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The (Sorry) State of Parental Leave in Academe

Over at Historiann, an anonymous guest blogger—an assistant professor in a humanities department at a large, public university—tells the hair-raising story of her months-long (and, at eight-months pregnant, still unresolved) struggle to secure paid maternity leave. She describes how her chair first attempted to deny her leave on a weird technicality, even though she was told that her university had paid maternity leave, and then tried to make it conditional on her continuing to do service work while she was out:

The chair listened to my request and then said that he would mention it to the dean during their next meeting. Shortly thereafter the chair came back to me and said: “There’s a problem!” Two problems, actually. The first “problem” was that my child is due in the late spring or early summer, so there was a question about whether or not I qualified for leave in the fall, since (apparently!) I “should” just be taking it in the summer. The second problem was that I had planned to be away in the fall (to be with my partner, who lives and works in another state), but the “leave” provided by the college requires service work. So rather than providing actual “leave” the college gives course-releases, which is actually rather different from paid leave.

Say what? Stunned by her chair’s concerns, “particularly that they would be raised in a way to make it sound like my request was dubious,” she immediately countered that she was entitled under the Family Medical Leave Act to take 12 weeks of maternity leave “any time during the calendar year following a qualifying event—in my case, the birth of a child.”

Although her chair “backtracked” at that point, claiming “not to know the statutes of the FMLA,” it was not until she dug up “a colleague whose child had been born in early May and who had been given the fall off several years earlier, no questions asked,” that the first “problem” evaporated, she writes.

Over the next five months (!) the anonymous assistant professor met with her chair repeatedly in an effort to reach a compromise about the supposed service requirement —”I clearly stated that I would be happy to comply with any service requirement demanded by the department/university and couldn’t we find something that I could do from abroad?” she writes—but was treated like a shirker:

During the course of these conversations, my chair also made sure to tell me not once but twice that he had not been eligible for family leave when his children were born, which left me with the impression that his position was that I was requesting a favor or some kind of special treatment from the department (as a woman), rather than a right, which is naturally how I view maternity leave.

After an eye-opening talk with a “(tenured) female colleague, who told me some hair-curling stories about the treatment of female faculty in my department, and how strongly some of the full professors come out against ‘special treatment’ for women and faculty of color,” she realized that he was castigating her for asking for “time off”:

Because this leave is viewed by some as giving women some kind of advantage or privilege (who doesn’t want a semester off with pay!? What a lark! Think of all the productive work she’ll get done! Which will put her “ahead” of white male colleagues without that luxury!), the service requirement acts as a punishment. Therefore it was less of a basic question of which committee to assign me to (an easy task) but rather how to make sure I was given a heavy enough service load to justify my time “off.”

So much for progress. It seems that little has changed since Joan Williams recounted her own ordeal (from the mid-’80s) in The Chronicle five years ago. Be sure to read the whole post, including Historiann’s commentary at the end. And tell us your (good and bad) parental-leave stories.

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