UC must provide safer space for postdoctoral researchers

Nat Minnetian/Staff

It sounds simple: Postdoctoral researchers deserve a workplace that’s free from sexual harassment and discrimination.

But we’ve been fighting this issue for years – and it largely existed under the radar until the Geoff Marcy scandal at UC Berkeley grabbed national headlines. Marcy, a world-famous astronomer, was called to resign after it came to light that he sexually harassed students for over a decade. This was followed by other high-profile sexual harassment and discrimination cases in UC system and universities across the country.

Time and time again, the investigation and remedy process was at best slow, often completely ineffective, and at worst completely destructive to the lives and careers of those who came forward. I’ve heard the stories of too many of my postdoc colleagues who experienced discrimination or harassment and decided to leave their positions rather than subject themselves to a long, uncertain complaint process.

Postdoctoral researchers have earned doctorate and do cutting-edge research, primarily in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Because our faculty mentors (also known as principal investigators, or PIs) have a great deal of power over our future success, reporting sexual harassment or discrimination has carried great risks. It’s not difficult to see how these barriers contribute to the lack of diversity in academia, and particularly in STEM disciplines.

While women earn more than half of STEM doctorates, they hold only 36 percent of professor positions. For underrepresented groups, the numbers are much lower and the loss is even more drastic – there is a threefold decrease representing 9 percent of doctorate graduates to just 2.7 percent of faculty members. Within the UC system, a recent report found that hiring of women and people of color fell below national averages in nearly every STEM field.

To their credit, from the outset of bargaining, UC administrators expressed a shared commitment to giving postdocs a rapid, fair and just process for sexual harassment and discrimination claims. I’m proud to report we have signed off on a set of important and transformative changes.

With this new agreement, there will be significantly fewer obstacles to achieving justice and preserving the careers of survivors. These improvements include strict time limits for UC investigators to deliver an initial assessment and a comprehensive report. In the past, postdocs who courageously came forward saw their cases languish for months without resolution, which further eroded trust in the complaint process. Swift resolutions are especially important for postdocs, as our temporary positions last five or six years at most.

When postdocs report a claim, the new contract will ensure their research and career progress are not derailed, as was often the case previously. This takes into account the extremely vulnerable situation of postdocs – especially when reporting cases of faculty misconduct – and guarantees they will be able to continue research in a harassment- and discrimination-free environment.

Other changes include expanding the definition of protected classes to include gender identity and expression and a strong statement that all forms of retaliation are prohibited. We also agreed to jointly develop training for postdocs on identifying and reporting harassment and discrimination that reflects our uniquely vulnerable position within the research structure of the university.

A key point is that these reforms – a sea change in protections for postdocs from sexual harassment – came through collective bargaining. There is no question that working together to reach agreement on this issue of mutual interest and importance led to a decisively more effective and well thought out policy.

The historic agreement is a prime example of how postdocs and UC administration can work in partnership to improve working conditions and create a better future for the UC as a whole. Under these new policies, postdocs can instead focus on what we do best – conducting life-saving research at one of the leading academic institutions in the world.

Anke Schennick is the president of UAW 5810

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