Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Speaking Frankly: Changing childbirth policies

Frank Leibfarth is a graduate student trying to make his way through the academic maze. Find him contributing to the Sceptical Chymist or continue the conversation on Twitter @Frank_Leibfarth.


Today’s post enables me to expand upon a recent letter I co-authored (sub req’d) in Science entitled ‘Hope for graduate school childbirth policies.’ We are incredibly grateful for the journal’s support in highlighting this important topic. Below you can find some of my uncensored and expanded opinions on the subject. I would encourage those from other places in the world to comment on this issue. What are the policies like in Europe? In Asia? Are they better or worse?

We, as chemists, strive to recruit the best and brightest students to our discipline. Half of those students are women (or more, since more women than men earn bachelors degrees [pdf] in chemistry), yet the number of women who reach the upper echelon of chemical science is widely disproportionate. Articles about the subject usually cite the standard reasons: women are discriminated against in hiring (sub req’d), grant funding, and publishing [pdf]. These somewhat qualitative explanations, however, do not tell the whole story. Professor Carol Robinson gives a first-hand account of the cultural barriers in her recent article (sub req’d), but there remain concrete, institutional boundaries for women to thrive in science that are routinely ignored. Following the lead of Professor Richard Zare, myself and a group of graduate students set out to change our university’s childbirth policy and eliminate at least one of the institutional barriers toward gaining a fair representation of women in chemistry.

Graduate students in the U.S. who have or desire a child must not only combat the pervading perception that one cannot be both a mother and an academic, but must also navigate university childbirth policy that is often discouraging and/or nonexistent. Even if faculty and administration are supportive of graduate students who want to have children, this support is often unstated, incoherent across disciplines, or informal in nature. Traditionally, the policy for pregnancy in graduate school is to take a formal leave of absence (LOA), which amounts to withdrawing from graduate school for up to four months. Tangibly, a LOA means that, in a vulnerable time, a woman must give up her university health insurance (or pay for it herself) and her teaching assistant income or graduate stipend. Almost worse than these tangible effects is the fact that the students are stigmatized; they are seen as ‘walking away‘ from their responsibilities rather than exercising their minimum rights as an expecting mother.

Graduate students who had children often found they had to make up the rules as they went; they faced insecurities regarding their academic standing in addition to anxieties about their relationship and obligations to their advisor. Consequently, we sought a change in policy not only to give students guaranteed health insurance, housing, and some paid leave, but also to begin to change the institutional culture regarding having a child during graduate school. As mentioned in our letter to Science, the key barrier was establishing a university recognized committee to give our effort a voice within the bureaucracy. After accomplishing this through our Graduate Student Association, providing quantitative evidence about the need for change, soliciting letters from students and faculty, putting together a formal proposal was simple. Furthermore, our collaboration with the Graduate Dean was invaluable in our efforts, as she was able to advocate on our behalf on committees in which we had no voice. This point highlights another surprising finding, almost everyone at the university was supportive of our proposal; policy change is many times a problem of initiative.

We hope that our experience can serve as a blueprint for other graduate students, faculty, and administrators looking to overcome the perceived conflict between family and graduate studies [pdf]. Our policy, which provides an extension of academic requirements without taking a leave of absence and up to six weeks paid leave, endows students with a sense of support and an institutional recognition that they are valuable resources who deserve to be treated as such. Additionally, as evidenced by faculty surveyed, there are uncertainties that face faculty members in these situations that could be removed with clear university-wide policy.

The idea that women should be (effectively) forced to wait until obtaining a Ph.D. to have a child is disgraceful. If we want to see more women in science in the future, we need to rid our universities of institutional sexism. In addressing the need for a formal and coherent childbirth accommodation policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, we found that tangible policy changes and the accompanying permeative process catalyzed institutional discussions regarding the value of diversity in the academic pipeline. Our experience illustrated the shared goals of faculty, students, and administrators in recruiting, retaining, and supporting the best and brightest graduate students.

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