To the Editor:
We’ve only just begun the conversation around paid leave in higher education (“What Higher Ed’s Paid Parental-Leave Policies Look Like,” The Chronicle, March 28).
Imagine rushing into work at a fast-paced, dynamic institution with a high-need student population after throwing up on the side of the highway. You are six weeks pregnant in an office where other colleagues have just announced their pregnancies. You’re riddled with anxiety and stress from the changes your body is going through, and now you have to disclose your pregnancy and request leave from your supervisor. You reach out to other women at your institution about how to pursue paid parental leave, and the answer is anything but simple. You receive a 60-slide PowerPoint presentation, impossible to comprehend and with limited answers to your questions. This is during a complicated pregnancy in a tense work environment with little time, energy, or resources to truly understand the process.
Such a scenario is common in U.S. higher education, a country lacking a permanent paid family and medical leave program. After hearing many such stories, I began a years-long project and dissertation connected to supporting women through major life transitions. I’ve presented on this topic with colleagues from several institutions over the last five years, including for the national student affairs organization NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. During the presentations, I recognized the need for institutional support for professionals navigating parental leave. Many participants in our workshops shared feedback including:
“This topic generally isn’t given voice at this level.”
“I wish I had some of this information before I began down the road of maternity leave and balancing work life and professional life.”
“A better understanding of how to accommodate those on maternity leave is relevant information for both employees and supervisors.”
“This topic is relevant to real struggles that women face.”
It’s time to start paying attention to systemic practices and policies in higher education that leave parents (especially mothers) to fend for themselves. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your institutions as the conversation continues:
How can faculty, staff, and students access institutional parental leave policies?
What assumptions do we make about individuals accessing and utilizing parental leave?
What types of support exist for our colleagues navigating parental leave?
I am writing this not to place blame, but to encourage higher education to move to the forefront of addressing this issue in our country.
Assistant Dean and Director for Student Outreach and First-Year Transition
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey