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.

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).

Postdoc parental leave policies, part 1 (guest post)

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

Note from Margaret: This is the second post in a mini-series examining the enormous variation in U.S. postdoc leave benefits. (See first post.) While most postdocs do not consider benefits packages when choosing a position, the benefits available can greatly affect quality of life, and sometimes mean the difference between staying in academia and leaving it — especially for caregivers and those with chronic health conditions. I surveyed 21 U.S. universities with highly ranked ecology programs (according to The Chronical of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report) and the U.S. federal government by looking up postdoc benefit information on their webpages, and present the data (with commentary) here. (Note that this information is up-to-date as of July 2014. Please provide updates and corrections in the comments. I also welcome data about other universities and will add them to the charts if full info is provided.)

I am writing this in July on maternity leave from my postdoc. Like just about everyone else, I didn’t consider the benefits package when I accepted the job. I was just happy to have a postdoc position doing something interesting in a desirable place. I didn’t know I was pregnant when I accepted the postdoc offer. But I was already four months pregnant when I started the job. When I finally looked into the parental leave policy, I was pleased to discover that I would be able to enjoy 12 weeks of maternity leave at 75% pay.

It turns out that I was lucky – Harvard has one of the best maternity packages in the United States for postdocs. How do I know? Because I was curious and decided to look into it. How good are maternity benefits for postdocs? There are several studies*  that have found that postdoc parental benefits are generally lacking. But how bad do they get? And how much variation is there?

Your access to parental leave in academia depends on your position. Parental leave for grad students is atrocious – at most universities, there is no written policy, and so grad students must negotiate their leave individually. (Good luck with that.) There’s not a lot to research. Conversely, parental leave for tenure-track faculty is relatively good; universities are planning to keep their junior faculty for decades, and it doesn’t make sense to jeopardize that for an issue that can be measured in months. Even if institutional policy isn’t very good, faculty have some leverage to negotiate. (Although, I should note that even for faculty, leave options can be terrible and difficult to get even when a legal right.) I wanted to focus on the postdoc level, because I am one and because I wondered whether postdoc parental leave was more akin to that of grad students (non-existent) or faculty (reasonable).

I only looked into leave for postdocs in the United States. This is because, in general, every other major country that has postdocs also has a national system of paid maternity leave. In other words, it’s pretty easy to find out what your benefits are if you’re going to be a postdoc outside of the U.S. – you just need to look at the national policy. And likely, the policy will be a pretty good one. (NB: I just saw that the U.S. Department of Labor is lobbying for paid family leave in the U.S. There may be hope in the distant future. But it will likely be too late for anyone reading this blog.)

U.S. National Leave Policy

If you are not a parent (yet), you probably assume that there has to be some sort of allowance for people having babies in the United States. After all, millions of Americans have babies each year. I thought so. But it’s not true. Job protection for new parents in the United States is terrible, especially if you are in academia. I’ll explain.

There are laws that prevent discrimination against pregnant women. You can’t deny a woman a job, for example, just because she is pregnant. But those protections end as soon as the woman is no longer pregnant.

The Family Medical Leave Act

The major law that provides protection to new parents is the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, commonly referred to as FMLA. This law allows new parents to take 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave, among other things. “Job-protected” means that the employers may not fire or demote a parent taking the leave allowed by FMLA. “Unpaid” means that neither the employer nor the government is required to pay the parent a salary during FMLA leave.

This sounds, uh, well, terrible as the best possible protection to new parents. But not as terrible as not having FMLA at all. It’s something. But there are a set of qualifying rules to be eligible for FMLA. One is that the employee must have worked for the employer for 1,250 hours in the year before the birth (essentially 60% of full time). Another is that the employee must have worked for the employer for a total of a year’s worth of time before the birth. That essentially means that anyone having a child in the first year of a postdoc is not covered by the FMLA. Further, only actual employees are eligible for FMLA leave. So if you’re on a fellowship stipend – either from the university or an outside institution – you are not technically an employee and so are not eligible for FMLA leave. Because so many postdoc positions are short and/or through fellowships, a good number – probably over half – of postdocs are not covered by the FMLA.

What if you aren’t covered by the FMLA? Then you might be covered by the laws of your state or city. California is a notable leader in the field, granting paid parental leave (but not job protection) to all its citizens. Rhode Island and New Jersey also offer some paid parental leave. But Rhode Island requires that an employee be continuously employed for the previous twelve months, so first-year postdocs don’t typically qualify. And New Jersey requires that you’ve first earned at least $7,300 in salary by the time of birth. Other states may guarantee unpaid leave with better provisions than FMLA. For example, Massachusetts requires that women be allowed eight weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child, as long as she has been employed for at least three months (rather than the twelve for FMLA).

If you’re not covered by FMLA or state laws, then, unless there are institutional policies to the contrary, you do not have the right to take time off to give birth and take care of a newborn. If you do, you can be fired. So those institutional policies really matter. But they vary a lot. I researched policies at 21 universities with top ecology research programs as well as the federal government (which employs ecology postdocs via federal agencies such as the USGS, NIH, EPA, USDA, NOAA, NASA, and DOE). I will describe my findings in detail in my next post.

* Further reading: