UC must repair ‘leaky pipeline’ in STEM

Berkeley is famous for two things: its world-class research campus and its historic commitment to social justice. As a scientist and a citizen, I’m proud to live and work here for both reasons. But as a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley (I’ve already earned my doctorate and work in a lab performing cutting-edge research), my experience and that of my peers doesn’t always match up with Berkeley’s idealism and values.

For example, gender equity within the academy — and by that, I mean the breakdown of men and women who hold tenured faculty positions — is a problem here just as it is in other places. Women are three times less likely than men to become science, technology, engineering and mathematics research faculty, according to recent reports published in U.S. News and World Report, and UC system’s policies appear to be a clear contributor to that.

To understand why, consider the experience of Marta Gordon, a gifted scientist and mother of two who is a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley. While on unpaid maternity leave, Gordon was asked to vacate her apartment in the University Village, UC Berkeley’s family housing complex. Gordon applied for an extension, something that had been granted to her peers, but was informed that the campus had changed its policy. Gordon then had to simultaneously search for affordable infant daycare and family housing in one of the most expensive rental markets in the United States while also fighting to keep a competitive research program active and teaching and training undergraduates in the lab. As a postdoc, her starting salary falls below the living wage for a family in the Bay Area.

Confronted with stories such as Gordon’s, we must not question why we have so few women serving in senior scientific roles but how any make it at all.

UC Berkeley’s compensation and housing policies have made it nearly impossible for a single parent, no matter how brilliant or gifted, to work as a postdoctoral scholar, which is a key stepping stone on the path toward a successful academic career. And Gordon is not alone.

Another postdoc who lost his housing arrangement plans to leave the school altogether rather than try to find an apartment and raise three kids on a postdoc salary. United Auto Workers Local 5810, the union that represents postdocs across the UC system, filed a grievance on behalf of these postdocs. But whatever the outcome, the disregard the university has displayed shows a troubling lack of concern for postdocs with families.

Part of the low percentage of women in scientific careers is attributed to a “leaky pipeline,” a metaphor for the high rates at which women leave science at various stages in their scientific-career training. A particularly leaky career stage for women is at the postdoctoral level. Postdocs are generally at the age where they are starting families, and many women don’t have the income or support to help them through very demanding and competitive academic training.

UC Berkeley has established a committee — the committee on Status of Women and Ethnic Minorities — at the academic senate level to help mitigate the loss of women from science at the assistant faculty level, but there hasn’t been meaningful action to support mothers or single parents as they move through the academic pipeline, and this suggests a lack of seriousness on the part of the campus to address the problem.

Postdoctoral fellows and graduate student researchers, who make up the majority of the work force in our research laboratories and departments, built UC Berkeley’s world-class research reputation. Without 1,500 postdoctoral fellows at UC Berkeley and the about 1,500 postdoctoral scholars at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the scale and quality of UC Berkeley research would not be possible.

It is in the administration’s interest to support talented and highly trained students and fellows, and to provide them with the best conditions for research and creative innovation. This should include equal access to affordable family and single housing — both so we can continue to deliver high-quality research for the university and so the university can make good on its commitment to social justice.

Carly Ebben is a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley and the UAW 5810 Berkeley Unite chair.

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