Why don’t women just wait to have children until they get their first professor jobs? They can’t: The average age for getting a doctorate in science and engineering fields is nearly 32, right when female fertility significantly decreases. Even after graduating, researchers spend upwards of five years as a postdoc before moving into faculty positions, and there is evidence that those who spend more time as a postdoc are the ones who advance into tenure-track research positions.
* * *
Wherever it occurs, sexual harassment of students or professors is a violation of Title IX when there’s federal funding involved. There almost always is. Sexual harassment of professors, students, or postdoc employees may violate employment laws as well. Moreover, it’s profligate as public policy: The U.S. faces a projected deficit of 1 million college-educated STEM workers in the coming decade, according to a recent White House report. Women can fill that gap; nationwide, educators, activists, politicians, and celebrities are all scrambling to encourage girls to choose STEM careers. Yet once those girls reach the final stages of their education—after dedicating over two decades of study—we lose them. The sunk cost of training a postdoc, conservatively, is $500,000—much of it public funds.
Here’s how we can stop harassing women out of science—two easier steps and two harder ones. The first is to break the silence surrounding sexual harassment. The decade-long behavior of Marcy, the Berkeley astronomer, was an open secret in the field until other astronomers finally organized in support of his victims, leading to his resignation. After molecular biologist Jason Lieb was found to have sexually assaulted a student and harassed others at the University of Chicago, the university came under fire for hiring him because it had received warnings that Lieb had been accused of harassment at two other universities.
“Reputation is the way we control behavior,” points out Ben Barres, a Stanford neurobiologist and trans man who has been vocal about the treatment of women in STEM. “These are serial perps. They go to another school, and the same behavior starts at the next school. Why don’t we make this public?” In Congress, Representative Jackie Speier is calling for a requirement that universities report findings of sexual harassment to federal funding agencies.
The second easy step is for funding agencies to send a clear message, backed by Title IX enforcement: Universities need to stop harassment and other illegal behavior towards students who become parents. Our preliminary survey data show that 53 percent of postdoc women report that their PI was very supportive of their pregnancy or parenthood; clearly, hounding mothers out of science is not mandated by the nature of scientific research. Discriminating against women based on pregnancy, or against either parent based on family responsibilities, is illegal sex discrimination. The lack of codified leave policies at institutions leaves the door open to unbridled discretion. Institutions need formal policies, if only as a risk-management measure.