Plumbing advice for the leaky pipeline (guest post)

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

Having children is a critical issue for many early career researchers in academia. Whether grad students, postdocs, or new faculty, having a child can create a lot of stress and difficulties in the workplace for women as well as men who want to be involved dads. Parental leave policies can make or break a parent’s decision to stay in academia, as it can literally cost upwards of $10,000 — or one’s job — if there are no paid leave policies in place.

Putting the squeeze on early career parents forces out many bright young scientists. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s how you can help:

1. Help put parental leave policies in public view. Institutions with terrible policies need to be known – not just so that you can avoid them if you plan to become a parent, but also so that there is competitive pressure from other institutions for change. I was only able to examine policies at a fraction of universities that offer ecology programs, and I probably made some errors. Look up the parental leave policies for postdocs at your university – or even better, get an interpretation of them from your HR rep – and put them in the comments. I’ll update my charts with the new info. Make sure your PI, your department head, and your dean see how your institution stacks up. Email them, forward them the statistics, show up in their offices. Don’t assume they already know — they probably don’t.

2. If you are a faculty member who has grad students or postdocs, find out what the parental leave policies are at your institution. I am constantly amazed that so few faculty know what their employees’ benefits are. And I’ve heard story after story about PIs being horrified when they discover what the benefits actually are for those they supervise (usually too late to be very helpful). Be a responsible PI; know what your employees’ benefits are, including parental benefits.

3. If you’re a PI who hires postdocs, think ahead of time about how you could run your project if your postdoc were to be gone for three months. Could someone else keep the project moving in the meantime? Could it be put on hold? Letting a newly hired postdoc know that there’s a plan in case she or he needs to take a few months of leave will reduce the stress and conflict the postdoc might feel about the decision to start a family. (Believe me, telling your PI that “hey, you know that project we’re both excited about and working on? Yeah, I’m going to take off and leave you in the lurch for three months,” is not something to look forward to.)

4. If you’re in a position of power (tenure-track faculty, especially), lobby your institution for better parent-oriented policies and leave:

  • At a minimum, make it a written policy that postdocs can take three months of unpaid job-protected leave. Better: six months.
  • Next, encourage the institution to offer employee postdocs short-term disability insurance; it shouldn’t cost the institution much, if anything, to offer such a policy if postdocs pay the premiums. Better would be for the institution to automatically cover all postdocs with short-term disability insurance at the university’s expense.
  • Third, lobby for a policy in which both mothers AND fathers can take sick leave to care for healthy newborns and newly adopted children. Better: the same, without restrictions.
  • Next, lobby for a sick-leave policy that allows postdocs to take sick leave when it’s needed, within reason, without regard to number of days.
  • Finally, lobby for paid parental leave; while universities might balk at the expense, it’s worth pointing out that many new mothers leave the workforce all together because they’re forced back to paid work before they’re ready. Having to rehire for a postdoc position mid-project is disruptive at best and possibly fatal to the project; many projects can better withstand a 3-month pause.

5. Lobby funding organizations for better parent-oriented policies. Both NSF and NIH (and others) have begun making steps to make sure their grants are “family friendly.” But both typically still defer to the awardee institution, which does not guarantee any protection to postdocs with regard to family leave policies. Funding organizations have a lot of power in determining how their money gets used, and they have the leverage to even the playing field among institutions when it comes to parental leave. They also have a mandate to ensure that the system they fund doesn’t disproportionately force out women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences. A lack of strong policies by funding organizations isn’t just lazy, it can waste funding dollars. In addition to explicit parental leave policies for postdocs, funding organizations should adopt comprehensive policies that provide bridge funding while postdocs are on parental leave. These will reduce disruption to funded projects, as well as reduce potential conflict between postdocs and PIs. They should also ensure that no-cost extensions are available for projects in which a postdoc has taken time off for family reasons.

Do you have more ideas for bettering university family leave policies? Horror stories? Happy stories? Do tell.

9 thoughts on “Plumbing advice for the leaky pipeline (guest post)

  1. What an important topic! A quick note – a colleague recently told me that the Academic Affairs office at her university had a program that would provide assistantship dollars for a grad student for 1 semester to provide support (to both student and faculty member) for that student to take maternity leave. I don’t think this program was necessarily advertised widely (or at all), so it’s definitely worth it to pick up the phone or talk to some administrators face to face to find out what opportunities might be available for grad students in your group. It might be a pleasant surprise to learn about policies in place!

  2. I was able to find this quickly:
    which covers UMich grad students. But I don’t know what the policies are for postdocs. I just sent an email to ask!

    My first postdoc had a baby while she was in my lab. It wasn’t a problem to work around at all, because she was doing primarily molecular work that was easily put on hold. If someone was doing a longer term selection experiment or something like that, it would require more planning. But, in general, there’s an environment of helping each other out in the lab, so I think we’d be able to cover.

    Most challenging for my lab would probably be if my technician had a baby. I’ve had three techs so far, and each of them has been crucial to keeping the lab going! I’m sure we’d figure something out, but it would be the most challenging situation for my lab.

  3. Hi Margaret,

    I’ve got an update for you for Michigan State’s policies. Most postdocs at MSU are classified as “Research Associates” which means we are academic staff and get all the benefits of faculty. I’m about to start a paid twelve week maternity leave tomorrow.🙂

    As far as I know, there are exceptions depending on how an individual is classified and where their funding comes from.

  4. In addition to grad students and postdocs, it is not universally true that faculty have good (or any) leave policies. Especially for dads. At my institution, dads literally get zero leave of any sort. The only thing we get are talks from our department chair about how they and all the other old timers toughed it out and so can we.

    • That’s very true. Things are, on average, better for faculty than postdocs or grad students, but there’s a lot of variance there, too, I’m finding out from posts like yours. It’s really awful when dads are overlooked as actual *parents*. Bad for dads. Bad for moms. And bad for the babies. I hope things will change, including at your institution. (The old timers have to retire/die eventually, right?)

      • Change has to start somewhere, doesn’t it? If old faculty lack empathy for young faculty, will young faculty lack empathy for their students and postdocs? I think your post is a good effort in the right direction. I hope the momentum working in the other direction can be overcome.

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