Retaining Women in Academia

A recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley on Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline found that one of the reasons many women graduate students leave research careers is because paid parental leave after the birth of a child is so difficult for graduate students to obtain. Only 13 percent of universities provide at least 6 weeks of paid maternity leave to graduates, while 58 percent of them provide the same to faculty members. We might assume that Harvard, as one of the leading research institutions in the country, places a high premium on training the best and brightest PhD students, both men and women, for promising academic careers. We might assume that Harvard must be among that 13  percent. But we would be wrong. And among our peer institutions of MIT, Caltech, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth, Harvard remains the only university in the group that does not grant the basic benefit of six weeks paid leave to graduate student mothers. In fact, while we should expect Harvard’s support of graduate student parents to be commensurate with the quality of its research programs, we might make the argument instead that Harvard is one of the most difficult research institutions at which to be a graduate student parent.

A 2008 GSAS study of graduate student parents found that graduate student mothers bore the primary responsibilities for childcare in the months after the birth of a child: more than half (55 percent) of the spouses of Harvard graduate mothers stayed home for four weeks or less, while only two percent of the spouses of Harvard graduate fathers stayed home for four weeks or less. The burden of childcare is undeniably borne more heavily by the women graduate students. This statistic is reflected in the findings of the UC Berkeley study that determined that tenured women professors in science are three times more likely to be single without children than their male counterparts (25 percent versus nine percent). The 2005 Harvard Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering similarly concluded that in order “to encourage more women to pursue academic careers, Harvard should explore more ways to make it financially and logistically possible for female doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows to have children”. The link between retaining talented women in academia and providing adequate childcare support is evident, and Harvard is currently providing no financial support whatsoever for graduate mothers.

In addition to the lack of any GSAS-wide maternity leave policy, Harvard has a number of childcare assistance programs for faculty, staff, and post-doctoral fellows that are inaccessible to graduate student parents. These programs include the Ladder Access childcare scholarship program, childcare scholarships for Harvard, the Dependent Care Fund for Short-Term Professional Travel, and a back-up and emergency care program. While there existed a pilot program through the Office of Work/Life Resources to provide scholarships to graduate students whose children were enrolled in Harvard affiliated childcare centers for a short while, graduate students are no longer eligible to apply for these scholarships. The current status of childcare assistance at Harvard leaves graduate students with extremely limited resources for childcare in an environment which is, in contrast, so supportive of faculty and staff parents.

In the absence of any improvements to parental leave policy or childcare accommodations for graduate students, the GSAS administration has made strides in communicating to students the policy of stopping the G-clock, the administration’s measurement of a student’s progress through graduate school. The GSAS bulletin for February of 2011 publicized this avenue for graduate students, which allows parents to pause the G-clock for a year and maintain their eligibility for grants and teaching appointments. In practice, only 20 percent of GSAS parents took advantage of the G-clock stopping policy (per the 2008 survey), and hopefully more students do so now; the alternate route of taking an official leave of absence means that students may lose eligibility for precious health insurance resources at Harvard. However, Harvard simply must go further to meet the needs of graduate parents. The same article in the bulletin restated the university’s current rationale for the lack of other action on behalf of graduate student parents, though they are aware of the issues at stake; the need for “continuing fiscal restraint” prevents any progress. But we must take notice of the status of parental leave programs at other universities in the current financial climate: Those policies have stayed firmly in place; and even the University of California, Berkeley has maintained six weeks of paid maternity leave for doctoral students, despite being a publicly funded university within a state in the midst of a severe budget crisis.

It is of the utmost importance to bring attention to this gaping hole in Harvard’s support of its graduate students. As one of the best research institutions in the country, Harvard is far, far behind its peers in granting this basic accommodation, which is so pivotal in particular to the careers of women graduate students. We call on the Harvard administration to reconsider the action items for outstanding needs of GSAS parents as proposed by the 2008 report: paid maternity leave and adequate childcare are simply essential to the mission of promoting the best possible research environment at Harvard.

Gurtina Besla and Sarah Ballard are Ph.D. students in the Department of Astronomy.