave

  1. In case it’s helpful for your cause: A couple years ago when I was on postdoc maternity leave, I put together a series of analyses on postdoc parental leave across 20 major universities. Here’s the index of blog posts and tables:

    Here’s a real-world example (using my own pregnancy and birth) of how much paid and unpaid leave a postdoc could get at these 20 universities in taking a three-month leave after birth plus how much money is lost in doing so:

    Good luck with your lobbying. UC is a leader and we all want to see you succeed!

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: UC Postdocs Demand Paid Parental Leave — Tenure, She Wrote | Let's talk about S.E.X.

  3. I agree with every word, and think this should also be extended to graduate students who have to resume teaching only 6 weeks after birth (otherwise they lose their stipend and health insurance).
    In addition, 8 weeks is really not enough. The US has the shortest maternity leave among all OECD countries (!!!), whose maternity leave ranges from 14 weeks to 3 years. We’re way behind the rest of the modern world on this issue.

  4. Without in anyway questioning both the need and the right to maternity leave, I think the critical question that has to be addressed is how to pay for it. Right now, you report that UC has leave for birth parents, for 6 weeks, at 70% pay. Presumably this is paid for through some form of disability insurance.

    If the cost burden for paying maternity leave falls on the individual lab employer (i.e. the budget of a single individual lab), the repercussions for an individual lab will be hugely significant. Given the tight budgets, short-term grant cycle, and small numbers of employees, I really don’t see how labs can offer maternity leave for short-term post-docs without a funding mechanism that transcends the lab. We should search for ways to average the cost of maternity leaves over time and people — the only to fund the leave without shuttering individual labs.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with this article but I just wanted to add that the reality of maternity leave is even worse than described. I had a baby last year and my short-term disability at UCSF was not even close to 70%. I got paid around $600 per month which of course doesn’t even cover my rent!!! I guess sleeping under a bridge with a newborn is duable during the summer

  6. It might also be beneficial to compare against other countries (sadly, my impression is that USA is generally rather backward with regards to these issues). In Australia you would get 12 weeks maternity leave at full pay. I am pretty sure this also applies to PhD scholarship recipients. The Australian Research Council has a number of initiatives to try and prevent female academics being disadvantaged. Career interruptions and part time employment are explicitly factored in when assessing a researcher’s track record for grant applications. Recipients of ARC early-career and mid-career scholarships can take time off for parenting without having to give up the scholarship; e.g delay starting by a year, etc. The ARC also tracks number of female vs. male grant recipients, which was pretty equal last time I saw the figures. In spite of this there is still a glass ceiling with fewer female academics in senior positions. Hopefully this will even out over time.

    • On the question of how to pay for it, the US college sector could lobby the grant awarding bodies. I’m faculty in the UK and took 2 maternity breaks as a postdoc- each of around 9 months duration, with 6 months on full pay. The cost of this was recouped by the university from the grant funder, an arrangement agreed in the UK in 1996 under the concordat, that (among other things, brought employment conditions of contract research staff into line with other employees ( is the original, it’s been updated and expanded since)

      Targeting funders would give campaigners in all institutions a common target, plus leverage with individual employers.

      I hope that’s useful – the US is so far behind the curve on this. It’s not great in parts of Europe either, but at least maternity provision is the accepted norm.

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