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Some graduate students at the University of Chicago who are breastfeeding mothers and away from their babies during the day want a private place to use a breast pump on the central campus. So far they’ve been referred to a list of lactation stations elsewhere on campus, communal family areas and bathrooms.

The grad students say all they want is a modest space that is not a bathroom. They need to lock the door for privacy and would like a small refrigerator. So far, they say, the university hasn’t been able to meet their request, allegedly citing their status as students – not employees – as a reason.

Beyond lactation stations, the issue raises larger questions about the status of grad students – seen by some as students and others as employees, and by others still as both – and that to which federal and state labor laws would entitle them, as well as provisions afforded to them under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination in education programs.

Claire Roosien, a second-year graduate student in Near Eastern languages and civilizations and president of the university’s Student Parent Group, began looking for a place to pump convenient to Chicago’s main quad last year, after giving birth to her daughter. She was referred to a list of a campus lactation stations, but those near where she and other humanities and social science students study turned out to be handicapped bathroom stalls or open lounges, she said – not ideal for the somewhat awkward process of using a breast pump.

Federal labor regulations require that employers provide employees “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” Roosien said when she asked a graduate student service administrator about whether that requirement applied to graduate students -- many of whom are paid teaching employees of the university -- the administrator told her it did not, as they are not employees. Chicago is among the private universities where graduate students are seeking to unionize, but where officials say they should be considered students ineligible for collective bargaining.

In lieu of a proper lactation station near her classes, Roosien said she resorted while breastfeeding to hand-expressing in a bathroom.

A spokeswoman for the University of Chicago sent a list of pumping stations – including handicapped bathrooms – available to graduate students and the following statement: “We are grateful that a student alerted us that some places on this list were substandard as lactation stations, and have been working with graduate student parents and the University Deans of Students on updating this list over the last month. Leaders of Graduate Student Affairs are also working with graduate student parents to identify additional places on campus that could be used as lactation stations.”

The spokeswoman also noted that the university is working to designate more “family friendly” spaces on campus where graduate students who are parents can rest, feed and visit with babysitters in privacy. She also noted that Illinois state laws protect a mother’s right to breastfeed in public.

The university says it was "never communicated" to graduate students that stations were closed to them because they are not employees. But it did not respond to a request as to whether graduate students are entitled as employees to convenient access to the stations they say they need.

Most recently, the National Labor Relations Board said it would revisit the issue of whether graduate students and private universities have a right to unionize, accepting a case brought by graduate student groups at New York University who wish to organize under the United Auto Workers union. If the board rules in favor of the student groups, it would reverse a previous precedent set by the board that graduate students are not employees and therefore cannot unionize in a 2004 ruling against a group of Brown University graduate students who wished to do so. The case is still pending before the board.  

Jared Voskuhl, president of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, said via email that he was surprised that that the Chicago seemed to be taking a “hard line” toward the new lactation station request – especially in relation to employee status – as higher education is trending toward offering more services and amenities, not fewer, to graduate students who have families. He noted his alma mater, the University of California at Davis, recently polled nursing mothers to ensure that they had adequate, convenient facilities in which to do so.

Mary Ann Mason, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and former dean of its graduate school who has written extensively on parenthood in academe, said the issue also pertains to Title IX, the 40-year-old legislation banning sex discrimination against students in institutions receiving federal funds (the law is applicable to both public and private institutions). Title IX “has fulfilled part of its promise, providing access to sports for millions of women and girls who did not previously have the opportunity,” in addition to recent sexual harassment cases involving students, Mason argues in a forthcoming law review. But, she says, specific protection against pregnancy discrimination, which she said extends to bias against those with post-delivery needs, has largely been ignored.

According to Title IX, pregnancy discrimination is prohibited in admissions, hiring, coursework accommodations and completion, pregnancy leave policies and health insurance coverage in educational programs and activities. Mason says that although “some judicial attention” has been paid to pregnant high school students, “graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (‘postdocs’) who are in their prime childbearing years are probably unaware that Title IX covers pregnancy discrimination."

Mason said lactation rooms and other work place protections “are clearly under the scope” of Title IX.

“Paid work as RAs or TAs is part of the educational training for almost all graduate students and must be treated as educational programs which must accommodate to pregnancy and maternal considerations -- just as under the Title VII Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” she said via email.

Roosien said the issue at Chicago has other implications – namely academe’s perceived unfriendliness to young scholars who have family obligations. This reputation could hinder efforts to attract more women to academe.

"When amenities for parents aren’t available, women don’t see themselves as fitting into the university setting, and there’s a self-selection when that happens,” she said.

Mason argues the same, saying that while the trend is particularly pronounced in the STEM disciplines, it is also evident elsewhere; some 28 percent of married mothers who obtain Ph.D.s in all disciplines are less likely to obtain a tenure-track job than are married men with children.

“This statistic might be explained by the fact that colleges and universities do not provide much support for pregnant graduate students," she says. "Of the 62 members of the Association of American Universities (the top research institutions in the country), only 23 percent guarantee a minimum of six weeks’ paid leave for working postdocs, and only 13 percent promised the same to employed graduate students compared  to 58 percent  for women faculty. Many universities have no maternity policy at all for graduate students and postdocs who are teaching or working in laboratories."

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