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.