Science Faculty Can Address Sexual Violence, Too

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Maggie Hardy is a research fellow in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in Australia. Her research program is focused on the discovery of new drugs from venoms. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrMaggieHardy.

Addressing Sexual Violence in Science

I have been speaking publicly about my experiences as a rape victim since I was an undergraduate student. I often find that I have a strong, immediate connection with fellow rape survivors — a kind of bond that allows me to offer a distinct brand of sustenance. I have also had incredibly fulfilling conversations with the partners and friends of other rape survivors who want to provide support.

In this article, I outline the ways that we can talk about rape and sexual harassment in academe. I focus specifically on science because I am a scientist, but my insight can be applied more broadly. You might be wondering what place discussing anything political or activist in nature has in science. But recent events have reinforced the many ways in which science is, indeed, political.

First, let me say that if you are a rape victim, you are not alone. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately one in six American women and one in 33 American men have been the victim of attempted or completed rape. More than 90 percent of perpetrators are men. Statistically speaking, rape victims are everywhere, in every profession, including science — where you can find me.

The statistics suggest that incidences of sexual violence may actually be greater in higher education. For example, among undergraduates, female students (ages 18 to 24) are three times more likely than women in the general population to experience sexual violence; the statistic increases to five times more likely for male students of the same age compared to men in the general population. According to RAINN, “transgender students are at higher risk for sexual violence. In fact, 21 percent of transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming (TGQN) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18 percent of non-TGQN females and 4 percent of non-TGQN males.”

What’s more, sexual violence disproportionately affects persons who are already marginalized within higher education. For example, statistics from 2005 to 2010 show that white and black American women are about equally likely to be raped (2.2 and 2.8 per 1,000 females age 12 or older, respectively), but that rate is nearly double for American Indian and Alaska Native women (4.5 per 1,000).

As academics, we are in an ideal position to combat the epidemic of sexual violence in our profession and on our campuses. As mentors and role models, members of professional societies should be prepared to instruct the next generation of researchers not to perpetrate harmful or unethical behavior (in research, academe or life in general), and to model those attitudes personally. Particularly in these uncertain times, it is vital to teach science students skills for success in a global job market and in government, industry and academic roles. Resilience, self-confidence and respect for the autonomy of their colleagues are key proficiencies.

Learning to navigate safe relationships and thinking critically about sexual experiences and personal safety is a hallmark of the college period. For some students, higher education will be their first exposure to extensive, evidence-based sexual education. Elizabeth Smart writes brilliantly about how her abstinence-only education shaped her thinking as a rape survivor and provides a window into what students with similar instruction may be experiencing: she describes feeling like “chewed-up gum” after being assaulted. I have found decolonizing my perspective to be useful in this space and essential to my work as a scientist. The work of Kim TallBear illustrating how the emphasis on virginity and purity is part of a colonial perspective has been revolutionary for me, as have her thoughts on the perception of promiscuity. Understanding the impact of language on your students and colleagues will go a long way toward creating a supportive environment.

How Academics Can Address Sexual Violence

As a proud Queenslander, let me share one of my favorite ways of approaching solidarity: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (This quote is often attributed to Aboriginal artist and activist Lilla Watson, although she considered her work collective and preferred the quote to be credited to the 1970s Aboriginal activists group Queensland.)

Even if you are not a victim of sexual violence, you can advocate for and support victims. The support that good mentors can provide in an academic setting is significant.

Some practical suggestions for academics to address sexual violence and support students who have experienced such violence include:

  • In your syllabus, outline a code of conduct and your nondiscrimination policy (particularly if your course involves fieldwork). Ensure that students understand their rights and responsibilities before class discussions. Model and enforce your own code of conduct, particularly in conversation with students and your colleagues. Overtly sexist behavior is easy for most people to identify, but bias is particularly insidious, especially for women in STEM. You can even take the Implicit Association Test for free online to identify your own biases.
  • Particularly if you work with new students, consider highlighting where to find important contacts for your campus health and sexual assault first responders should they need the information in an emergency. Statistically speaking, you are almost guaranteed to teach at least one student each semester who is or has been a victim of sexual violence, so you might as well get on the front foot. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so it’s a fitting point to work in a brief mention.
  • I have written previously about my thoughts on trigger warnings: “We don’t need trigger warnings. We need change.” I mostly still agree with myself, though I do think the terminology of “rape victim” is more appropriate than “rape survivor” now. (For some excellent resources on why, learn more here and here.) When you address difficult material, take the time to explore it carefully. Feel free to add a content note that the material may be difficult and explain the reasons why. Be sure to include information about campus or free resources for students who may have dealt, or are dealing, with issues raised during the course. If you are unsure, ask for insight from other experts.
  • Support those groups and programs on your campus that provide assistance to victims of sexual violence. Offer to serve as a faculty liaison if they need one, dispute budget cuts to their essential work, and advocate on behalf of those they serve. Let the groups know that you are happy to help students who have experienced sexual assault where you are able to (such as with course selection, career advice or in other professional aspects). Listen to their advice about how to support students.
  • If you are involved with a professional society and are interested in shoring up your ethical standards, check out my article “Drafting an Effective Ethical Code of Conduct for Professional Societies: A Practical Guide.” The article outlines 10 practical steps to setting up a code of conduct, and provides an introduction to the ethical considerations of each step in the process.
  • Recently, initiatives to prevent sexual and other forms of harassment at professional conferences have sprung up across academic disciplines, from astronomy to entomology. Make your students aware of those groups, and if your students are attending conferences, ensure they are aware of professional expectations and how to manage unprofessional behavior.

For students who are victims of sexual violence, their academic progress or performance may be affected — in addition to many other facets of their lives. One thing that we can all do is to help support healing by ensuring victims of sexual violence are able to live their best lives afterward. Here is some specific advice for writing letters of recommendation.

  • Offer to address the topic in your letter directly, for example, “As an undergraduate, [student] was one of the many college students to be affected by [sexual violence/unfortunate events/extenuating personal circumstances/etc.].” Be sure to check what language the student would like you to use.
  • Highlight achievements relative to circumstances. If the events resulted in an additional semester or a class that had to be repeated, emphasize the student’s progress and dedication to the discipline, technical proficiency or leadership.
  • Avoid gender and other bias in writing letters of recommendation. Here’s a great list of suggestions from the University of Arizona.

Rape victims are powerful, and we are many. I talk about my experience as a rape victim because I care. During her incredible speech at the sentencing of her attacker, Emily Doe, who was assaulted at Stanford University in 2015, quoted author Anne Lamott: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” My light is on.

Open And Honest Discussions About Sexual Violence In Our Classes

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Shawn Patrick is a biracial cis woman (and not an Irish pub, as some tend to think) and an associate professor and professional counselor. Her take on higher education is influenced by her training in multicultural counseling and narrative theory. She blogs at The Rolling B about teaching, mental health and social justice.

Talk With Students About Sexual Assault

It was quiet when I shuffled into my house late one night. My children had long ago fallen asleep. My husband lounged on the couch framed by the blue light projected from some late-night television show. I dribbled onto the couch like a ripped sack of potatoes and said, “I think this course is starting to get to me.”

I was teaching a graduate course on abuse and violence. I had lectured about sexual assault in other courses, but this was the first time I have devoted an entire course to the topic. As a therapist, I have counseled many adults and children who have experienced forms of sexual, physical, emotional, mental and/or religious abuse. I have also supervised counselor trainees as they learn to work with clients who experience violence.

None of this is ever easy work. While my mind tends to spin regardless after a full day, any day in which I encounter the subject of sexual assault will guarantee me a sleepless night. This particular evening’s insomnia was brought on by the dawning realization that a full course on violence meant constantly living in abuse-related material.

Students identify abuse and trauma as the topic that they feel least prepared to address. Degree programs include courses or curricular expectations for basic training in abuse and trauma work. However, I suspect it is not a lack of knowledge that makes students anxious about the topic. Instead, the worry more likely stems from personal resonance fluttering near someone’s consciousness, threatening to remind them of just how familiar they are with abuse and assault.

“Rape culture” is a phrase bringing together the multiple factors contributing to an environment that normalizes sexual exploitation. While some people attempt to dismiss this and phrases like trigger warnings as “liberal whininess,” the statistics are clear. Conservative estimates indicate nearly one in two women and one in five men have experienced sexual violence, stalking or partner violence. More than 70 percent of men and women who have been assaulted experienced this before the age of 25. Sexual violence does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, but the majority of perpetrators are heterosexual men, and most are known to their victims.

The myths about sexual assault abound in society, including perceptions that men “can’t be raped” or that women “ask for it.” When a recent presidential candidate (now president) boasted about assaulting women, many Americans quickly dismissed such behavior as “locker room talk.” College and university administrators have conveyed the message to victims that they should leave the university “for their own safety,” essentially ending their education, while their perpetrators are allowed to continue on.

Such social conditions contribute to why the reporting of sexual violence tends to be low. The older a person is when the assault occurs, the less likely they are to report it. Family and friends often overtly and covertly coerce victims into staying silent — many of them intending to help but most likely doing more harm than good. Male victims of sexual violence are the least likely to report it due to fears of being ridiculed or not believed by others. Critics take nonreporting as proof that claims of rape are false. But silence is not a sign of guilt or weakness — rather, it is many victims’ last resort to protect their humanity.

It is not possible to live in our society without encountering the effects of a culture that normalizes rape. I know that when I teach a course about sexual violence, most people in the room have been affected by it. Trigger warnings, or essentially prepping students for the possibility that they will hear material that is potentially upsetting or disturbing, are normal. This is no different than explaining grading procedures or commenting on the weather. These comments acknowledge the reality we live in and demonstrate respect for everyone’s right to have a say in what happens in their physical space. Contrary to critics’ beliefs, trigger warnings do not shut down conversations; instead, they invite students into safe spaces. Because we have the courage to address sexual assault openly, we create trust and show students how to take a different stance towards violence.

Humility, Not Bravado

Sexual assault is no stranger in my life, either. I am often asked, “How do you do this work without your own history getting in the way?” As counselors, we ask this question mostly because therapy is meant to focus on the people whom we serve, not ourselves. But for students, this question is more related to fear that conversations about rape will overwhelm them. This is the power of sexual assault; it tries to convince us to hide, to mute our voices. Curiously, however, asking this question demonstrates the desire to put sexual assault in its place and not be silenced by it.

I tell my students what I tell myself. Professors hold an illusion that our histories and identities exit the room when we teach, as though we are simply talking textbooks. This is an unnatural and unrealistic expectation. We are who we are in the classroom, and tapping into the many facets of ourselves is what makes our teaching work the best. After last Nov. 8, I could not walk into my classroom and pretend that many students were not afraid of living in a country that decided women and people of color existed solely for the gratification of men. There was no way that I could honestly address myths about sexual violence without allowing my students to talk about those fears. I felt powerless; I could not pretend I was unaffected, was not “triggered” by watching men on television and in my community swagger and boast about “winning.”

Responding to students who also felt powerless, I had to remember that humility, not bravado, opens us to compassion. Embracing feelings of disgust, anger, sadness or hurt when witnessing stories of violence is not a sign of failure. Rather, it is the appropriate response — the human response. Stifling ourselves is exactly what assault wants so it stays in control. When we allow our reactions to breathe, we show ourselves what is valuable. Disgust reminds us human dignity should not be violated. Anger proves the act never should have occurred. Sadness lets me see the integrity of the other. And hurt tells me how much our connections matter.

Does this translate into telling students every intimate detail about my life? Of course not. I get to choose what I share and what I don’t. Students will see that I have feelings. But will this make me appear human in the classroom? I hope so.

Responding With Empathy When A Student Has Been Raped

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Marina N. Rosenthal is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon. As a therapist, researcher and teacher, she focuses on trauma and sexual health.  In this blog post, Marina describes three actions she takes when she is feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

Responding to Students’ Trauma Disclosures With Empathy

I am an educator who teaches undergraduate courses like Psychology of Trauma and Human Sexuality. Not surprisingly, given the content of such courses, my students often disclose personal experiences of sexual violence to me. I want to meet their truths with kindness and trust, but sometimes I feel unsure or stuck as I try to determine how best to respond.

To help me through these moments, I have developed an approach to guide me. Other educators whose work touches on topics that are inherently intimate may find my approach helpful for supporting their own students who experience sexual violence.

Trauma disclosures surface in many forms. For example, some students quietly share their experiences when panic attacks related to an assault impede their progress on an assignment or when a friend is raped and needs resources. Some students linger after class and say with certainty that they were harassed, abused or assaulted. But many of my students are less direct and less sure. Instead, they often weave disclosures into essays, reading responses or emails. Sometimes, these admissions are either obliquely expressed or nearly hidden, tucked carefully away in the middle of a paragraph, within parentheses or in a postscript. Their revelations are often laced with doubt. They write, “Maybe it was abuse, but I didn’t know it at the time …” Or they wonder, “I’m not sure if I was raped. I know that I didn’t want it to happen.”

My students are not unusual. A recent qualitative exploration of college women’s perspectives on these unwanted but undefined experiences (called “unacknowledged rape”) highlights tremendous ambivalence in their understandings of what has happened to them. Victims commonly vacillate between uncertainty (with statements like “I don’t know, is what happened to me, is that … rape?”), certainty (“I felt taken advantage of, right from the get-go”) and ambivalence (“I know it was kind of rape … but I have a really hard time coming to reality with that”). I hear my own students’ voices in these quotes; I see them wavering between conviction and doubt.

As I read or hear my students’ disclosures, particularly the veiled and wary, I struggle to achieve clarity on how to respond. As a teacher, I am caught in the middle. I am always an educator, sometimes a mentor and constantly an evaluator. I spend hours every week helping my students to strengthen their writing and refine their thinking. My feedback is intended not only to nurture their development but also to assess their academic progress. Teaching a class on trauma does not free me from the reality of having to deliver sometimes disappointing grades to my striving students. So, yes, I can be a confidante, a source of support. But tomorrow, I will also be a critic, a judge.

Amid my confusion, I have found three small steps to follow when I open an email or essay that discloses to me yet another traumatic experience — three actions to perform when I am feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

First, I allow myself to mourn for the pain and violence plaguing my campus, for the sweet soul tentatively reaching out. Sometimes I cry in the bathtub or sprint in circles on my block in the dark. I create space for sorrow. Hearing trauma stories can — and perhaps should — hit hard. By greeting my heartache with acceptance and offering my grief an outlet, I grant myself the same compassion I hope to give my students.

Second, I can provide information on how to report, where to seek health care and how to obtain counseling. I can also grant accommodations should students struggle to meet deadlines or finish assignments. I ask my students whether they want this type of tangible support, and I respect their answer either way.

Third, I remember that as a teacher and — perhaps more important — as a human, I can always offer belief and empathy. Research supports this final step; survivors who feel that someone believes their story report fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress. My response matters greatly, especially for survivors still in the process of comprehending what happened to them. Amid engulfing and callous noise — victim-blaming news media, unsupportive administrators, insufficient resources — expressing faith in and empathy for survivors is a powerful act. In the lines of the PowerPoints I present and the readings I assign, in my office, and in the margins of essays, I can compose the verses of my own quiet chant: “I believe you. It was not your fault. I am so sorry this happened to you.”

My students arrive in class as evolving and messy mosaics, not dry sponges ready to absorb knowledge. Their identities and experiences are not separate from or irrelevant to the work that we do in the classroom. In this sense, responding compassionately to sexual assault disclosures is an integral duty in my role as an educator. Reacting with acceptance and kindness, especially when students are just beginning to articulate what happened to them, is a gesture of love and resistance.

I wish I had access to spells or incantations, a literal enchantment to protect the students on my campus. I lack such magic, and my work sometimes feels futile. I feel caught in a cycle, unable stop the relentless deluge of violence. But while the expanse of what I cannot do is vast, I can take action, however imperfect or insufficient. I take my three small steps. I allow sadness to flow through me. I concretize and compile what I can contribute in resources and accommodations. And finally, always, I speak words of belief and empathy.

Avoiding Sexual Harassment While Doing Research Abroad

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column (here). Dr. Kathrin Zippel is the author of Women in Global Science: Advancing Academic Careers Through International Collaboration (Stanford, 2017) and The Politics of Sexual Harassment: A Comparative Study of the United States, the European Union and Germany (Cambridge, 2006). Zippel has held visiting appointments and conducted research in several European countries.

“Sexual Harassment in Research Abroad”

As an expert on sexual harassment, I have been surprised how little academics discuss navigating harassment and sexual violence when research takes us abroad. Unfortunately, neither federal laws and regulations nor the efforts of universities, research institutes and professional associations have been able to eradicate harassment and sexual violence. In the field or in research institutions abroad, women might simply end up having to navigate harassment and sexual violence by themselves. Thus, parallel to the work on improving institutions, I argue that we need to share individual strategies that empower women and other people who are vulnerable to such violations.

International research and collaborations can expand academics’ horizons and provide personal and professional enrichment and growth. They offer important intellectual challenges, as well as opportunities to collect crucial data to advance research over all. In some disciplines, conducting research abroad is necessary part of the research process, as global phenomena like oceans, climate change, epidemics and geographical rock formations transcend national boundaries. Studying other countries or specific local and linguistic communities also requires international travel at times.

But often when academic work takes researchers abroad, women professors encounter what I call gendered “glass fences.” Like the glass ceilings faced by women managers who climb the hierarchical ladder in work organizations, glass fences are invisible barriers embedded in the gendered organization and culture of academe, although they demarcate national borders. Sexual harassment is one such fence, because it can function to keep women in their home territories, denying them opportunities associated with international research. The particular forms and experiences vary depending across academic rank and position, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, disability, and other (visible) markers of difference. For example, the safety of openness about queerness certainly varies a lot across national contexts and even particular neighborhoods.

A typical scenario that could set up an uncomfortable situation leading to sexual harassment is when you are asked out for a drink by a key contact in the field or colleague in an international research institute. What do you say? Another typical situation is that, while conducting research abroad, you might struggle not only with harassment walking down the street but also while in the field or in research institutes.

Of course, sexual harassment can, and does, happen at home, so some of the suggestions I offer are translatable to domestic settings. But navigating an unfamiliar environment can amplify the challenges of strategizing to avoid harassment. Different local, linguistic, gender, academic and legal cultures create such challenges.

For example, feeling dependent on a key local contact or colleague for your research might limit your sense of options. And the (hierarchical) power relations become more diffuse the more time teams spend together during work and after hours without other friends or family around. Socializing centered on alcohol is notorious for creating “unusual” situations in which perpetrators overstep professional boundaries by pretending that what they do after work and when inebriated is an exception — something out of the ordinary but, since no one is watching, it’s just for fun, not really serious. For victims, however, the harassment means violating their personal boundaries and dignity. And the violence threatens their autonomy and sexual self-determination.

Preparing to Venture Abroad

Do not misunderstand me: I am not discouraging international research. Still, I argue that academic institutions should take the lead in better preparing academics for the realities of harassment and sexual violence. Of course, American higher education institutions do carry the legal responsibility for any forms of harassment that professors and other research team members might engage in. But merely informing academics about their rights and responsibilities — namely, the common practice of encouraging reporting sexual violence when it happens — is simply not enough.

Thus, predeparture workshops that universities organize should follow feminist self-defense and self-assertiveness principles. Those include developing safety plans, role-playing and thinking through what-if scenarios in order to come up with concrete, context-specific strategies, so people can consider multiple ways to respond should harassment or violence occur. Learning about and sharing strategies can be empowering.

In my book Women in Global Science, I have collected examples of different strategies that faculty members use. Women, for example, set up meetings with local contacts exclusively in office spaces or in public areas, including hotel lobbies or coffee shops. Others try to arrange meetings over lunch or coffee instead of dinner or drinks. Private locations, such as hotel rooms, are considered off-limits for professional meetings.

Women faculty members purposefully bring their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows or even spouses/partners to international research sites. That allows them to engage in after-hours socializing events while avoiding uncomfortable one-on-one situations and unprofessional encounters. Dining with a small group of colleagues changes the social context. And that way, they will not miss out on these important informal encounters that are so crucial for their careers, because networking, advice, building rapport and trust take place once the “official” work is completed.

Other women have reported following general advice offered for women traveling by themselves, including wearing wedding rings or inviting male friends or their partners to spend time with them visibly in the field to create an image of a woman who is already taken. Women repeatedly stressed paying attention and trusting their instincts. If the situation feels weird, it most likely is.

The U.S. Department of State, the United Nations and international NGOs also provide valuable resources with relevant safety postings and protocols. In case of an occurrence of sexual violence, knowledge of the police and/or criminal justice systems and how they handle sexual violence is crucial. For example, in some countries, reporting a sexual assault or rape abroad might mean that the “witness” cannot leave the country until the closing of the case. And, depending on the context, the police and criminal justice system might consider the victim the problem, after all. Thus, having the contact information of the embassy and a university back home to tap into legal expertise can be important.

Finally, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the country, city, town or local environment and reading up on cultural nuances, local customs and social norms. That will help you to decide whether you want to adapt to or resist the gendered norms or dress codes you see locals using. I also highly recommend seeking out other scholars who have had experiences in a particular country, city, town, neighborhood and/or research setting to learn more about the particular environment. That can also help you identify potential local allies.

As a researcher, I know that such precautions will not entirely protect you. And as a feminist, I am not saying that someone is to blame for the violence and harassment they encounter if they do not follow such precautions. But I recognize that, in reality, having the information and resources to decide where to stay, eat and so on can significantly contribute to actual and perceived safety.

Thus, since institutions have not stopped perpetrators, academic institutions should at least provide resources to learn about, prepare and develop strategies for combating harassment and violence for faculty members who participate in international research endeavors. Professional associations, too, should mobilize to raise issues of sexual harassment in their ethical practices, as exemplified most recently by the women in the American Geophysical Union, and create spaces at meetings and online to share effective ways to deal with the issues. Ultimately, the fact is that glass fences continue to re-create global gender inequalities for women scholars — thus, effective efforts to dismantle those fences will contribute to creating a more inclusive global academic world.

Series: Sexual Violence In Academia

blog-series

From March to November 2017, we will be featuring a series of weekly blog posts on our Inside Higher Ed column (and republished here) about sexual violence in higher education.  We received many submissions to our call for blog posts on the topic, ranging from personal experiences to teaching about and doing research on sexual violence, from critiques of how universities facilitate sexual violence to recommendations for structural and cultural changes on campuses.  We are especially pleased to note that this series is intersectional to its core, offering narratives that reflect on sexual violence as a manifestation not just of sexism, but also racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and fatphobia.  Through this series, we aim to amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence that occurs in academic contexts, to aggravate the academic status quo that facilitates sexual violence, and to advocate for meaningful change in classrooms, research, departments, and at conferences.

We will continue to log new blog posts here as the series proceeds in case you are unable to keep up, and so that you can refer back to the entire series in the future.

Teaching On/And Sexual Violence

Failures of Title IX Policy and Programming

Research On/And Sexual Violence

You may also be interested in our past blog posts on or related to sexual violence in academia:

How To Support Grad Students Who Become Parents

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

Creating Space for Academic Babies

In my first essay, I reflected on the barriers I faced as a black mother in graduate school. Given the biases I had to confront, I attempted to hide my status as a mother when I went on the academic job market. I created a professional presence on social media that disclosed little about my personal life. I explicitly asked my letter writers not to mention that I was a mother. On campus visits, I asked vague questions about schools near the university.

I already carried job-market anxiety and impostor syndrome feelings as a student of color. On top of that, I worried that if word got out I was a parent, I might have worse chances of landing a job.

I did, however, keep an ear to the ground for how, or if, potential departments talked about work-life balance. When I arrived at my current institution, the University of California, Merced, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed that work and life (including life with children) were not separate entities but rather two sides of the same coin. It was a place that valued the whole person, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Support for Faculty With Children

My initial impressions were not misleading. Most of our faculty events are family friendly or scheduled at a time that is consistent with our child care schedules. Colleagues often ask about one another’s kids, and it is not rare to see children on campus. This family-friendly climate made my decision to have a second baby while on the tenure track seem feasible. Indeed, I have had a positive experience so far.

For instance, shortly into my maternity leave, two colleagues invited my infant son and me to a nearby town for a morning writing session and walk by the creek. That was actually the first day since I had my son that I took out my laptop to work on an unfinished writing project.

More recently, I participated in a family-friendly overnight retreat for our faculty working group in Yosemite National Park. We worked during the day while the older children and nonacademic spouses were able to watch the younger children. Then we came together for family activities in the afternoon and evenings.

When the inclusion and support of parents and their children is purposeful, it increases both productivity and cohesion among faculty members. Ample research provides evidence that paid leave is good for everyone — the children, parents and organizations. For instance, a report by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers revealed that more than 90 percent of the employers surveyed that had implemented California’s paid family-leave initiative reported either positive or null effects on profitability, turnover and morale.

It is important to note that the family-friendly climate on my campus is conditioned by relatively generous institutional parental-leave policies — mothers and fathers on the faculty are able to receive relief from teaching and other modified duties after the birth or adoption of a child.

Limited Support for Grad Students With Children

Unfortunately, however, support of our graduate students is currently less institutionalized. My university has put in place a few policies that aid grad student parents, including designing buildings with lactation rooms and charging students at reduced rate for the on-campus day care.

But graduate student who are new parents are not released from their duties as teaching or research assistants, leaving faculty to make accommodations in the classroom or research teams on a (nonideal) case-by-case basis. In those scenarios I encourage faculty to be creative and empathetic.

I was put to the test in that regard at the start of my first semester of teaching. Shortly before classes began, I received an email from a student informing me that she would miss the first few sessions of my graduate statistics class because she was scheduled to give birth in a nearby city. I took this opportunity to share my own experience as a mother and to work with her to jointly craft expectations and modifications for the class. Although I told her it would be beneficial to attend class as soon as she was able, I did not want to require her to “work” for at least six weeks. Therefore, I told her I would excuse her absences for those six weeks, give extended deadlines and accept email submissions of assignments, and forward her all my lecture slides.

In reality, she showed up to class by the third week and turned in assignments at a steady pace, but she appreciated the safety net I made available. As most mothers do, she showed strength and determination to pull through that semester. In the end, I still held her to the set standards but gave her a bit more flexibility in how and when she mastered the skills.

Making Universities Family Friendly for Everyone

Colleges and universities, as spaces known for shaping the future and creating change, should be at the forefront of implementing leave policies for faculty members, grad students and staff members. Change is needed not only at the structural level but also the ideological level. Academics must rid themselves of outdated gendered and racialized perceptions of working parents. Only then will there be more equity in graduate and faculty outcomes.

If you are wondering what you can do about creating space for academic babies, I encourage you first to look into Do Babies Matter as an important text that offers astounding statistics of the setbacks that parents face and also provides innovative solutions for institutions. Here are some additional tips for making one’s department family friendly.

  • Institute student leave policies that are applied consistently and equally to all students.
  • Do not assume a student has chosen an alternative career or that they will drop out of grad school because they have children.
  • Allow students to articulate their chosen career path and give them the tools to achieve success in whatever route they choose.
  • When mentoring students, ask about their whole lives, children and family included.
  • Discuss strategies for work-life balance.
  • Ask students which positions work within their child care schedule.
  • Include student parents on research jobs and publications; do not assume they do not have time.
  • Plan departmentwide events that are family friendly. A noisy bar is not an ideal place for a child.
  • Respect when a student declines an opportunity, but do not take that no as indefinite.
  • Work with your institution to put in place affordable child care, lactation rooms, family health care subsidies and the like.

And for the grad student, if you have a child while in grad school, here are some tips for navigating your training as a parent.

  • Decide the career path you want to take and make it clear to all parties involved.
  • Ask for what you need. Need time to pump in between classes? Ask. Need to take time off from classes? Ask. Need additional research positions? Ask. Need to decrease research? Ask.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Your time is no longer only yours. Choose commitments wisely.
  • Find an academic mother (or father) mentor. No one mentor can do it all for you. I sought out a woman who was a mother as a mentor at another university. Her advice was pertinent to my success and well-being.
  • Schedule your time wisely; share your schedule with your family and your advisers so everyone can be on the same page.
  • Reject the idea of being a supermom or superdad. Protect your sanity. Take breaks if needed.

Do you have other recommendations? Suggest them in the comments section below.

Birthing Both A Baby And Ph.D. As A Woman Of Color

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle (@thePhDandMe) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

I freaked out when I learned that I was pregnant during my second year of graduate school. My reaction was not abnormal; neurologists link the flood of hormones to a women’s brain as the reason for increased anxiety among expectant mothers. And while I was indeed overwhelmed by the typical things pregnant moms worry about — Would I be a good mother? Was I eating the right foods? Could my body endure childbirth? — the majority of my concerns centered around graduate school.

How was I going to tell my adviser? When do I have to tell the department? What will they think of me? How was I going to finish my master’s thesis at the same time that my baby was due? Was my graduate stipend enough to support a family?

I did not really have any one to turn to in my program. No current students had children (though one black mother had recently left), and the only two mothers on the department’s faculty had waited until they earned tenure to have their children. No one discussed parenthood, so I wasn’t sure how to do it or even if it could be done.

In desperation, I reached out to my undergrad mentor, who did not have children but always had sound advice. Her words almost became a mantra to me: women are fully capable of birthing babies and Ph.D.s — you got this.

I cut down on my coffee intake, became the queen of catnaps, asked for a few extensions on assignments when needed and raided my partner’s closet for loose sweatshirts. Aside from my adviser and one confidant, I did not announce the pregnancy until I almost five months pregnant. I thought I was on the right track.

What I naïvely did not expect, however, were the additional layers of burden that I faced as a woman of color. You see, I was only 23 and unmarried to my partner at the time I gave birth to my first son. That meant I was young, black, unwed, relatively broke and a new mother. And I found that shaped some people’s perception of me in my graduate school program.

It did not seem to matter much that I had a loving partner with a good job. Or that my mother relocated just to help me out. Many people seemed to ignore or were unaware of my background — of being raised by a young single mother myself — and that I was used to jumping through hoops to find academic success. Despite my persistence, I began to feel left out.

For instance, that year after my son was born, I was not asked to rejoin research projects that I had previously been involved with. I did not receive additional incentives to travel to conferences as I had before. I could not attend department happy hours as often and began to be left out of the grad student social scene, as well. By the end of my third year, I felt more alienated, stressed and unsure of my path than I did in my first year of the program.

The neglect could have been the result of positive intentions: to give me fewer responsibilities and allow for more time to give to my son. But, it seemed that many people assumed that my choosing motherhood meant I was not as serious about my profession. Not unlike Trump’s comments that motherhood is an inconvenience to businesses, if felt as though motherhood was an inconvenience to the Ph.D.

Research shows this is something that mothers have to deal with more than fathers. For instance, Mary Ann Mason and colleagues investigated whether babies matter for academic success. They found that mothers with young children are 21 percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than women without children, as well as that mothers are 16 percent less likely to end up on the tenure track than fathers. Women scholars’ online discussions further illustrate their findings.

Not only did I face preconceptions about parenthood as a woman, but I also believe implicit biases about black mothers created additional burdens. In itself, graduate school can be a source of trauma for students of color. And Patricia Hill Collins has written about the damaging Eurocentric views of black motherhood that moms inside and outside of academe have to combat. My position as a black mother and student intersected to pattern my experiences.

My differential treatment became even more obvious when two other students had children after me. One white woman opted to defer her dissertation fellowship for a year so that she could focus on raising her child. Rather than pushing her out (when she had asked to be temporarily “out”), she was actually offered a part-time administrative position during that time. Another white man student became the primary childcare provider after his wife returned to work. Despite his constant working from home, he was suggested to me as a model for being serious about publishing. I do not fault either of those white students for making the right choices for their family, but I did find it troubling that I was treated as less serious, despite my decision to remain embedded in the department and my work.

After one honest conversation that I initiated, a professor actually admitted to me: “I thought you would have dropped out and had more babies by now.” I was shocked. What about me suggested that? I had never mentioned a desire to drop out or to have more children. I had not taken any time off from academe. I had met appropriate deadlines. I showed up on the campus nearly every day. Really, nothing I did suggested that; rather, I believe their perceptions of black women incorrectly painted their assumptions about me.

This was bias, implicit or not, and it was wrong. I attempted to correct their perceptions by delving into my work and confronting misconceptions head-on when I could muster up the courage. I would be remiss not to share my gratitude for the supportive peers and faculty who encouraged my success and bravery — like the grad students who stepped in as babysitters or the professors who invited me over their houses for dinner. I would not have made it through that sometimes toxic space without allies that served as positive antidotes. But even so, it was a struggle to get out of grad school with my Ph.D. and my baby.

Mothers of color should not have to battle in the trenches just to save their babies and degrees. More work needs to be done, and at a larger scale, to create safe space for babies and parents in academe. I share my experiences to shed light on the mistreatment I experienced so students can recognize they are not alone and so that faculty members might reflect on their roles. To this end, I will offer advice and policy solutions in my next post.