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Editorial: Pregnancy discrimination looms large at UCLA, forces women out of academia

By Editorial Board

June 6, 2019 1:20 a.m.

UCLA has given birth to yet another inequity on campus: pregnancy discrimination.

Two years ago, Sandra Koch, then a neurobiology doctorate student, filed a pregnancy discrimination complaint against the university. Koch claimed her faculty advisor fired her from her postdoctoral scholar position after she told him she was pregnant.

This is obviously illegal. But you’d be fooling yourself if you thought UCLA was the only university that didn’t consider pregnancy a deal breaker.

Koch filed a grievance through United Auto Workers Local 5810, the union representing postdoctoral researchers at UCLA. She reached a settlement with the university that allowed her to continue her research at a different lab under the supervision of another advisor.

This year, however, UCLA informed Koch that her postdoctoral appointment would end June 30 – her original end date. Most doctorate holders are able to extend their postdoctoral positions if they secure funding and support from their faculty advisors – both of which Koch has done.

But the university has decided that her time in Westwood has come to end, nullifying her work visa and forcing her to return to her home country and leave her family behind.

Welcome to the nation’s top public university.

Academia is notoriously male dominated – that’s nothing new. The lack of women in tenured and full professor positions within higher education is a byproduct of institutional structures forcing women out of the academic pipeline.

But what’s shocking about UCLA’s course of action is its audacity: that a well-funded, well-researched and well-read postdoctoral student wouldn’t even be granted an extension for her valuable work because she dared to be pregnant.

This university truly is a century old – even in its thinking.

We should be beyond this point. Yet according to a report by A Better Balance, pregnant workers are still being discriminated against in shocking numbers. And on top of that, two-thirds of courts held that employers weren’t obligated to accommodate pregnant workers under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why so few women end up in higher education. They are, after all, more likely to be the parent in charge of child-rearing than their male colleagues.

According to the National Postdoctoral Association, in the 2015-2016 year 52% of postdoctoral scholars were women and 29% of them had children. Despite making up over half of postdoctoral scholars, women only make up 31% of full-time faculty and 27% of tenured faculty. This disparity can’t be written off as just a lack of ambition.

Koch wrote that her case is one in a long series of instances of institutional discrimination against pregnant employees. That’s not hard to believe: The University of California doesn’t offer formal, paid maternity leave. And there are only a few oddly specific exceptions that give some semblance of compensation. A member of the Academic Senate, for example, can receive her base salary for a maximum of six weeks while she can’t work due to pregnancy.

UCLA said it would not comment on any complaints from pregnant faculty and staff members due to privacy reasons.

Yes, the university can’t support everyone who wants to support children. But that’s not an excuse to entrench on the ideals of equity and inclusivity. Koch, who has funding and faculty support, won’t have her job at the end of this month not because of resources – but because UCLA deemed pregnancy a complication it didn’t want to deal with.

That’s a wholly egregious world view: expecting employees count the days before they can give birth to new life. That experience should never mean the death sentence of their careers.

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