While overt discrimination is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, subtle bias against women with children persists in academia and remains a serious obstacle to tenure progression and promotion. These issues may start during graduate school and postdoctoral research and continue through early tenure track, when women are in their key child-bearing years and also when they need to be the most productive scientifically. Although some may argue the dearth of full professor level women is an indication that women don’t want to have it all, research and personal anecdotes suggest that the reality is far more complex.
What is Title IX?
In the past 41 years since the passage of Title IX, the number of women earning STEM degrees has increased dramatically. Title IX states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This law is most frequently associated with its role in guaranteeing equal access to sports for girls, but it has also been a powerful tool for giving women and girls exposure to opportunities in STEM.
However, what many don’t realize is that Title IX also is supposed to protect against pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. Regarding pregnancy discrimination, universities are in violation of Title IX if they fail to allow pregnant mothers a reasonable period of leave for childbirth, and/or if they fail to guarantee that trainees can return to their former positions as teaching assistants, researchers, or postdocs after maternity leave. The problem is that there is a disconnect between the idealized protections conferred by Title IX and the reality of the situation.
Enforcement of Title IX
In order to facilitate the enforcement of Title IX, each institution that receives federal funds is supposed to perform self-evaluations to make sure that they are complying with the law regarding admissions, hiring, coursework accommodation, leave policies, and health insurance coverage. This is a bit like having the fox watch the chickens. Universities don’t have a real incentive to make sure they are compliant unless the threat of monetary loss is involved. This can happen by bringing about lawsuits, which has happened recently to schools across the country, such as Yale University and Occidental College, because they failed to give an adequate response to sexual harassment and assault allegations. Currently, there are increasingly stronger protections in place for pregnant high school and undergraduate students, but the protocols are far less clear for grad students and postdocs, even though Title IX protections apply to them as well. Although there are steps to prevent retaliation built into the law, protecting the individual against the culture of academia is much harder to control.
Options if You’re Experiencing Pregnancy Discrimination
If you are a grad student or postdoc who has been discriminated against, you have options; however, they are not easy choices. If your PI is telling you that you will be kicked out if you get pregnant, or demanding that you are back one week after giving birth, for example, your first step should be to look into the grievance procedures at the institution and find out who the Title IX coordinator is on campus. You should also speak to the department chair about the issue and find out if that individual can help with negotiations.
If the department chair is not helpful and you are in danger of losing your position, filing a formal Title IX complaint, which must be done within 180 calendar days of the date of the initial discrimination, may not help keep you at the school. Furthermore, it may create a more hostile environment and most likely won’t help your career in academia, but it may also help protect you financially if the complaint goes to court.
Alternatively, if you are being treated unfairly but want to remain in academia, exploring your options with the Title IX coordinator is a good next step. Unfortunately, trying to be treated fairly in this way may harm your future options. Academia is filled with small, niche communities and when you need great letters of recommendation, collaborators, etc. it is not a decision to make lightly.
A third option is to call in an anonymous complaint of a Title IX violation to the regional Office of Civil Rights, housed in the Department of Education, which oversees Title IX issues. You can find the correct local number here. This last option is unlikely to benefit you directly, but if several complaints are lodged against an institution, the school may be audited. This may lead to a better policy that more clearly spells out the rules for maternity-related issues and makes others aware that they do have some options, however lousy they may currently be, if they subsequently feel they have been discriminated against due to having children.
We recognize that all of these outcomes are less than ideal. However, it is better to know what your options are and make the most informed decision, rather than merely feeling powerless. AWIS continues to advocate for better access to maternity leave, safe and affordable child care, and better work-life satisfaction.
If you’re considering combining having children and a STEM career, check out our advice here. For up-to-date information on Title IX cases across the country, visit the Title IX Blog (not affiliated with AWIS and its views are not necessarily those of AWIS).