“I was anxious about how this pregnancy and child would impact my studies, training, opportunities, and future career. I’ll even go as far as to admit that I thought ‘my career in science is over.’”
Becoming a parent can be scary, especially if you’re a trainee in STEM. “There is no good time to start a family” is a sentiment shared by many of my colleagues, from grad students to full professors. Yet many successful scientists have families, so how do they do it? To explore this topic, I interviewed current grad students Hema Gudlavaletti and Alex Kirkpatrick as well as former post-doctoral fellow Dr. Jennifer Donegan, all of whom became pregnant during their time as a trainee at UT Health San Antonio.
Motherhood and child care are often cited as a reason that women abandon their academic pursuits. It’s a large contributor to the “Leaky Pipeline” – a phenomenon that refers to the sharp decline in the number of women in STEM as you progress higher through the ranks. Balancing the workload of a scientist with the challenges of being a mother is often a source of stress for women in STEM. As Hema describes, “We were really more scared than excited when we found out that we were going to have a baby. One of my first thoughts was how I would manage lab work.”
One of the main concerns regarding pregnant trainees is that it will slow a woman’s productivity in the lab. In response, Alex explains, “To some extent this is true. I no longer work 60-70+ hour work weeks like I did when I was a master’s student, but truth be told, I don’t have to.” Additionally, Alex cites an efficiency born of necessity and a supportive PI as major contributors to her continued success. Many trainees worry that their PI will react negatively to the news of a lab pregnancy, but this was not the case for the women I spoke to. In fact, Hema felt a boost of confidence when her PI said that “he was happy for [her] and that his other pregnant / mother graduate students were very productive.” Being pregnant does not mean your productivity will halt but do expect to have to plan ahead and talk to your PI about keeping your schedule flexible. Having a supportive PI can make all of the difference. Dr. Donegan emphasizes, “I was lucky because Dr. Lodge is awesome, and he helped me figure out some flex arrangements to make it all work.”
It is comforting to know your boss has your back, but it certainly takes more to overcome the burden of childbearing than flexible work hours. When I asked the interviewees about resources at UT Health San Antonio, they mainly cited supportive individuals and didn’t have much to say about what our institution did for them. Overall, it seems that either there are not many resources for pregnant students/employees on campus, or people are not aware of them. During her search for resources, Hema discovered that “I couldn’t find a lot of resources in the university itself regarding pregnancy or motherhood.” Other than the general student support systems, like the counseling center and ombudsperson, there are no individuals here that are specialized in helping pregnant trainees, a weakness that could be better addressed.
Prior to this year, employees such as post-docs were granted a watered-down version of family leave. Dr. Donegan describes, “I did get maternity leave, but what that meant was that I used all of my vacation/sick/personal days so that I could continue being paid. So basically, your job is protected but you only get a paycheck if you have the time to use.” However, Starting September 1, 2021, the new Comprehensive Leave Program took effect at UT Health San Antonio. This allows for up to 6 weeks of paid time off for child care responsibilities, a major victory for working parents. However, this program does not apply to graduate students. For parents like Hema, “One of the things that definitely came as a surprise to me was when I found out from the university HR that Ph.D. students at UT Health San Antonio are not eligible for paid or unpaid maternity leave according to the university’s FMLA policy as we are considered 50% full-time employees. I wish the university extended more support regarding this.”
The employment status of grad students is easily exploited and often leaves students confused and unsure of their rights. While grad students are not paid based on the hours they work, the lack of maternity leave for job protection reasons leaves students feeling vulnerable. With no guaranteed leave, PIs could leverage their position of power to pressure pregnant women or recent mothers to continue to work long hours or return to work before they are ready. However, this would be a violation of Title IX policy. If you are experiencing this issue, please contact the Title IX office. A review of protections offered to pregnant students and postdocs can be found here.
In accordance with Title IX, there are also designated lactation rooms around campus for mothers to privately breastfeed or pump. Locations of designated lactation rooms may be obtained by contacting Human Resources at 567-2600 or by viewing the HR Website. In addition to these accommodations, the university has recently taken steps to offset some of the child care burdens on new parents.
As part of their benefits package, UT Health has partnered with Care.com to help employees find quality dependent care at affordable rates. By making child care more accessible, more mothers can continue to work and, hopefully, remain in STEM. To learn more about the university’s subsidized child care program, follow this link.
While subsidized child care is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s a bit like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone. Lower-cost child care can help someone in a pinch, but childhood lasts far longer than 5 days. As Alex puts it, “Child care on campus is my fever dream.” But this may not be such a far-fetched idea. It is well-recognized that student parents need access to child care, UTSA offers on campus child care at their Child Development Center and the U.S. Department of Education provides grants to institutions specifically for implementing on campus child care.
In terms of making education, specifically grad school, more accessible to parents, we have come a long way, but there is still a long way left to go. We cannot fix the leaky pipeline with one policy change, but we can continue to patch and repair it until everything flows smoothly. Continuing to make changes like the comprehensive leave program and subsidized child care will definitely make a positive impact and help retain working mothers in STEM.
Even though it seems like hell to go through, after talking with Alex, Hema and Dr. Donegan, becoming a parent in grad school doesn’t seem quite so impossible. As Hema perfectly said “Women are stronger than we think, and we always come through!”
About the Author
Alex McCoy is a student in the Neuroscience discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program. She is currently in the lab of Dr. Daniel Lodge where she does research on psychosis related to PTSD. She is also passionate about science policy. To read an article about her, check out “Alex McCoy: We Need To Create Better Antidepressants.”
WISDOM has partnered with The Pipette Gazette to start a new column dedicated to amplifying women’s voices at UT Health San Antonio. If you are interested in participating, email Hannah Elam.