Researchers Need a Union to Stop the Pregnancy Discrimination I’ve Experienced

By Current UW Researcher

Seven years ago, I came to the University of Washington to pursue my academic and career dreams to work at a world-class institution. I love my research and am proud of the barriers I’ve broken down as a woman of color in my field. I’m also a Professional Staff Researcher focused on maintaining and developing engineering facilities for academic research and teaching. However, I came to learn firsthand that not all scientists are afforded equal support and protection.

Like a growing number of women scientists, I’m speaking out about my experience dealing with a discriminatory and hostile work environment while I was pregnant — because changing the academic research environment means first being honest about its strengths and its weaknesses. I’m also helping to form a union so that all scientists have a stronger voice to make institutional change and receive the support they need to advance their careers and raise healthy families.

When I became pregnant with my first child, the team of engineers I work with were very supportive, and we took steps to prepare for my leave. Unfortunately, other individuals in my academic department were not as supportive. A constant pattern of unresponsiveness and an unsupportive department culture soon made it clear that they viewed my pregnancy as an obstacle to the department’s work.

As my third trimester approached, I was told by a department administrator to perform a task that was rather strenuous, including a lot of walking and even entering areas with numerous hazardous conditions. At times, I found myself working late at night and into the morning just to keep up with it all. When I attempted to request an alternate arrangement so as not to put myself in danger, my request was not granted. Instead, I was given more work and assigned duties completely outside my job scope. I then took to reporting safety violations, both generally for the facilities I worked in and for my own self as a pregnant woman to the campus health and safety office. But upon learning of my reports, a faculty member approached me and demanded I stop filing these reports with a verbal threat of “or else.” In addition to the fear of being fired, I felt the distinct impression that he was implying I would come to physical harm if I made further reports.

I tried going to another campus office — the University Complaint Investigation and Resolution Office — to report the faculty member’s threat. Again, I received an unhelpful response; I was told this was outside their jurisdiction and to instead alert SafeCampus, but only if the pattern continued. I was averse to alerting SafeCampus because I had witnessed a fellow non-unionized staff member get fired when SafeCampus was contacted. So, I reported the faculty member’s threat to my department administrator, the department chair and several other faculty members. But my reports were again ignored.

Then the hostile pattern escalated. The faculty member cornered me whenever and wherever he could, and my feeling of physical harm was heightened. I reported this threatening behavior a second time to the department administration, but once again, nothing changed. Instead of allowing me to continue my work away from my harasser, he was allowed to become even more involved in my work. He was assigned to be part of my annual performance review, and ultimately, he was allowed to delegate additional lab responsibilities to me. The only approach that proved helpful was to always have a co-worker with me when interacting with this faculty member. Eventually, this contributed to my developing a stress-related, high-risk condition in pregnancy, and my doctors pulling me out of work early.

After having my baby, I came back to work despite my experience because I continued to love my research and many of my colleagues. I want to make academic research more equitable because systemic problems like bullying, gender-based harassment and pregnancy discrimination have disproportionate impacts on groups already underrepresented in STEM fields. For me, this took the form of threats and physical intimidation from a faculty member. In other cases, my colleagues have told me of being pulled from research projects, having their visas threatened, or being wrongly blamed and held accountable for loss of grant funding.

More and more of us nationwide are empowering ourselves by forming unions and telling our stories. Two years ago, a postdoc at UW wrote about the pressure she faced to conduct research with radioactivity during her pregnancy and how she was bullied, threatened, and ultimately forced out of her research track after she tried many times to get help from the University administration. This was before Postdocs unionized at UW. Conversely, recently at the University of California, a Postdoc was almost forced out of her position because of pregnancy discrimination, but through her union, thousands of organized academic workers quickly mobilized in her support, putting pressure on UC to allow her appointment to continue. They won an important victory when UCLA reinstated Dr. Sandra Koch’s appointment.

In my case, a union would have made a difference. I would have had a trained peer advocate to help me, and my colleagues would have had more power, contractual rights, and security to help me speak up and stop the mistreatment I received. Having a union enabled Postdocs at UW to win the strongest harassment and discrimination protections of any researchers in the nation. Unionized ASEs and Postdocs at UW have also won contract language on sexual harassment trainings that pays for ASEs and Postdocs to develop a survivor-centered training. This training, called EPIC, fosters skills for ASE and Postdocs to actively intervene in situations like mine, whereas UW Human Resources’ trainings are just another form of legal protection for the University. My colleague Cara Margherio has written about the need for these trainings here.

No one should have to put their health in jeopardy while planning for their family or choose between their family and a STEM career. Together, through our union for Researchers, we can make important changes at UW that will make the research community and UW research stronger for us all.

We are UW Research Scientists & Engineers, Coordinators and Consultants (Researchers) forming a union to improve working conditions and increase equity for all.

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