Postdoc Parents See Room for Improvement

Women?s issues are coming to the fore at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the University of California?s health-science-only campus. Among the UCSF campus organizations charged with improving the conditions for women at UCSF, one of the most visible is the Chancellor?s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women (CACSW).

Founded in 1971, CACSW?s charge is:

  • "to examine issues regarding the status of faculty, staff, and student women on the campus (excluding those issues involving wages, hours, or working conditions) and to analyze existing polices, procedures, and/or programs that affect those issues;

  • "to serve as a coordinating body for groups or individuals concerned with the status of women at UCSF; and

  • "to recommend to the Chancellor changes that will continue to afford women equal and fair access to campus programs and activities."

Network Nugget

Two previous Postdoc Network articles have highlighted UCSF programs designed to have a positive impact on retaining women in science: mentoring dinners sponsored by Women In Life Sciences and the recent conference on women leaders sponsored by the Center for Gender Equity.

My own involvement in CACSW started after I became a new parent. Up until that time, I hadn?t given much thought to gender issues or the institutional obstacles that women face when combining a career and family life. However, I found that unexpected events--such as illness of my child, difficulties in arranging child care, or balancing child rearing within a two-career family--didn?t mix well with the demanding schedule of an academic scientist (and, in my case, physician) in training. This, coupled with general confusion regarding maternity leave policies and the scarcity of on-site day care, motivated me to become an agent for change at UCSF. When I received an e-mail from the outgoing CACSW postdoc representative seeking a volunteer to be her replacement, I jumped at the chance.

CACSW is composed of faculty, students, staff, and postgraduate trainees representing the medical center, administrative offices and schools (nursing, pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, and graduate programs), as well as certain ex officio members such as the School of Medicine?s Associate Dean for Minority and Women?s Affairs. Most members of the committee serve 2-year terms. CACSW meets approximately four times a year--with additional subcommittee meetings scheduled as needed--and submits an annual report to the chancellor that includes action recommendations.

The university has implemented past recommendations of CACSW. For example, a 1989 survey on child care needs commissioned by the chancellor resulted in the hiring of a child care referral coordinator. A follow-up survey conducted this year will provide necessary information for the newly formed Chancellor?s Committee on Childcare to evaluate the size and number of on-campus day care facilities. CACSW has also been an active participant in the assessment of the environment for female faculty members. A 1986 Chancellor?s survey of salary and promotions led to ongoing surveillance of these factors by CACSW and corrections to ensure salary equity.

Two years ago, Chancellor Bishop commissioned a study on the status of women faculty at UCSF, after hearing the disturbing results of the survey of women faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Several members of CACSW were among those assembled by Vice Chancellor Dorothy Bainton to develop this survey. The survey report, " Climate for Women on the Faculty at UCSF" reveals that, despite being pleased with the intellectual stimulation of their work, many female faculty members are unhappy with the heavy toll that their work takes on their lives, and they are displeased with the opportunities for upward mobility, mentoring, and leadership positions within the university. CACSW is considering what measures to recommend to the chancellor based on these findings.

CACSW also cosponsors with the Center for Gender Equity (CGE) a number of seminars and workshops for women faculty, staff, students, and postdocs. This year, the calendar has included a lunch seminar with Ann Crittenden, author of the book "The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued" (Metropolitan Books, 2001). Crittenden?s book deconstructs the economic and social consequences of the devaluation of women?s work as caregivers. Her seminar was well attended and produced lively discussion about the ways in which the work environment could be improved for women at UCSF and elsewhere. CACSW is developing a Web site with information on women?s issues and events at UCSF, links to other Web sites that address women?s issues, inspirational profiles of women on the campus, and unique informational resources on parenting and elder care in the San Francisco Bay Area.

CACSW has promptly addressed concerns brought to me by other postdocs. For example, after reviewing several cases of perceived discrimination against postdocs because of parenting responsibilities, we formed a new subcommittee to address the concerns of primary caregivers at UCSF. Although CACSW is composed entirely of women, we hope to include on this subcommittee men who are primary caregivers.

CACSW is also interested in the lack of uniform policies for hiring and mentoring postdocs, a topic that has also been addressed by the Postdoctoral Scholars Association (PSA). This lack of uniformity has led to misunderstandings between postdocs and their mentors with respect to length of appointment, salary, responsibilities, and benefits such as family leave.

Because I brought these concerns to CACSW, I am now part of an ad hoc committee, along with members of CGE, to advise the newly appointed Assistant Dean for Graduate Outreach and Postdoctoral Affairs, Christine Des Jarlais. One of the first projects of the ad hoc committee will be a survey to determine the prevalence of discrimination against postdocs based on gender, ethnicity, citizenship or visa status, sexual preference, and marital and parenting status; and to evaluate the climate for conflict resolution between postdocs and their mentors. Des Jarlais? office is currently developing a Web site for postdocs and their mentors that will include summaries of university policies relating to postdocs (previously not readily available to anyone besides department administrators) and links to information on the Bay Area, career planning, scientific, cultural, and parenting resources.

Postdocs at UCSF, especially women and parents, still find room for improvement in their work environment. Continued activism by organizations such as the PSA, CGE, and CACSW, as well as the appointment of an assistant dean to oversee postdoctoral affairs, gives hope that the concerns of these important community members will continue to be heard and responded to by the university.

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