Buffering the Effect of Pregnancy on the PI

This morning between unpleasant tasks I was engaged in, I noticed a comment from Maria on my last post (about dealing with pregnancies in one’s lab group)  which went thusly:

My first postdoc was pregnant when I hired her, though she didn’t tell me at the time. I also freaked out with the door closed, and then also did all the right things–arranging for 3 months leave (she would not take less), keeping her project moving while she was on leave, and letting her work part time on return. Then, two weeks after returning, she quit because she couldn’t keep things together at home and in lab. I do know that keeping women in science is absolutely predicated on making it possible to combine family and academia, and keeping women in science is honestly very important to me. As such I know that I just have to swallow hard and move on. But the amount of time and money I wasted doing the right thing is really embittering and though I know I must, I am having trouble keeping things cool as I interview for new postdocs. I am only in my second year on the TT and this situation is really hard.

I whipped off a response- because it was so much more fun than what I was otherwise doing this morning- which succintly summarizes… said … Shit happens, regardless of the gender of the people you hire.

But Whimple- that commenter I love to hate, or hate to love… or WHATEVER… said not so fast:

Nevertheless, Maria has a valid point. She did the right thing and got badly burned because of it. This is an opportunity for her institution to step up to the plate and refund the lost startup cash to her and also to extend her tenure clock by a suitable amount as compensation. If institutions were willing to bear this risk instead of leaving it all on the backs of vulnerable (non-tenured) individuals, there’d be a lot less hesitation (the illegality of it notwithstanding) to hire women in prime childbearing years.

So- I started writing a response to Whimple, but it should just be a post. So here goes (and I know you are all going to hate me for this):

Whimple- To me there is ‘badly’ and there is ‘badly’- having some nutty AR person infiltrate your lab, burn it down- that’s being burned badly. Having a postdoc give confidential data to the direct competition- or making up data – that’s my definition of ‘badly’ burned. To me having a postdoc quit after 9 months…. sucks, yes…. but ‘badly’ burned… all depends on how that affects downstream events.

Ok, that was my knee-jerk response.

But then I thought about it for 2 seconds and realized that Whimple almost certainly has a point for the individual junior faculty member. If certain PIs are more likely to attract female postdocs who are going to require time off for childbearing- then perhaps this should be institutionally supported in order to reduce unstated discrimination in hiring those women in the first place (because of such experiences that happened in Maria’s case, that perhaps make her less likely to hire a woman again in the future) . Maybe the right thing to do is to be proactive for any faculty who hire a woman of childbearing age… should institutions provide some sort of incentive (in $$) for faculty who hire women … or women who become pregnant during their training? Should the institution pick up the employee’s salary/benefits for some period of time (6 months comes into my head) around childbearing- to keep them in the pipeline, to buffer the effect this has on individual PIs? Maybe there could be some special type of NIH support for this… if keeping women in basic science and academia is really a priority there…

But- one more thing- and this is specific advice for Maria- and Whimple’s got it dead right on this one- I’m generally in favor of asking for institutional support for good reasons like this (Whimple has kicked my ass on this more than once, and it has gotten me months of postdoc salary support).  If you think this event has had a detrimental impact on your lab- then go ahead and ask for financial support, or increased time on your tenure clock. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll tell ya, someone might tell you NO…. but goodness, you just never know when the powers that be might totally agree with you and say yes!

Oh god, enough procrastinating. I have to go back to doing all that paperwork nonsense that I despise.


8 thoughts on “Buffering the Effect of Pregnancy on the PI

  1. I don’t have an answer, I just wanted to say that I am happy to see the conversation moving into a more productive direction.

  2. I started to comment several hours ago but then Small lifted one leg and pooped not only in his diaper, but also all over the pillow he was lying on and his momentarily flummoxed mother.

    My PI, with whom I’m doing a two-year postdoc, has made it clear that he completely supports our decision to have children, and he has reassured me repeatedly that I should take as much time off as I need, regardless of what the technical limits are on PTO for maternity leave. For this I worship him and will not hesitate to do whatever possible in order to get this paper out, including working some hours during maternity leave and also taking seriously my responsibility to train junior people in the lab who will need my input.

    So, there’s one datum in favor of “good PI attitude produces good trainee response.” But I agree with everyone else that you can have a flake trainee of any gender, age, or reproductive capacity.

  3. Dr. J & Mrs. H.- Excellent point. I’m impressed that you can write a multi-paragraph comment in your current state of extreme sleep deprivation, post-natal recovery, and all while learning child without a manual. 🙂

    Your comment about the poop brought back the memories.

  4. The institution and/or funding agency should absolutely pitch in, though money at my institution is awfully tight these days….

    When my (admittedly super organized and efficient) postdoc took off for maternity leave, she left the lab in absolutely perfect condition. All the shelves were stocked, protocols were written out and organized, lab notebooks up to date. The way you would like your lab always to be (but hardly ever is). If she had not come back, it would have been that much easier for someone else to jump right in. It was really a great opportunity to get all the lab ducks in a row.

    My version of “badly” usually involves fire or floods, destroying both computers and specimens. To me, losing a postdoc prematurely is more of an inconvenience. But maybe only because mine have been so awesome while they are here.

  5. That is very interesting. But if you pay PIs extra (or compensate in some non-monetary way) for every pregnant woman, do you do the same for young fathers? I agree more support on the institutional level is important here, along the lines of written maternity AND paternity leave policies that are fair to the PI and fair to those taking the policy. And if you are compensating for pregnancies, you’d of course want to do the same for adoption. But what other support would make sure it was fair, enough to inspire PIs to take the chance, but not so much that it’s a ridiculous amount of leeway?

  6. Don’t your funding agencies allow grants to be delayed/ rolled over if people need to take leave? If not, they should.

    And in the case Maria describes, a better institutional response would be to make working and parenting easier, so that quitting isn’t the only option. On campus child care with flexible hours, Good parenting facilities integrated into the work environment, etc.

    Perhaps a good place to start would be to look at how much grant $$ has to be handed back due to issues like the one explained.

    Hell, I could write a whole post on this topic, but I need to finish a manuscript…

  7. Interesting NYT article from back in ’05.

    Last para particularly,

    “Princeton, like many other universities, offers one-year tenure extensions for each child and workload relief to new parents, men and women. But Princeton found that men were more likely to take advantage of the tenure extension than women, who were afraid that requesting the extra year would be interpreted as a sign of weakness or lack of confidence. Princeton has recently made the tenure extension automatic so that it will have no value judgment attached to it, Dr. Tilghman said.”

  8. You will probably find that many of the side effects of the first trimester have begun to disappear and you should begin to experience a general feeling of contentment and well-being. Also, you do not yet have the full weight of a maturing baby placing stress on your body.

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