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Wanted: The Retention of Female Graduate Students

Wanted: The Retention of Female Graduate Students
Stanford follows MIT’s lead and implements maternity policy for female graduate students; move recognizes challenges in retaining women in academia
By Veronica P. Mendoza

Like many new mothers, Hrefna Marin Gunnarsdottir, 29, was nervous about the responsibilities that come with being a first-time parent. Factor in the responsibilities that also come with being a graduate student and it’s not difficult to understand how a much anticipated time in a woman’s life could become overwhelming.

“Pregnancy is a stressful time and it was unnecessarily difficult,” Gunnarsdottir says about the experience. Instead of being able to focus on her parenting responsibilities, the Stanford University graduate student often found herself racing to complete assignments and projects. Her daughter, Anna, is now 2.

However, should she decide to have another child while pursuing her doctorate in electrical engineering, the Iceland native may encounter fewer academic complications because of a new policy that Stanford has implemented for female graduate students.

Announced in January, the new policy is modeled after the “Childbirth Accommodations Policy” introduced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. Stanford’s policy is believed to be only the second of its kind. Under the policy, pregnant graduate students are eligible for an “academic accommodation period,” in which they can postpone their academic requirements for two quarters before and after childbirth. During that period, the students are still enrolled full time and have access to student housing and health insurance benefits. The students also continue to receive funding through fellowships, teaching and research assistantships for six weeks. And the policy allows for a one quarter extension of departmental requirements and “academic milestones” for the student.

Dr. Gail Mahood, associate dean for graduate policy and  professor of geological and earth sciences, says she has received mostly positive feedback about the new policy. She says one of the greatest benefits of the policy is the statement that it makes to female graduate students.

“I think it sends out a message to women students that Stanford wants women students and we take their concerns seriously,” Mahood says. 
Alison Wong, a master’s student in mechanical engineering, agrees with Mahood.

“It shows women that Stanford is more supportive. Women who may have been afraid to start a family, it lets them know that Stanford is there to support them,” Wong says.

The Juggling Act
According to “Stanford Facts 2005,” women make up 36 percent of the total graduate student population. Mahood says that percentage has increased dramatically since the 1980s.

Marcela Muniz, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education, says that while more women are pursuing master’s degrees and doctorates, not enough are earning tenure status at colleges and universities.

“As we’ve made a lot of progress in degree completion, we have not made enough progress in women attaining tenure in academia,” she says.

Muniz says she has heard stories from many female graduate students about the difficulties balancing career and family aspirations.

According to a research study conducted by faculty members of the University of California, Berkeley, women who have “early babies” lower their chances of earning tenure. The study defines an early baby as one “who joins the household prior to five years after his or her parent completes the Ph.D.”

The study’s authors, Dr. Mary Ann Mason and Dr. Marc Goulden, write that “Raising children takes time and only an accommodation to that basic fact can ultimately allow women to achieve their goals.”

Although the overall reception to the policy has been positive, Mahood acknowledges that some students have also expressed disappointment. Gunnarsdottir, for one, says the policy should offer new mothers 12 weeks of funding rather than six, because that is what the state of California offers its employees.  

“The university decided to go with six weeks, because that is the amount of time that postdoctoral scholars can take as short-term disability,” Mahood says. “It was a matter of equity. It’s also comparable to what MIT is doing.”

Another complaint has been that male students receive no similar allowances when they become fathers.

“I think there should be some considerations for the males, too,” Gunnarsdottir says. “I think it’s a little unfair that the guys don’t get anything.”

One Stanford graduate student who wished not to be named says the policy appears to be more helpful for those in the sciences and less so for those in the humanities.

“For people in the humanities, the policy doesn’t mean that much. If they really wanted to help people in the humanities, they would give them extra funding,” the student says, noting that new mothers in the humanities receive funding to write their dissertations but must use that money to care for their child. Therefore, additional funding would be helpful.

Mahood agrees that graduate students who work in labs may benefit more from the policy.

“Yes, it is possible that it helps women students working in laboratories or on tight deadlines related to outside funding more than it helps women in the humanities who are not doing a T.A. or R.A. But I’d argue that if a student isn’t TAing or RAing, then she isn’t in as much need of help; she already has the flexibility she needs to write up her dissertation,” Mahood says.

It’s an opinion the anonymous student doesn’t share.

“The dissertation writing stage is not at all a time of flexibility, certainly not while also taking care of a baby,” the student says.

Going Beyond
Stanford’s chemistry department is one department that is going beyond the university’s policy.

The chemistry department’s maternity policy, which was implemented in November, agrees with Gunnarsdottir that female graduate students should have 12 weeks of paid time rather than six. The reasoning is the same as well.

“I picked three months because that is what the state of California gives,” says department chair Dr. Richard Zare, who was responsible for implementing the policy.  

Mahood says there are some specific reasons why the chemistry department chose to extend the leave time to 12 weeks. Chemistry graduate students are often exposed to chemicals during their coursework that are not safe for pregnant women.

It is somewhat unclear how many women will be affected by the policy change. Mahood believes the number will be fairly low, because only a small percentage of female graduate students become pregnant during this time. Gunnarsdottir, on the other hand, says many women postpone having children because of the difficulty balancing the two responsibilities. But she stands by her decision to have a child when she did.

“I think graduate school is a great time to have children. These are the prime child bearing years,” Gunnarsdottir says.

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