Parental leave, beyond the numbers (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

My series of posts on the statistics of parental leave has prompted responses like

Sorry for bringing you down the past couple Mondays. I’d like to stress that not all university parental leave policies are bad. Indeed, someone commented that her university leave was better than her leave at her former employer, a non-profit. The issue is that there’s so much variation and that leave policies are hidden and not well known. One of my goals is to bring this information out into the daylight.

Simon Goring tweets:

And this, I think, is a very good question. How many grad students are sitting around with multiple postdoc offers? It’s not likely that postdoc parents-to-be are going to choose their positions based on parental leave.

Instead, I hope these posts open the eyes of PIs and administrators. If you’re a PI hiring a postdoc, you should know what your parental leave policies are at your institution. Full stop. If they’re good, you can advertise that fact. If they’re not, then you should prepare a lab policy for what happens when a postdoc has a baby. Because if you hire postdocs regularly, sooner or later one will.

“But wait,” I hear some of you arguing, “in my lab it doesn’t really matter what the formal policies are. Postdocs just take the leave they need and our PI is fine with that.” Or: “our department is really family friendly and I can’t imagine postdocs being fired for not coming in after a baby.”

I want to argue that formal policies are really, really important. Without them, it becomes incumbent upon each parent (and especially mothers) to negotiate their own leave and accommodations (like working from home). What that means is that everyone is not treated equally and some are treated unfairly. I’ve heard and read a steady stream of horrible stories since I was pregnant for the first time in 2009 about the difficulty of women who are having babies being accommodated by their institutions.

Even mine has a murky lining. Yes, Harvard grants 12 weeks of maternity leave (great!). But what’s lost in the small print is that 4 of those weeks are “parental leave,” which is paid for “by the funding mechanism that normally pays the parent’s salary.” In my case, that’s an NSF grant. But NSF does not allow grant money to be used for maternity leave. (After all, with a 50% overhead, parental leave OUGHT to be coming out of fringe.) I had to point out the fact that they couldn’t use my PI’s NSF grant to pay me for parental leave, because neither my PI nor the administrator in charge of managing my leave knew it! But Harvard the University doesn’t have a fund for parental leave. So where does the pay for my paid leave come from? In the end, I believe they raided my PI’s start-up funds to pay for my 4 weeks of parental leave. (Although I’m still trying to confirm that.)

My PI is thrilled.

And that brings to my final point, and maybe the most important. It’s not the raw numbers that really matter. It’s the difficult decisions, the straining of interpersonal relationships, the feelings of moral and ethical unease, the emotional turbulence that really push women (and men) who become parents to leave academia in the end.

A while ago, a friend wrote to me:

I just started my postdoc and got pregnant soon after. I’m starting to feel SUPER guilty. My poor boss, hiring a new postdoc and then having me lose half of my productivity for the first trimester, with the promise of a completely unproductive field season after the baby is born!


This here is the problem. My smart and talented friend should not be made to feel guilty by the academic system just because she wants to do a very normal thing and have a family. This, Academia, you need to address. First, by having formal parental leave policies so new moms and dads don’t feel like they’re shirking their duties or scamming their employers when they take extended leave to have children. Second, by addressing the very real difficulties faced by PIs when postdocs need to take extended leave (for whatever reason).

13 thoughts on “Parental leave, beyond the numbers (guest post)

  1. Thank you for the work you put in to gathering this information for us. It was definitely eye-opening for me, and a timely one for my husband and me both of whom are postdocs and about to start a family. Unfortunately, places within academia with good policies are not only rare but far ahead of the general state of affairs in the US, which is only the second country alongside Papua New Guinea not to offer paid family leave as a matter of policy. A good discussion of the more general issue on PBS Newshour ( While we pay lip service to the retention of women in all professions, few are willing to take the obvious steps needed to do so and it’s not clear how to pay for the system without changes in national policy that require and fund some minimum level of compensation.

  2. Yes, yes, it’s awful in the U.S. However, it’s no good to throw our hands up in the air and say nothing can be done until national policies change. Indeed, I don’t believe finding the money to cover parental leave within universities is particularly difficult, even in lean times. Postdocs and grad students are paid a pittance and so covering three months of leave isn’t actually that expensive. Pair that with the massive overheads that universities charge to grants, and it’s a no-brainer. What tiny increase in overhead would be required to cover parental leave? Go from 50% to 50.1%? So what? Or, instead, drop a library subscription or not fill a retired middle administrator position? It’s not hard to pay for. What’s missing in academia is the awareness and political will to get it done.

  3. Margaret,
    Thank-you for these posts. They serve to highlight an important problem that we have in academia. It is one that we should solve as soon as possible. We have similar issues in Canada despite having a social safety net. It was stressful to have children during graduate school and prior to doing my post-doc for these reasons. It really sucked a lot of the joy out of that period in my life. It’s disturbing to me that these issues have not been resolved in the 7-12 years that they were originally issues for me as a woman in science.

  4. RE your part about the end and people not needing to feel guilty:
    1) I strongly agree with your point that individuals should NOT feel guilty
    2) The real culprit here are universities that don’t have moneys allocated to back up their leave. In Canada there is a firm national parental leave policy and when someone takes it the money comes from a general pot of money (province I believe) so that the individual PI (or in business the small business owner) doesn’t get stuck with the tab. It is nothing more or less than another form of insurance pool where we all share the “risk”. Universities are large enough employers that they can do this unilaterally if they wanted to.

  5. Great post Margaret. We shouldn’t be too complacent here in Canada though. At my institution post-docs are classed as “self employed” and hence to not pay into or are eligible for federal parental leave benefits. Same thing for a grad student on a scholarship. This is a problem that could be readily dealt with by simple HR policy changes at almost no cost to the institution.

    • Things vary in Canada too. I just used Margaret’s post as a prod to look up Calgary’s postdoc benefits, since Margaret’s right that as a PI I ought to know them:

      Maternity and parental leave are “considered case by case to ensure compliance with funding source”. The maternity and paternity leave policies of the three main agencies funding basic scientific and social scientific research in Canada (the “Tri Council” agencies) are here: If I read them correctly, NSERC (my funding agency) pays 4 months parental leave. CIHR (the Canadian NIH) pays 6 months. This applies not just to postdocs, but to others supported by the grant, like students. Although it’s a bit of a moot point for many NSERC grants, as these aren’t large enough to support postdocs in the first place.

      Paid leave (e.g., vacation) isn’t mandatory but may be negotiated with the postdoc’s supervisor for a fixed # of days/year.

      Postdocs and their eligible dependents get extended health and dental benefits for which they don’t have to pay the premiums. Extended health benefits is coverage of various items over and above what everyone in Alberta is entitled to under federal and provincial legislation. It’s excellent coverage, and it’s effective immediately when you’re hired.

      Various other benefits you’d hope not to have to use,, and for which you don’t have to pay premiums, (life insurance, disability, accidental death, university wellness programs, access to university counselors…)

    • Eric makes a very important point. After the birth of my first child I didn’t qualify for parental/maternity leave as a graduate student through the federal employment insurance program. I hadn’t worked enough hours to qualify, partly because my NSERC scholarship forbid me to work more than 10 hours per week; long story short there was no way I could make the minimum hours required to qualify for the program. During my second pregnancy I ended up working part-time for 2 months while writing my dissertation so that I would make the hours worked cut- off in order to qualify for maternity leave. If we didn’t have my partner’s income I would have been forced out of academic science.

    • Thank you so much for the Canadian perspective. Is so important to know these things before committing to a postdoc. I’d love to hear more about European countries and Australia, if you know anyone who could shed some light on policies there.

  6. What I wondered as a European: are these conditions normal for the US labor market, or is it for PostDocs particularly bad when comparing to other temporary jobs, including those of graduate students?

    Over here in Germany, we have the right to take a 12-month paid parental leave in any job, including academia (unless you are on a grant), with costs being covered by the social system, so you get the same benefits as everyone else.

    • It is normal in that it’s very rare to have paid parental leave. Only 11% of non-government employees in the U.S. have access to paid leave, no national government employees do, and obviously the self-employed do not. Paid leave is typically 6-8 weeks.

      However, it’s worse for grad students and postdocs because there are *some* protections for 12 weeks of unpaid leave (i.e. you take unpaid leave, but get your job back afterwards) if you’ve been working in the same job for at least a year for more than half-time (plus some other restrictions I won’t bother with here). Many postdocs have not been in their job for a year before birth. And no grad students I’ve ever heard of work more than half time for their university.

      This is all assuming that one can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the first place; I don’t think it’s common for grad students or postdocs to have accumulated $10,000 plus the costs of birth (often thousands of dollars, even with health insurance). Then there’s paying childcare ($10,000-$35,000/year for newborns depending on where you live). Economically, it generally makes more sense for one of the parents to drop out of low-paid work (such as grad student or postdoc) — and it’s almost always the mother, especially if she’s breastfeeding.

      So to answer your question: it’s not abnormal to have such lousy benefits, but it IS abnormal to have so much schooling and such bad pay that the lack of benefits become a real obstacle to continuing work. Other low-paid worker moms generally leave the workforce, too. But highly educated worker moms in industry and government are able to afford to take unpaid leaves and then afford childcare and keep their jobs.

      • Margaret, thanks for clarifying! Yes, that sounds like a lot more risk and hassle than over here.

        The only thought I can add from the European / German side is that despite the comparably generous financial benefits in Germany, the fertility rate among female academics is extremely low, see e.g. here (unfortunately in German) , although it seems to be getting better in recent years. I would speculate that, while the social systems covers the direct wage loss, there is a second cost in terms of career points (publications etc.) that may actually be perceived as important as the forgone wages. No idea how to best compensate for that one, but it is definitely there and it becomes more important if the financial side is covered by the state and it therefore becomes normal to take a year of leave or even more.

      • It’s always interesting to compare countries. I lived and worked in Germany (auf dem Land) for a couple years about a decade ago. What I noticed was that, as you mention, women took off a lot of time for child-rearing — one, two, three, or more years. Part of this may be due to desire, but I’m willing to bet that part of it is due to a lack of workplace flexibility that would, for example, allow women to work part time during these first years. It also seemed to me that the school systems expected women to be at home for young children during the day, including up through the first years of schooling. Kids went home for lunch, for example, which is rare to nonexistent here. (That may have been a rural practice, though.) Obviously, as you point out, if you’re taking years off from work, you miss out on career progression and then it’s very hard to get back into it again. (Think of having to catch up on several years of publications in your field!)

        As a mom myself, I’ve found that what I value most is flexibility — flexibility to work when I want (or am able to), flexibility to not work when I can’t, and importantly, for that work-or-non-work time to fluctuate as needed. Because what you find as a parent is that your life is not yours to schedule anymore. Your life is governed by the demands of illnesses, injuries, snow days (I’m home with kids today for a blizzard!), childhood developmental needs, and sheer exhaustion. I think benefits without flexibility make it hard to fully realize the benefits.

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