The University of California has a timely opportunity to add to its reputation as a world-class and forward-thinking institution. Last week, UC representatives and the union representing 6,000 postdoctoral researchers (UAW Local 5810) sat down to begin negotiating a new contract for wages, benefits and working conditions.
Among the major issues for myself and other postdocs is gender inequity - the fact that women academics, and especially those with children, are paid less, have less job security, face sexual harassment at a dramatically higher rate, and ultimately decide to leave the academy with much greater frequency than their male counterparts. Understanding this gender gap is important and many of the reasons are apparent. If the political will exists within the University, together we can begin to reverse the trend.
Low wages are a significant part of the problem. A starting salary of less than $44,000 forces postdocs to scrape by in high-rent California and make sacrifices for our scholarship and professional advancement down the road. But for women postdocs, the sacrifice is even greater. Among recent PhD graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, women are paid 31% less than men - this suggests a wage hike and wage gap review for postdocs is in order.
But salary is not the only significant obstacle that women postdocs face. Failed sexual harassment policies, zero or minimal childcare subsidies, inadequate parental leave policies and inflexible workplace rules hostile to new mothers are also major factors in, as University of Hawaii Professor Hope Jahren describes, the university shedding "women the way the trees on campus lose their leaves in the fall"
As it stands, UC policies make it virtually impossible for a postdoc to plan for and raise a family without untenable burdens. The current structure pushes women to choose between family and dedication to career. That is exactly the double bind that has historically kept women out of advanced research and precisely the false choice a leading university should be looking to eliminate.
At some point, the absence of adequate financial support and the hardships women endure to achieve both family and professional lives summons up a backward sort of hazing. Too often the UC administration's posture has been "what was good enough for us, is good enough for them" or "it's not my job to figure out how to raise your children." This approach ignores the realities of the modern workforce and the unique contributions women make to their professions.
Either "science moms" are welcome in the most rigorous labs and classrooms or they are not. Studies show the existence of a "mommy tax" - the cost in wages and lost advancement that certain industries exact from women who have children. This effect is pronounced for women in science and likely underlies the gender gap.
To the extent that the University has contributed to this inequity, it can right that wrong now and adopt policies that reduce the conflict between dedication to one's field and dedication to one's family. A childcare subsidy is one way - a plus for all postdocs, but one that will benefit mothers more.
In addition, the University needs to take concrete steps to demonstrate that the sexual harassment cases that dominated the news this past year are not indicative of the administration's posture toward women on its campuses. An overhaul of policies relating to postdocs, including sexual harassment, should be one of those steps.
In the first bargaining session for our new contract, the union's bargaining team presented a comprehensive package of proposals including language designed to address UC's gender equity crisis by protecting postdocs from sexual harassment and discrimination as well as introducing benefits such as childcare support and parental leave. Though the University has also expressed a desire to make progress, it had no proposals prepared on any of these issues.
The University must seize this opportunity to distance itself from the old way of thinking by adopting progressive, equitable policies that enable both women and men to excel in their research and in their family lives. Setting a high standard for gender equity and inclusion is what everyone in the university community should expect from the University of California.
At our second bargaining session this Thursday, the University has promised to make proposals - especially ones that will address the sexual harassment crisis at UC - that will help realize this standard. Whether it follows through on its promise will tell a great deal about whether the UC is truly committed to leading the way as a world-class and forward-thinking institution.