SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, three members share their perspectives on this Women’s History Month about policies relating to gender, including parental leave, health, and retention in academia.

Alex Hsain (@AlexHsain)

The Case for Paid Parental Leave

The United States is the only member of the 35 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that does not offer paid family leave to new mothers. It’s also one of only eight that do not provide leave (paid or unpaid) to fathers. Recently, researchers found that parenthood is a significant barrier to U.S. women’s participation in STEM where over 40% of new mothers with full-time jobs in STEM leave the sector or reduce to part-time after having their first child. At the same time, there are up to 2 million unfilled jobs due to the lack of qualified candidates. We’ve seen the U.S. government and universities support plenty of recruitment programs for women in STEM, but what's being done to retain them, especially if they become mothers? 

Implementing federal paid leave policies would be a step in the right direction. While only a handful of states currently have paid family leave policies, states that have implemented policies have seen a reduced departure of their female employees up to 20% in the first year after childbirth and up to 50% after 5 years. While many have held the belief that paid parental leave is a financial burden on employers, the evidence would suggest otherwise. By equalizing the labor force participation, we could increase our national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) up to 5%. Implementing paid parental leave would not only bolster the U.S. economy, but it would also increase labor force attachments in STEM mothers leading to better outcomes for both mothers and children.

Emily Michels (@emichels_bioeth)

The Case for Virtual Mental Health Care to Lower Maternal Mortality

According to the Report From Nine Maternal Mortality Review Committees, “mental health conditions and substance use disorder contributed to 12.9% and 8.2% of pregnancy-related deaths, respectively” – so why is more clinical and statistical attention not being given to the connection between mental health and maternal health? Maternal mortality has risen substantially in the United States in recent years, as has the prevalence of mental health issues. The prevalence of suicidal thoughts and self-harm before and after giving birth has tripled in the last decade, and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders in delivering women have increased substantially. Even prior to the past year’s global pandemic, which is having significant negative impacts on mental health and substance abuse rates, U.S. adults were suffering from a lack of access to care and unmet needs, with 55.8% of 2018 adults with mental illness not receiving any treatment.

Although agencies like the Centers for Disease Control have more recently included data about suicide, mental health, and violence toward women in their maternal mortality reviews, other agencies like the World Health Organization still do not call out factors like suicide or overdose in their definition of maternal mortality, despite research that indicates these conditions may be leading causes of maternal death. Mental health screenings – mainly substance abuse and depression – are incorporated into care; however, these tools may be treated as less pertinent than those meant to gather physiological data due to limited time and workforce.

COVID-19 has been a major catalyst in increasing accessible telemental health, with many states expanding telemedicine services or even implementing parity laws. Obstetric and gynecological care, especially for women in rural areas and for racial and ethnic groups that already lack the proper mental health resources, need to capitalize on this new wave of technological access. Even for women who have access to other providers during and after their pregnancy, it is advantageous to have dedicated providers for mental health who understand that stigma, symptoms not being taken seriously, and a lack of time to discuss mental health with primary care providers are all barriers to postpartum mental health services. While other factors, such as rural broadband access and inadequate technological literacy, still limit telemedicine, it can still be incredibly helpful in reducing the number of preventable maternal deaths from mental health complications.

Christin Godale (@christingodale)

The Case for Developing Gender Policies in Academia

According to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) Graduate Enrollment and Degrees report from 2009-2019, 52.9% of all doctoral degrees were awarded to women, and, as of 2018, 54% of women are assistant professors; however, women are less likely to achieve tenure than men and make up only 33% of full-time professors. Despite women empowerment movements, women remain under-represented in academia. The same report also sees a more significant disparity in racial/ethnic groups, such as Black, Hispanic, and Asian women, who compose 6% of full-time professors in the United States. Peer-reviewed literature on the topic of gender diversity among leadership is positively correlated with financial profits, the productivity of the University, and overall creativity; however, the Academy struggles with retaining women and creating inclusive learning environments that are necessary to empower all students; however, the good news is that transforming academia into an environment that normalizes gender equity can be achieved simply by promoting policies and practices. 

Undoubtedly, recruitment and selection bias among academic institutions exist. Academic on-boarding environments usually promote unreasonable work hours that are not inclusive to family life, promote an “old boys club” mentality, and bias against marriage or having kids. Sometimes men and women candidates have equivalent qualifications, but search committees, composed of men and women, view the women candidate’s qualifications to be lower. However, evidence-based policies can be used to increase the percentage of women recruited and selected for academic positions. In 2017, Villablanca et al. examined the University of California Davis’ efforts to improve gender equity in hiring, which proved to be a success. The institution promoted family-friendly and academic flexibility policies, like family and medical leave, tenure clock extension, and part-time appointments. According to women faculty, there was a decrease in the use of biased language in recommendation letters, an increased number of assistant professor hires, and a normalized work/life balance atmosphere—similarly, the University of California Irvine initiated similar gender equity policies. UC Irvine installed an equity advisor system, where equity advisors are involved with hiring, advancement, pay equity, cultural issues, and award nominations. The institution also created gender equity workshops, lectures, and awards. Overall, these new policies at UC Irvine increased the presence and advancement of women hired and women promoted as faculty. 

Achieving equity and diversity in academia is a daunting, yet achievable challenge. Women face a good deal of obstacles that will hinder their academic advancement (e.g. paid leave policies, access to quality childcare, lactation support, inclusive faculty mentors, etc.). The Academy must be willing to address these obstacles through evidence-based policy changes, which will promote an inclusive academic culture of respect and equal opportunity.

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