The Maternal Wall Bias

Editor-in-Chief
Graduate Division

Federal regulations are establishing stronger rights for career women in a variety of industries choosing to have babies, but these protections aren’t taking hold in the world of academia.

PhD-holding women who have children are 35% less likely to enter a tenure track position, and 27% less likely to become tenured -- even if they are on a tenure track -- than their male counterparts.

Statistics like these suggest that being a woman, especially a woman who wants to have a family, is seen as an undesirable quality for those who want to pursue a permanent post in academia.

“The term that we use for this is ‘maternal wall bias,’ and that’s a negative competence assumption on someone because they are a mother,” explained Jessica Lee a Staff Attorney at the UC Hastings Center for WorkLife Law who gave a seminar on March 6th entitled “Title IX and Babies.”

“The ‘mommy penalty’ actually hurts all women whether or not you have a child or intend to,” said Lee. “Some of your professors, some people in your department may actually think, ‘She’s a liability. She’s a women. We know they leave.’ And that is why it is important for not only mothers, but all women to challenge maternal wall bias.”

Lee went on to paint a grim picture of the role of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Female graduate students with children are two times less likely to earn a degree in STEM.

Additionally, twice as many women than men are likely to change their career goal away from being a research professor when they have babies as postdoctoral fellows (postdocs), and the data suggests this isn’t due to a change in priorities.

So, what is leading to the loss of parents, specifically women, in STEM?

To answer this question colleagues of Lee’s Mary Ann Mason, a professor at UC Berkeley, and Joan Williams, from the Center for WorkLife Law, conducted a study in which they surveyed 63 institutions about their leave policies and how they support postdoc parents as well as 741 postdocs about their experience as a postdoc at their institution.

What Mason and Williams found was troubling.

The institutional surveys showed that 50% to 60% of institutions do not provide paid maternity leave for their postdocs. A small number of institutions also did not provide other types of paid leave such as vacation days, sick days, or holidays that new mothers could use to supplement time off for maternity leave.

Institutions were even less likely to grant paternity leave, with 60% to 70% of institutions not providing this benefit for postdoc fathers.

Additionally, some institutions don’t even provide unpaid leave, or as Lee refers to it “job protected leave.”

This means that if an individual opts to take leave to care for a new child, not only will they not be paid, they also won’t be provided job security, meaning they may not be able to come back to work in the same position or at all.

The outcome of the postdoc surveys were just as troubling.

Many surveyed postdocs expressed feeling guilty for taking even the minimal amount of leave a woman requires to recover from giving birth.

One postdoc said she “felt guilty/like I was putting my advisor out” because she requested eight weeks of leave after a difficult childbirth that resulted in partial paralysis.

“This is the sort of pressure that postdocs and grad students end up putting on themselves when there isn’t a policy to tell them what sort of leave to expect or what sort of accommodations can be made in exceptional circumstances,” Lee said. “[The] burden falls on the postdoc to find some way around this discrimination rather than putting the onus on the institution to ensure that this isn’t happening to begin with.”

Another postdoc wrote that her Principal Investigator (PI) came to visit her in the hospital and said, “So what about 2 to 3 weeks and you will be back?” She ended up having to provide a certified note from her doctor stating she needed four weeks to recover before she could go back to work.

According to Lee, a negative response from a PI regarding a request for accommodation or leave can not only lead to tension between a postdoc and a PI, but is also a large contributing factor driving parents, and especially women, out of the STEM pipeline.

Mason and William’s study indicates that institutions must offer more support for parents.

Specifically, it is crucial for institutions to create clear policies surrounding not only maternity leave, but also leave for non-birth parents.

Without policies affording leave to non-birth parents, parental responsibilities fall entirely on women, further fueling the situation in which women are viewed as a leave liability.

In addition to leave policies, Lee suggests institutions also provide support for new parents in the form of flexible schedules or the ability to work from home to alleviate child care insecurity.

While policy changes on the institutional level are essential, it is also crucial that individuals know their rights.

Title IX is a federal law put in place to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity.

While it is most commonly associated with sexual harassment, Title IX also requires “reasonable accommodations” for students with disabilities, and this extends to pregnancy.

Under Title IX, students are provided maternity leave for “as long as medically necessary” as determined by a physician. Furthermore, students must be “reinstated to the status which she held” before taking leave.

In the UC system, graduate students are actually entitled to paid leave.

According to the Graduate Divisions benefits page, UCSF graduate students are provided 10 weeks of paid leave in addition to up to two weeks of unpaid leave, pending program approval.

Lee also discussed section 66281.7 of California’s Education Code which entitles graduate students taking maternity leave to a 12-month extension for exams as well as for normative time to getting their degree. Additionally, this section also includes a month extension for non-birth parents.

Parental leave for postdocs, however, is a little less clear.

Certain postdocs that fall under Title IX are entitled to “leave for a reasonable period of time,” although what this period of time is isn’t specified. Additionally, postdocs need not be paid under Title IX, but must be reinstated to the same or equivalent position.

According to the current contract between UC and postdocs posted on the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW)'s Local 5810 website, postdocs taking Pregnancy Disability Leave are eligible to receive 70% of their weekly earnings if they opt to receive Short-Term Disability coverage during this time. In addition, both birth-parents and non-birth-parents are entitled to four weeks of paid parental leave.

Under the California Family Rights Act, postdocs may also take an additional 12 weeks for new-child bonding.

Lee stressed that when taking leave you do not need to ask permission just provide notification as these are your rights and you are entitled to them.

For more information about Mason, Williams, and Lee’s work and about your rights visit The Pregnant Scholar.