Pregnancy at the graduate school level just got more protection.
Title IX, which is most often associated with athletics rights for females, also covers sexual harassment and assault as well as protection against pregnancy discrimination. However, the awareness about the pregnancy discrimination protections is relatively low. As a federal law, the enforcement for this third aspect of Title IX has been lacking. As such, California Assembly Bill No. 2350, which went into effect Jan. 1, was created to bring more awareness to pregnancy discrimination, particularly in graduate programs.
Laura Riley, public interest attorney at the California Women’s Law Center, said the Title IX protections have come up in legal cases in the college and high school levels, but not as much on the graduate school level.
“I think the idea behind it was to really be explicit and expressly show that Title IX does apply to graduate students,” Riley said.
Title IX came into existence in 1972. The pregnancy discrimination protections have always been there, but Riley said the problem has been compliance.
“What this law does is just strengthens existing laws by expressly including graduate students,” she said. “It’s not necessarily new obligations that the law is creating for the college, but it sort of reminds the institutions of their responsibility to protect pregnant and parenting students from discrimination and unfair treatment.”
The bill, which was headed by Assemblymember Susan Bonilla of District 14, states that it would prevent “postsecondary education institutions, including the faculty staff, or other employees of these institutions, from requiring a graduate student to take a leave of absence, withdraw from the graduate program, or limit his or her graduate studies solely due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related issues.”
The bill requires “reasonable accommodation,” which includes making sure the student’s health and safety is protected, allowing make ups for assignments, and allowing leave of absences. Leave of absences can be taken for however long the institution’s policy says, or 12 months, whichever is longer. Pregnant graduate students who are in good academic standing when they leave cannot have that status taken away from them during the time away.
“I think (pregnancy discrimination) is treating pregnant students unfairly or in a way that’s different because of their pregnancy,” Riley said. “Sometimes women who are pregnant need accommodations because of their pregnancy but they should be able to choose those accommodations or ask for them and not have them forced upon them.”
In addition, the bill provides accommodations for the non-birth parent who is also a graduate student. That student can take a leave of absence for however long the institution’s policy says, or one month, whichever is longer. The non-birth parent cannot lose their good academic standing for taking the leave period.
Including the non-birth parent is important, according to Dr. Mary Ann Mason, a UC Berkeley Law professor.
“It came into the law because if you don’t include fathers, mothers will not take it,” Mason said. “It really stigmatizes them. To change the culture, you really need to have those mothers and fathers involved.”
Riley said that the graduate school context for the law should be similar to other contexts.
“Those laws exist in California for people not in the graduate school context – allowing people to take some time off with their job being protected to be able to bond with their newborn child – so it makes sense that there would be something parallel in the graduate school context,” Riley said.
Mason, who was heavily influential in the development of this law, is a professor and co-director of the Center, Economics & Family Security at Berkeley. Her research on the effect of family formation on the career paths of PHDs contributed significantly to this law.
“The main reason why women drop out of the academic pipeline is childbirth,” Mason said.
Even as the graduate dean at Berkeley, Mason was unaware of the Title IX provisions against pregnancy discrimination until a student pointed it out. Before the bill went into effect, it was up to individual schools or advisers to determine what students could or could not do.
“Basically their advisers could do as they wished in terms of allowing them or not allowing them to take leave, or kicking them off a project,” Mason said.
Riley believes the bill gives more power to the student.
“I think it’s really about putting the decision in the hands of the woman who’s pregnant, as opposed to the administration,” she said.
Mason was very involved in drafting policy for Berkeley, which greatly assisted the drafting of the AB 2350 bill, according to Sarah Brady, a legislative aide in the office of Assemblymember Bonilla.
“A lot of this language in the bill was based off of some of the policy at UC Berkeley,” Brady said. “We made some of our own additions to address some other problems we wanted to address, but we want to commend the other schools that were at least aware that Title IX was more than sports.”
Brady, formerly a Science and Technology Policy Fellow for Bonilla, was the one who pitched the idea for the bill. She has her PHD in chemistry, and found that the issue of pregnancy discrimination came up frequently in her graduate school.
Brady worked on the bill language, worked on amendments and brought together a coalition of student groups, women’s right groups, union groups, and the University of California. She was in charge of getting the bill through the legislative process, which included getting it through the policy committees, preparing testimony for witnesses, making talking points for Bonilla, and dealing with opposition.
Though the bill covers all areas of study, it has a lot of focus on women in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The bill mentions the initiative by the Obama administration to get more women in these fields and to make sure that the various organizations associated with these fields are complying with Title IX.
According to Mason’s “Tools for Change in STEM” research, married mothers have 35 percent lower odds than married fathers of getting a tenured track position in the sciences.
Mason said that they surveyed all the doctoral students in the UC system to learn more about mother graduate students.
“We found that among those who became mothers while graduate students, they started out something like 48 or 58 percent of them wanted to be research professors, and after having a baby, that went down to 11 percent,” Mason said.
To spread awareness, Brady said they are using unions and student groups to help inform students. Another requirement of the law is that the policy has to be printed in all new student orientation materials. The policy also has to be distributed to all faculty members.
“Even if you’re not pregnant at the time, or thinking about it, or what have you, hopefully you at least see that it’s there,” Brady said. “If you ever need it, you know where to find it.”
Now that the law is in effect, those involved with it need to see if the enforcement will be carried out. Mason and another colleague were able to get a grant from the National Science Foundation for the purpose of studying the implementation of the bill.
Brady said that the funding will also help set up a summit meeting on Title IX in Washington D.C. that will look at how other states or the federal level could implement the regulations that are in place in California. Both Mason and Brady will be in attendance at the summit.
“It’s really nice to have this grant funding so that we can actually look at the implementation of this bill and not just assume that it’s being implemented,” Brady said. “And if it’s not, maybe we need to follow up with legislation in the next few years if we see that there’s a problem. I’m really excited that we can keep working on it.”
The hopeful outcome of this law is that it would reduce the number of graduate school dropouts due to pregnancy as well as reduce the number of pregnancy discrimination issues.
“Ideally, no one has problems,” Brady said. “Ideally, we don’t have students who have to get in touch with us.”