A new law aims to prevent discrimination against pregnant graduate students, giving them an equal shot at academic success for what some say is the first time.
Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 26, Assembly Bill 2350 requires higher education institutions to develop a written policy on pregnancy discrimination and procedures for addressing pregnancy discrimination complaints. For some students at UC Berkeley, the law, which passed unanimously and is the first of its kind to protect pregnant graduate students, is an important step in improving their campus experience.
Briana Starks, a UC Berkeley alumna who is now an academic achievement counselor at the campus student-parent center, said she felt as though she faced discrimination during her pregnancy as an undergraduate student.
“People giving out flyers on Sproul would avoid me like pregnancy was contagious, God forbid you recruit a pregnant person for your organization,” she said. “Just generally feeling like you don’t belong on campus — you don’t see pregnant students out that much, and you really just feel like you stick out.”
The new bill directly references research on pregnant women’s academic vulnerability authored by Mary Ann Mason, faculty co-director of UC Berkeley Law School’s Center on Health, Economic and Family Security.
Mason’s research found that mothers in science, technology, engineering and math fields, also known as STEM fields, are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure-track position after receipt of their doctorate than fathers and are 27 percent less likely than their male counterparts to achieve tenure upon entering a tenure-track job. Similar results were found of young women in non-STEM fields.
Mason said policies such as these are important because they protect women who are extremely vulnerable to dropping out of academic programs.
“Nationally, it’s a disaster,” she said. “Very few institutions have a policy in place for protecting pregnant students.”
UC Berkeley has existing policies for protecting student-parents. The campus provides paid pregnancy leave to graduate student instructors, both mothers and fathers. According to the law, new policies must be incorporated into graduate school faculty and student orientations.
AB 2350 represents a “huge success” to student-parents, said Angela Aguilar, a graduate student mother who is also the parent advocate of the Graduate Student Council.
Aguilar’s predecessors have worked to create resources such as backup child care and early child care education programs for student-parents, but she said she wants to focus on relieving some of the taboo surrounding the population.
“As a graduate student, I’ve heard people say things about students who have children. People see you as less competitive, and I’ve been bothered by that,” Aguilar said. “ I talk to people who say others don’t treat them well because they have children, and it’s a problem.”
Starks said pregnant students are often stigmatized for not following what is considered a “traditional” path and often feel apprehension at approaching faculty asking for accommodations. She hopes the new law will facilitate a culture of support and acceptance for pregnant students “even one policy change at a time.”
Julie Goodman, a new mother and a health services and policy analysis graduate student, echoed Starks, saying small accommodations such as lactation rooms can make a huge difference to a student-mother’s success.
The new law focuses on graduate student rights but does not extend to pregnant undergraduate students.
Mason aims to bring all campus student-parent populations to light at a summit meeting of the the National Academy of Sciences this spring. She hopes to create baselines for all universities to use in establishing protocol to end pregnancy discrimination.
But Mason said policy at the higher education level is just a starting point.
“We were one of the first family-friendly universities in the country,” she said. “But we want this to be a national movement.”