How Unions Can Help End Academia’s Gender Inequalities

Harvard graduate students are voting on whether to unionize this week. If they win, they’ll join a growing trend of graduate students unionizing to fight stagnant wages, stingy health plans — and longstanding gender imbalances in academia.

In the Trump Era, fancy Universities like to sell themselves as bastions of progressive values. But you wouldn’t know it from how they treat the graduate students who teach and research there. The pay is low, and at some schools, it’s even falling in real terms. For example, at Harvard Law School, where I’m a student, hourly pay for research assistants has not budged from $11.50 an hour in ten years. Teaching assistants at many schools struggle to pay rent, can be fired without cause (which enables sexual harassment), and frequently have inadequate family policies that drive sharp gender inequalities  in academia.

So in 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognized that graduate students who teach and research at private universities have the right to form a union and collectively bargain for better work conditions, the decision unleashed a wave of graduate student union campaigns from Harvard to Penn State.

Graduate students’ unions can and do help secure nondiscrimination protections on campus, from shoring up policies related to sexual harassment, gender-identity discrimination, and pregnancy.

But prohibiting discrimination won’t get us to workplace equality without a family policy that makes it truly possible for women to do their academic work on an equal playing field. A growing body of research suggests that the gender pay gap is, as law professor Julie Suk calls it, “largely a motherhood gap.” Raising kids takes a lot of time and resources, and women put in most of it. Women spend almost double the time on housework and child care than men, and are more likely to take time off from their careers to raise kids.

The motherhood gap carries over into academia, where women are much less likely to make it to the top of the academic hierarchy. Women earn the majority of PhDs, and they are well represented in the graduate workers movement. But they’re far less well represented further up the academic career scale. Barely a third of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences are women. The numbers are even worse the Kennedy school (31%), law school (30%), and medical school (27%).

The women with prestigious, secure tenured positions are 38 percent less likely than their male colleagues to have kids. Women in precarious, poorly-paid adjunct jobs at the bottom of the career ladder have children at the same rate as men.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Paid leave programs enable women to stay in the workforce, and affordable childcare would make it possible for graduate students, especially women, to parent without taking a step back in their academic careers.

That’s where unions come in. The labor movement has long fought for workplace policies, like paid family leave and fair scheduling, that make it possible for workers to have a family without being penalized by their bosses. Graduate students have made family policy a key part of their campaigns, and they’re getting results.

Before unionizing, graduate student workers at the University of Connecticut had no guaranteed family leave and no guaranteed childcare subsidies. With collective bargaining, they secured a childcare subsidy fund, which will grow to $80,000 per year by the end of their contract, six weeks of paid maternity leave, and three weeks of paid leave for non-birth parents. At the University of Washington, childcare subsidies for graduate students were a generous $0.00 — until they unionized. After collective bargaining, they secured up to $3,600 a year per student in childcare subsidies, plus paid leave for childcare emergencies. At New York University, graduate workers were getting a $200 a semester childcare credit — a slap in the face for workers living in a city where the average cost for infant and toddler care runs at about $1,800 a month. With a union, they now have a contract guaranteeing a tax-free childcare fund that will grow to $100,000 by 2020.

These are material improvements for working women, and they could very well pay off in more women securing tenure-track jobs  — thus, creating more welcoming learning environments for all the female students who come after them. It’s not just about the money. Paid leave and childcare are about creating an economic system that treats women workers with dignity, rather than forcing them to choose between foregoing parenthood or taking a step back from their scholarship and careers. They’re about replacing a sexist infrastructure for raising kids that was built up before women were allowed to enroll in higher education at all.

We can’t achieve real gender equality in an outdated economic and childcare system designed to keep women — and only women — at home raising kids.

Featured image: Harvard Graduate Student Niharika Singh speaks at a pro-union rally. Image Credit: HGSU-UAW.

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