my almost-4-year-old daughter while in grad school, right after I accepted a fellowship to complete my dissertation. It was a fairly traumatic delivery, and it was tough completing my degree with a nursing infant, but I did it thanks to the flexibility and funding that the fellowship provided. This time is different, though. Now I am employed as a tenure-track assistant professor, and negotiating a maternity leave at my university has been eye-opening.
I'd naively assumed that I had all the information this time. After all, I knew that my university offers no paid leave, and I had asked HR about FMLA early last fall. The FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) policy, however, is the only one my university lists under information for parental leave; there are no policies at the university level going deeper or beyond this, including no policies for stopping one's tenure clock. So how does a faculty member due to give birth in early October deal with FMLA, which gives employees of my public university up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave? Teaching a full load of classes is not a great option; I'd have up to 7 weeks with my students (provided I don't deliver early) and then have to find someone(s) willing to take over my three courses for little or no pay. Taking a course reduction, though, means taking a reduction in pay, as our salaries are mainly tied to being able to complete our teaching duties, regardless of the fact that we also have research and service requirements. For other university employees, FMLA likely isn't as big a deal -- if you're an admin assistant, for example, you could work until you're due, and then a temp fills in while you're on leave. For faculty giving birth in the middle of the semester, being able to take FMLA requires a great deal of flexibility from your chair, dean, and the administration, as they have to OK a series of "alternative work assignments" to teaching. At my institution, in order for the university to keep subsidizing your health insurance benefits, you have to work full-time -- which means even if a faculty member is willing to work half-time because alternative assignments can't be found, it may not be in the faculty's best financial interests, as insurance premiums skyrocket when the university is not subsidizing them.
I am very glad I don't have to deal with the issues concerning FMLA and health insurance premiums, as my whole family is on my husband's insurance plan, which has much better coverage and is fully subsidized by his employer. I also worked out a compromise for my maternity leave with the help of my chair and the dean: my chair found me an alternative work assignment for this summer and the fall, and I am working a reduced course load (two instead of three classes) in the spring because of my concerns with returning to work full-time with a nursing 3-month-old (that I can't have on campus, as our daycare prioritizes students and won't take infants until 6 months). This compromise ends up with my working 60% time, so I get 60% of my annual salary. And it's literally the best solution I could come up with.
|Map of paid maternity leave around the world.|
I'd like to survey universities around the country, via their HR websites, to see what parental leave policies they have on the books. (Maybe this has already been done?) Who provides paid leave? Who provides alternative work assignments? What is the retention rate of female faculty there? Are faculty who are parents happy, successful, and supported?
Until then, here are some tips and suggestions about academic maternity leave gleaned from my months' worth of information-gathering at my university and elsewhere:
- Know your rights under FMLA. This government policy covers employees at companies with 50 or more employees. At the very worst, you likely have up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave available, with the right to be reinstated to your position at full pay without any change to your original terms of employment. From what I understand, though, employers cannot require you to take more than 6 weeks of unpaid leave; they are required to find you alternate duties if you can't perform your normal ones due to pregnancy or post-partum/nursing issues. In reality, though, it can be difficult to convince universities that you have skills other than teaching that you can be paid for.
- Find out if you have disability coverage or insurance. Many women in the U.S. take short-term disability (6 to 8 weeks) to cover maternity leave. Most plans will pay you 2/3 of your salary for the period of disability, and many employers specifically do allow maternity leave as a covered disability (which is a whole other conversation, of course). At my university, disability coverage is not automatically provided and is a separate insurance plan for which I would have to pay full premiums. This was not made clear to me during benefits orientation or an early meeting with HR. Once I found out about this option, I wasn't eligible, as I was already pregnant.
- Contact your faculty union representative. That is, if you have a union. Here in Florida, we have the UFF. I'd naively assumed I was automatically a member of the union, as I was in the last state I worked that had a faculty union (NY), but here enrollment is not mandatory and requires dues of 1% of your salary per year. The union may not be able to do much, but they may be able to offer solutions and advocate on your behalf to your dean. You may also be able to contact the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for help. We have only one chapter in the entirety of Florida, though, so I didn't look into this further. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) may have suggestions as well, but again, since we don't have a chapter anywhere nearby, I didn't pursue this.
- Take sick and/or vacation leave. If you have paid sick and/or vacation leave, you can likely take this during a maternity leave, generally in concert with FMLA. I accrue sick leave at a rate of about 2 weeks per year, which means to earn a full semester's paid maternity leave, I'd have to be here 7-8 years first. We have a sick leave pool, where people can deposit unused leave and others can take that leave, but I am not eligible for that because I haven't been here a year yet. So check into the rules and regulations for taking leave.
- Identify alternative work assignments. For me, this was the most difficult task, since I am new to the university and confused about navigating all the policies (or lack thereof) in front of me. I talked to my department chair, but I also talked to two other department chairs (both of whom are parents), emailed several women at my university about their experiences, and talked to friends who are faculty at other institutions for suggestions. These days, online or blended/hybrid courses are a reality on most campuses, as are MOOCs, so perhaps teaching a full load could work for some female faculty. If you've been at a university for a while, there may be administrative tasks you could take on: help with getting information in line for an upcoming department or university review (e.g., SACS accreditation). But for new, un-tenured faculty, your best bet may be to ask your department chair what can be done: revising and updating labs for a popular class; taking on extra advising of students; creating and hosting a mini-conference; working on and submitting a large grant proposal; redesigning and updating the department's public-facing marketing (e.g., website, brochure, newsletter). For what it's worth, I will be doing this last option for my alternative assignment.
- Consider stopping your tenure clock. Many universities have policies for tenure clock stoppage, for reasons such as parental leave or illness of yourself or a family member. If you are eligible to stop your tenure clock for a semester or a year, consider doing it. But do ask if you will still be able to go up normally if you stop it, or will that count as "early" (and does your university allow for early tenure)? If your university doesn't have a policy, as mine doesn't, there are still likely ways to stop the clock, provided your chair and dean agree and put it in writing. I will be navigating the clock stoppage issue once I get my maternity leave plan in writing.
- Look into childcare options on or near campus, particularly if you're returning to work while your infant is still nursing. If there are insufficient childcare options on campus, as on mine, bring these concerns to the administration. Retaining female faculty is a priority of many campuses today, but solutions such as better access to childcare and on-campus parent organizations don't often cross the minds of administrators. If you have flexibility in your schedule and duties, bring your infant to work with you during the week -- the world will not end if your infant is nursing in a faculty meeting, and it may even open many people's eyes to the challenges of work-life balance with an infant.
- Find out if your university has a parent (support) group. At my grad institution, there were parent groups for the entire university and also for the grad students. The grad student one was supported by a dollar or two of our student fees each semester. (Then again, my grad institution offered 6 weeks of paid maternity leave to graduate TAs, so it's fairly progressive, particularly for a public uni in the South.) There's no parent group at my university now, so I'm starting one. Being able to talk to other faculty parents about the challenges they face, about the school system, neighborhoods, family-friendly activities, etc., really helps new faculty settle in to the area and the university. I'm hoping to meet a lot of great people through this organization that I might not otherwise see, as parents of young children in particular tend not to go to faculty happy hour at 6pm on Friday evenings, for example. A 10am bagel-and-OJ "brunch" on a Saturday at the gym, where my kids can run around while I chat with my colleagues? That's much easier for me to do.
Finally, please please please start talking about these issues on your campus. I've gotten advice--well-meaning, I'm sure--to keep my head down since I'm new and un-tenured. Many women feel the need to stay under the radar and not make waves while they're pregnant, for fear of losing their job or health insurance. But that is no way to effect change. If you are in a position to speak up or make changes at your university, even if it's just to open up a conversation with your fellow faculty members, do it!
So this Mother's Day, check into your university's parental leave laws, and start agitating for reform. And feel free to add your personal experiences in the comments below!