If pregnant women in general are prone to professional discrimination, then pregnant graduate students are a particularly vulnerable category. When Mary Ann Mason, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, researched the impact of family on academic careers for the 2013 book Do Babies Matter?, she and her co-authors found that many universities had no policies in place and left the granting of pregnancy leave to the discretion of a student’s faculty adviser. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, Mason quotes one doctoral student whose professor “switched me off his high-profile research project in genetics and gave me basically housekeeping chores in the laboratory” when he learned she was pregnant.
Stories like this one help to explain why, in the sciences, female PhDs with children are 35 percent less likely to get a tenure-track job and 27 percent less likely to achieve tenure in such a position than their male counterparts. But by allowing graduate students to be penalized for pregnancy, universities are breaking the law: Specifically, Mason writes, they’re in violation of Title IX, which prohibits schools that receive any federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex.
Title IX was conceived by its author, former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, in the early 1970s as a way to force schools—especially law schools and medical schools, the gatekeepers to heavily male-dominated fields—to let in women. Bayh himself has been surprised by the law’s most high-profile uses: as a source of leverage for female athletes demanding equal support from their schools and as a protection for victims of sexual assault, the latter of whom have advanced the argument that when schools allow an experience of sexual violence to impede a woman’s education, they are practicing discrimination. (The importance of this capability of Title IX was highlighted by a piece about a scientist receiving unwanted advances from a colleague in this Sunday’s New York Times.) Now, Mason suggests that there’s room for another chapter in Title IX’s history, one in which women’s advocates and university administrators use it to change the culture around graduate students’ decisions to start families.
To galvanize that process, Mason and the Center for WorkLife Law at the UC Hastings College of the Law launched a website called “The Pregnant Scholar” this winter. The site includes detailed information about how Title IX protects students and postdocs and about what faculty and administrators should do to comply. In sum, she writes in the Chronicle, Title IX “requires universities to provide leave for pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions for as long as medically necessary,” and mandates that students who take this leave can return with the same status in their programs that they held when they left. (Some schools force women to reapply after a pregnancy leave, which clearly flouts this policy.) Mason and her co-authors testified in support of a law that was enacted in California in 2014 and built on these protections, setting a 12-month minimum for maternal leave and extending the option of parental leave to fathers and partners.
For Mason, the institution of university policies that comply with Title IX is taking on even more urgency as female graduate students increasingly explore the option of freezing their eggs. Mason frets that this is an expensive course of action—usually around $20,000—with uncertain results: Ongoing efforts to quantify the procedure’s success rate suggest that IVF fails more often when the eggs used are frozen, and that frozen eggs may result in a live birth as little as about one-quarter of the time for 30-year-old women and a tenth of the time for women aged 40. “[A]re frozen eggs the answer?” Mason asks. “No. We can and must allow talented women to pursue their education and career dreams without the illusory promise that they can wait indefinitely before starting a family.” For women seeking a foothold in the competitive world of academia, reproductive technology represents an unprecedented form of flexibility. But, for most of them, reasonable policy has far more to offer with fewer risks, and at a much lower cost.