Moms in academia: it’s time for a change

“Having a lactation room… while I was nursing would have gone a long way towards helping me feel accepted. I felt extreme guilt and very alone… I think that my research progress suffered much more than it would have if impacted just by my new time constraints.”

“Pumping in the bathroom was awful – I just threw out the milk for sanitation purposes.”

Today I ran into a lab technician friend in our department who has just returned to work after 3 months of maternity leave. We chatted for a while before she made an offhand comment about how it’s a “total pain to pump in the bathroom”. She also mentioned that pumping at work is such a hassle, she’s given herself permission to quit when her baby is 6 months old.

I couldn’t help but sigh deeply. Not because I have any issue with someone ceasing to breastfeed at 6 months (they should be proud of that 6 months- it’s an accomplishment), but because it is yet another example of how support for women has fallen through the cracks in academia.

I was set to return to work when little V was 4 months old (a luxuriously long maternity leave by many standards, but that’s another story). About a week before I was set to return I realized I had no idea where I should pump. Most graduate students, techs, and post-docs have shared offices because space is at a premium at our university. There are a few lactation facilities on campus, but the closest to our building is a 5 minute walk one way. I spoke with my advisor about my situation and he shuffled the office spaces around so that I ended up sharing a space with two other female coworkers. Because we were friends and they are awesome women, I felt comfortable baring it all in their presence and simply requested that all others “knock and listen” before entering. Thanks to this “lactoffice”, pumping was a non-issue for me and I ended up breastfeeding for 11 months. I felt supported by my advisor and coworkers and I didn’t miss any work time while I pumped (I had two free hands for a keyboard thanks to a pumping bra).

A quick side note: for those of you who have never used a breast pump, being in a relaxing, stress-free environment is essential to encourage “letdown”- the flow of the milk. Normally the baby triggers this sensation automatically but it’s quite a bit trickier to get things flowing with a breast pump. I used to have to watch videos or look at photos of little V to get things flowing. Also, pumping has to happen 2 to 4 times in an 8 hour workday, with about 15-30 minutes a session. It’s a serious commitment for a mom who is experiencing one of the most sleep-deprived, time crunched times in her life. And the difference between being huddled in a bathroom stall with nothing to do but listen to other people use the bathroom as it’s intended versus a comfortable, private space with a desk for a laptop: well, it’s huge. It can determine how long a woman breastfeeds and the level of support she feels from her employer about having a baby in the first place.

Through conversations with other moms in academia I’ve learned how privileged my situations was. Some pumped in the bathroom, others had to sheepishly (and often apologetically) request to borrow a private office when they needed to pump, and ultimately many quit breastfeeding earlier than they wanted to because they did not have a private, stress-free space in which to express milk, a right that their employer is actually legally obligated to provide under FMLA.

For the past year I’ve been a part of a push to get a lactation facility set up in the building I’m in. At the beginning of this process, we sent out a departmental survey to better assess the need (which the quotes at the top are from). The need is clearly there: 11 women in our department reported a need for a lactation facility now or within the next 12 months.  Thanks to the very supportive department I’m a part of, work is already under way to convert a break room into a facility that can be used as a private pumping space during certain hours.

One lactation facility is a start. But my lab tech friend is in a different building across campus so our facility (once it’s up and running) won’t benefit her. All I could do was suggest she might request a facility be implemented in her own building which (a) doesn’t help her now and (b) feels like adding another heap of obligation to her already overflowing plate of new responsibilities.

One thing that really surprised me from our departmental survey was that so many of the women in our department hope to be or already are mothers (over 50%). I consider our department to be pretty family friendly (with all the kids running around at retreats and departmental BBQs) but I never hear issues like childcare costs or maternity/paternity leave even mentioned, let alone challenged. And family friendly policies don’t just affect mothers, but fathers too.

What is the way forward for academia? It has become notorious as one of the least family-friendly places to work and studies have shown that women with children are less likely than men to continue to climb the academic ladder to tenured faculty in STEM fields.

Based on work by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, and Mary Ann Mason

Based on work by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, and Mary Ann Mason

One exciting step towards encouraging family friendly policies is happening at UC Berkeley under their Family Friendly Edge program. They are currently implementing policies like tenure clock stoppage, a flexible part-time option, paid leave, and access to affordable childcare. But what bottom-up approaches can women in academia implement now? Even small efforts can have a big impact and I think encouraging dialogue about these issues is a great place to start.