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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Faculty members urge UF administration to change parental-leave policy

Lisa Scott wants to change UF’s parental-leave policy.

As soon as she accepted a position at the university nearly two years ago, Scott said she heard colleagues complain about the limited options available to pregnant faculty members.

Upon starting work as an associate professor in the psychology department, the 40-year-old — who wasn’t planning on having any more children — joined the United Faculty of Florida union in hopes of making the university’s policy more accommodating toward other women in the years to come.

In the 2015 UF Faculty and Staff Climate Survey, although an exact number was not disclosed, “Several respondents expressed concern over the way UF handles maternity-related issues.”

The university’s parental-leave policy allows non-union members a one-year window to initiate a six-month period of leave, during which they’ll be paid for six weeks. Those wanting to spend more time with their newborns and still get paid are also able to accumulate paid sick leave and vacation, which Scott said can take years to collect.

Twenty-three percent of the climate survey’s respondents commented on work-life issues, including child care and maternity leave. One respondent wrote “We don’t have maternity leave. Plain and simple.” Another wrote “The current parental leave is a joke. UF wants to be a top 5 university? Then have a parental leave that matches that.”

On Jan. 1, after negotiations between the United Faculty of Florida’s bargaining unit and UF’s provost’s office, UFF members were granted a 12-week paid parental leave.

Over the course of six years, faculty members within UFF must eventually pay back the paid time with their sick and vacation days. 

Non-union faculty members wouldn’t benefit.

Although Scott said she believes the new bargaining-unit benefit is a step in the right direction, it’s just not enough.

“Twelve weeks is still not going to be effective for faculty members,” she said. “I would’ve loved to have seen a semester-off paid leave. We need to have a clear and consistent policy that can be supportive across the board.”

Unsupportive parental-leave policies put women in academia at a disadvantage in regard to obtaining promotions, tenure and competitive offers, Scott said.

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“Men are able to go out easily on the market to do that, and women can’t because the policies here don’t put women on a level playing field,” Scott said. “There’s what they call a leaky-pipeline problem, in that women tend to drop out of academia.”

In a 2016 study published by the Institute of Labor Economics, three economists found that gender-neutral parental policies adopted by institutions such as large research universities can advance men’s career paths at the expense of female colleagues.

“Family leave policies that allow women to take short periods of time off do not adequately account for the fact that the productivity loss associated with starting a family persists over a much longer time horizon than a few weeks surrounding childbirth,” the authors wrote. “Having children may therefore reduce the probability that women are promoted because early productivity falls despite the existence of short family leave programs.”

UF Human Resources director Stewart King said the university’s parental-leave policy is often misunderstood, and that other universities aren’t doing much better.

The University of South Florida’s policy allows all faculty members to take an entire semester, 19.5 weeks, of paid leave. However, if a faculty member permanently leaves the university soon after, they must forfeit their accumulated sick and vacation time.

At Florida State University, union-affiliated faculty members are eligible to take 12 weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child, similar to UF’s policy.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, employers with 50 employees or more must give workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave following childbirth or the adoption of a child. However, there is no legal obligation to provide additional payment.

King said although no formal complaints about the policy have been lodged with the HR department or provost’s office, the university’s administration is looking at different options to improve the environment for new parents at UF.

“I would encourage young women wanting to have a child or family to move forward with her life,” King said. “We recognize that it’s about work-life balance, so we’re doing all different types of things at the University of Florida to make sure that employees can take advantages of benefits.”

King said UF administrators are considering the possibility of creating a 12-week paid leave policy for the entire university, not just for those who are a part of the union.

“It is tough given the fact that women are the ones who do the physical labor and all the different things that are required to have a child,” King said. “So all the more reason to look at the issue, look at the policy.”

Lori Knackstedt had her second child while working as an assistant psychology professor. To adjust, she took an entire Fall semester off.

The following Spring, Knackstedt doubled her workload to make up for lost paychecks. As a new mother, she said it was a less-than-ideal option.

Deepthi Varma, an assistant professor in UF’s epidemiology department, said women — especially first-time mothers — need about six months after the birth of a child to bond with their baby and learn new skills like breastfeeding.

“These skills become really difficult to learn and master, and that’s why you need way more time to be able to spend at home with your baby,” she said.

Knackstedt, a non-union member, said the 12-week leave for those who are eligible still doesn’t provide full coverage, especially if a woman’s due date falls in the middle of the semester.

Although Knackstedt was eventually able to make up for lost time, her increased workload took away from the time she would otherwise have spent conducting research, one of the most important components for advancing her career in academia.

UF isn’t worse off than other universities in terms of their policy, Knackstedt said. Instead, she thinks poor parental-leave options for females in academia are a nationwide problem. Universities in general have a tendency to not prioritize women’s issues, she said.

“What administrators might not realize is that these policies that are on the books are really affecting women’s choices to have kids,” Knackstedt said.

Retired UF sociology professor John Scanzoni said the university is obviously saving money by only granting six weeks of paid leave to those outside the union.

Scanzoni, who taught classes on gender relationships and families at UF, said he thinks the university’s administration just doesn’t consider parental-leave policies to be a critical issue.

“I don’t know why UF is dragging its heels on this,” Scanzoni said. “They’re always talking about making UF a top-10 school, and my hunch is — if our leave is only six weeks — we’ll fall far behind.”

Contact Molly Vossler at mvossler@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter at @molly_vossler 

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