New Rights for Pregnant Grad Students

Policy by Stanford chemistry department may offer a model for many institutions.
November 15, 2005

The last few years have seen a burst of activity by colleges to help professors balance the responsibilities of life on the tenure track with the responsibilities of being a new parent. But what about graduate students who become parents? Many do -- and must largely fend for themselves, negotiating leaves with their advisers and departments.

That's why experts are hailing a move just announced by Stanford University's chemistry department to adopt a formal policy for graduate students who are pregnant. The policy gives graduate students who anticipate giving birth the right to a 12-week period in which they are relieved of regular duties to handle late-stage pregnancy, birth, and care of a newborn. During this period, there is no official change in their status, so their financial support is unchanged, except that they receive an automatic one-quarter extension on academic requirements.

The policy can be used on top of or in place of regular university policies for parental and medical leaves, and the policy does not preclude individual graduate students from working out alternative arrangements with their professors. But as a memo outlining the policy states, it provides a minimum that all graduate students in the department are entitled to. Graduate students are asked only to meet with their advisers as far in advance as possible -- ideally six months ahead of an anticipated birth -- so that plans can be made to deal with the time off. (Postdoctoral fellows and faculty members are covered by other policies.)

Richard N. Zare, chair of the chemistry department, said there was a "very real need" for such a policy. Stanford is in the process of developing an institutional policy -- and the chemistry department's approach is based on the direction in which that policy appears to be headed, but the department didn't want to wait.

Jackie Tyson, executive director of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, said she was very pleased about the move at Stanford because most universities do not have formal policies. Tyson said that she has seen progress as part of collective bargaining agreements between universities and unions of teaching assistants, but no private universities currently recognize such unions.

"Many women have felt penalized by having to ask, and the reality is that a lot of men still leave everything to women or most everything to women, so this has a real impact," Tyson said. Having to negotiate basic leave rights "puts the graduate student in a very bad situation," she said.

Claire Van Ummersen, director of the American Council on Education's Office of Women in Higher Education, also saw the Stanford policy as significant. Van Ummersen said numerous studies have found that "the leaks in the pipeline" of female researchers start in graduate school. "If we want larger pools of women, we need to help women stay in the pool," she said.

An important part of Stanford's policy, Van Ummersen said, was preserving a graduate student's status as a graduate student. Those who receive outside support, which is very common in the sciences, risk losing that support (or having to go through a ton of paperwork) if that status changes.

Van Ummersen said that the norm remains for these decisions to be decided department by department and professor by professor. So even if most faculty members want to be helpful, a woman can run up against "the project director who says 'I don't want to make this happen,' " forcing the woman to make a choice between angering a superior or going against her desire to spend time with a newborn. Those are the kinds of choices that discourage women from staying in academe, Van Ummersen said.

"It's very different when you can say, 'This is the policy,' " she added. "You don't have to ask."


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