Wanted: The Retention of Female Graduate Students

Article excerpt

Stanford follows MIT's lead and implements maternity policy for female graduate students; move recognizes challenges in retaining women in academia

PALO ALTO, CALIF.

Like many new mothers, Hrefna Marin Gunnarsdottir, 29, was nervous about the responsibilities that come with being a first-time parent. Factor in the responsibilities that also come with being a graduate student and it's not difficult to understand how a much anticipated time in a woman's life could become overwhelming.

"Pregnancy is a stressful time and it was unnecessarily difficult," Gunnarsdottir says about the experience. Instead of being able to focus on her parenting responsibilities, the Stanford University graduate student often found herself racing to complete assignments and projects. Her daughter, Anna, is now 2.

However, should she decide to have another child while pursuing her doctorate in electrical engineering, the Iceland native may encounter fewer academic complications because of a new policy that Stanford has implemented for female graduate students.

Announced in January, the new policy is modeled after the "Childbirth Accommodations Policy" introduced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. Stanford's policy is believed to be only the second of its kind. Under the policy, pregnant graduate students are eligible for an "academic accommodation period," in which they can postpone their academic requirements for two quarters before and after childbirth. During that period, the students are still enrolled full time and have access to student housing and health insurance benefits. The students also continue to receive funding through fellowships, teaching and research assistantships for six weeks. And the policy allows for a one quarter extension of departmental requirements and "academic milestones" for the student.

Dr. Gail Mahood, associate dean for graduate policy and professor of geological and earth sciences, says she has received mostly positive feedback about the new policy. She says one of the greatest benefits of the policy is the statement that it makes to female graduate students.

"I think it sends out a message to women students that Stanford wants women students and we take their concerns seriously," Mahood says.

Alison Wong, a master's student in mechanical engineering, agrees with Mahood.

"It shows women that Stanford is more supportive. Women who may have been afraid to start a family, it lets them know that Stanford is there to support them," Wong says.

THE JUGGLING ACT

According to "Stanford Facts 2005," women make up 36 percent of the total graduate student population. Mahood says that percentage has increased dramatically since the 1980s.

Marcela Muniz, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education, says that while more women are pursuing master's degrees and doctorates, not enough are earning tenure status at colleges and universities.

"As we've made a lot of progress in degree completion, we have not made enough progress in women attaining tenure in academia," she says.

Muniz says she has heard stories from many female graduate students about the difficulties balancing career and family aspirations.

According to a research study conducted by faculty members of the University of California, Berkeley, women who have "early babies" lower their chances of earning tenure. The study defines an early baby as one "who joins the household prior to five years after his or her parent completes the Ph.D."

The study's authors, Dr. …