Monday, August 27, 2012

Paid Parental Leave for Graduate Students

For my first post to the Women in Astronomy Blog, I would like to describe some activities that the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is undertaking with regard to parental leave policies for graduate students.

When I joined the CSWA last year, I jumped at the chance to move this issue forward. Of course the entire topic of paid parental leave for employees in the US is enormous and perhaps baffling to our colleagues in any of the 178 other countries that have national laws guaranteeing some form of paid leave for new mothers (50 of these also guarantee paid leave for new fathers). While the US Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 does mandate up to 12 weeks of (potentially unpaid) leave for workers, many students are not considered employees and hence it isn't even clear if the FMLA applies. And besides, one might ask, aren't leave policies at a University the purview of the upper administration (in discussion with the various funding agencies), and thus the desires of the relatively small pool of astronomers students a modest consideration?

Well, I would like to make the case that there is good reason to think that we are going to see some rather interesting developments on this question over the next few years.  At the start of 2012, I mailed a letter to the chair of each of the 28 departments of astronomy and/or astrophysics that offer the degree of PhD, asking for the details of their parental leave and childcare policies for graduate student parents.  And, I was delighted when fully 100% of these recipients sent me a reply! My first pass at the data indicates that we are in a time of rapid change and the current policies vary tremendously between institutions: A number of universities have recently adopted a paid leave policy for all graduate student parents, while others offer no paid leave but do allow students to retain benefits such as health care and students housing; some do not even have an official policy. I also learned that solutions needn't be University wide: The Department of Astronomy at the University Wisconsin Madison has recently implemented a paid family and medical leave policy that is entirely home grown. Way to go Badgers!

My own university could surely do much better, and I point you to the excellent article by two former Harvard graduate students of astronomy, Sarah Ballard (now a Sagan fellow at the University of Washington) and Gurtina Besla (now a Hubble fellow at Columbia University), which was definitely an inspiration to me on this topic both here at Harvard and nationwide.

I do think we need to shift this discussion from one in which the students and postdocs advocate for their own needs to one in which senior faculty, department chairs, and deans advocate on their behalf. With that in mind, Laura Trouille (CIERA fellow at Northwestern University) and I will host a Special Session on Family Leave Policies and Childcare for Graduate Students and Postdocs at the upcoming AAS meeting in Long Beach (this blog post addresses only graduate student leave, but the special session will include leave for postdocs).  The speakers will include AAS President David Helfand, Ed Ajhar (Program Director for the the NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral fellowships, as well as the Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology Research Grants), Chas Beichman (Executive Director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, and director of the Sagan fellowships program), as well as Natalie Gosnell (graduate student) and Bob Mathieu (Department chair) from the University Wisconsin (who will tell us how they put their plan into action). I will also present the results from my national survey. The session will be Monday, January 7th from 2:00-3:30pm.

While I hope that many graduate students and postdocs will attend, it is essential that the more senior individuals who are in a position to change policy at their respective institutions participate as well.  So, if you are such a person, please consider attending. If you are a student or postdoc, might I suggest you ask your department chair to identify the faculty member who will represent your department? The goal will be both to inform about current practices, and to discuss specific means by which departments and funding agencies can adopt more supportive policies.

I hope to see you in Long Beach!