Pregnancy Penalty and the Scientist

do-babies-matter-horizontal1Three out of every four women will be pregnant at some point.  Pregnancy discrimination remains a serious problem in academia as the numbers bear out, whether it’s the grad student who is told she must be back in the lab a week after giving birth or postdocs who are told they will be kicked out if they get pregnant.  A mere eight states have laws in place to protect pregnant women, despite many members of Congress who have extreme interest in protecting fetuses.  Of the 62 member institutions of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a group of the top tier research institutions, only 13% have any paid maternity leave for graduate students and only 20% for postdoctoral fellows. A dismal 43% had no paid leave policy at all.  Multiple provisions are in place to prevent pregnancy discrimination, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 which provides clarification for Title VII to protect employees, as well as Title IX, which protects students and postdocs (who usually don’t count as “employees”).  They are also protected under the American Disabilities Act, as pregnancy can count as a form of temporary debility.  However, just because laws exist doesn’t mean that they aren’t broken.  If those rights are violated and women don’t realize they have options, it makes it difficult to enforce or remedy the injustice.  Encouraging institutions to carry out their own Title IX Self-Evaluations using NASA’s guidelines and making sure students, postdocs, and employees know what protections they are granted under the law would be one step towards preventing the discriminatory attitudes which contribute to the attrition of women from STEM.

Furthermore, attitudes persist that reward fatherhood in male scientists but penalize female scientists for having children.  A compilation of many studies performed by one of our collaborators, Mary Ann Mason, came out in book form this week based on surveys of tens of thousands of scientists over the course of their career trajectories.  The numbers are fairly startling.

  • Family unfriendly careers: 70% of women and more than 50% of men considered research faculty at universities to be an un-family friendly career choice
  • Baby penalty for women: 70% of men are married with children compared with 44% of women at the tenured-faculty level
  • Retirement penalty for women: Although men and women retire at about the same age, women’s salaries are, on average, 29% lower and each child reduces her pay

These results reinforce that the problem is not only that enough girls aren’t choosing to become scientists and engineers, but that they are being set up for failure with current conditions in academics.

4 thoughts on “Pregnancy Penalty and the Scientist

  1. Being a graduate student and just having a baby, I completely agree with the article!! I was financially cutoff for a full six months! the problem is that nobody seems to care and women themselves discriminate against other women. The department chair is a women with children herself but was not willing in any way to support me. I almost want to file a discrimination complaint against the university but worry my degree will be in jeopardy!

    • Have you looked into your campus’s Title IX coordinator to see what your options are? While you may or may not decide to pursue further action, for understandable reasons, you are probably not the only person who has been treated with such a lack of regard and it’s worth bringing this to the attention of those higher up if your department chair is thwarting your efforts and you should be able to do it with some level of protection or anonymity via the coordinator. If you have further questions, please drop me a line at

  2. Pingback: 4 Things to do Before Combining Children and a STEM Career |

  3. In order to achieve pregnancy, you required to know what’s inside your body which enables you to have a baby. The more you know their facts and functions, the easier you overcome those challenges to conceive or become pregnant.

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