Press release: Let’s make ‘family leave’ available to all university families

Feb. 3, 2015

We are thrilled about Northwestern’s recent announcement to expand parental leave for staff members at the university. Now mothers, fathers, adoptive parents and same sex partners of staff members are able to take 10-12 weeks paid leave to care for and bond with their children. This is a huge step towards gender equality and inclusivity of same sex partnerships. However, we are extremely disappointed that these benefits are not being extended to graduate students.

Currently, graduate student mothers are granted six weeks of paid leave, half the amount given to faculty and staff mothers, and an awkward amount of time given that an academic quarter lasts 10 weeks. Fathers and same sex partners are not recognized at all under NU’s graduate student “childbirth accommodation” policy, which only applies to “enrolled women graduate students prior to or following the birth of a child.”  Even using the term “childbirth accommodation” rather than “family leave” (used for faculty and staff) is not inclusive of fathers, partners or adoptive parents. Partners can petition for a leave of absence, but since this is unpaid, few graduate students can take advantage of it. This places the burden of childrearing exclusively on mothers, which fosters gender inequality in households that is likely to last a lifetime. We believe that graduate students deserve the same opportunities to bond with our children and have gender equality in our relationships as faculty and staff.

Not having equitable family leave puts an enormous strain on graduate student families, many of whom are surviving on a shoe-string budget. A family of four that relies on a single graduate student stipend for income lives below the federal poverty level. By not providing partners with paid leave, many spouses must continue working in order to provide for their families. And women who would prefer to take longer than 6 weeks to stay home with a newborn are often financially unable to do so.

More than 3,400 graduate students provide critical functions at Northwestern. We teach classes, manage labs and assist in research projects that bring in millions of dollars in grant money for the university.  Many of us are in our late 20s and early 30s. In other words, we spend our childbearing years in graduate school. According to the 2012 Graduate Leadership Council Survey, at least 14 percent* of NU graduate students are parents.

We feel that all children should have the opportunity to bond with their parents, regardless of what position those parents hold at the university. If NU truly believes in gender equality and inclusivity of same sex couples, it should extend paid family leave to graduate students.

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* We suspect the number of students with children is significantly higher, because the survey skews towards first- and second-year grad students, and many student parents don’t have time to take the long survey.

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