I’ve got a question I’d like to throw open to your readership. I have a pregnant colleague who’s due at the very end of the fall semester. We don’t have a paid maternity leave, so her plan is to take sick leave for the last week of classes, if necessary, then use our long winter break as her “maternity leave” and resume teaching in the spring. She’s already worked up syllabi for her fall classes that are structured so the last week or so of meetings are devoted to research presentations, paper workshopping, etc., and can be easily covered by willing colleagues (including myself). And because she’s a responsible person, she decided to tell our department chair and dean about this now, months in advance.
Well. The dean acted like she’d never dealt with this problem before, and was not at all happy with the arrangement. What if my colleague had to take sick leave for more than a week? She should really be prepared to have more than one week covered by colleagues. Moreover, she should rewrite all her syllabi so that the material during those weeks aligned with the specialties of the colleagues she intended to cover for her. (Note: she’s the only person in our department in her field, though plenty of us would be competent to pinch hit in her area for a class meeting or two.) The dean seems very concerned about any possible unfairness, surprises, etc., to our students.
Am I right in thinking this is straight-up gender discrimination? It seems to me that the burden of preparing for every possible contingency should not fall on my colleague. If she came down with a sudden illness in the middle of the semester, we’d have to cope, with no pre-existing plan in place. And if she had a permanent disability that affected her mobility, say, not accommodating those needs would violate the ADA.
My advice would be to say “gender discrimination” and “lawyer”–but I’m not the one who has to make the stand. So I’d love any additional thoughts or advice.
I Can’t Fucking Believe This Is Still A Problem
Dear I Can’t Fucking Believe This Is Still A Problem,
I can’t fucking believe that you are asking this question, either! Why is it that so many department chairs and administrators treat pregnancy as a heretofore completely unknown and unexpected medical event? I agree that it’s a problem effectively to define pregnancy as an illness by making those recovering from pregnancy take sick leave. But, in theory, shouldn’t the benefit of taking sick leave mean that you’re treated just like anyone else who needs sick leave to recover from an accident, surgery, or major medical problems? Instead, your dean is putting an utterly unfair burden on your colleague, who is an untenured Assistant Professor and therefore among the least well-equipped person in the university to deal with this.
Because your colleague has decided not to take any extra leave time, and instead is planning to use the sick leave time she is entitled to, I’ll focus on that instead of dreaming up ways that she might get more time than winter break for her recovery and adjustment to her new life circumstances. First things first, right?
What I wonder is: where your chair is in all of this? Why does the dean get to express an opinion as to how specifically a professor and her colleagues are pitching in to solve a problem instead of just solving the problem herself? (Honestly, your dean sounds like kind of a nut who doesn’t have good judgment about what’s in her wheelhouse versus stuff she doesn’t have to worry about.)
Why do universities continue to expect pregnant women–and usually, their women colleagues–to solve these problems for free for them? I’m starting to feel a little foily on this one, friends: maybe they’re thinking that if they just refuse to develop and follow reasonable policies that finally people will stop asking? (In which case, I think they must be confused about what exactly is the point of policies and procedures. Having a policy means that you can stop asking and just follow the policy, right?) As you point out, chairs and deans regularly solve personnel problems in cases where there’s an illness, resignation, or other emergency that means that a class needs some temporary coverage. But for some reason, pregnancy puts the zap on everyone’s brains.
First, read your faculty manual’s sick leave policy. I’m assuming that it does not say “ask the dean if she approves of how you’ve designed your syllabus around your pre-planned use of sick leave time.” Second, you and your colleagues should approach your chair with this policy and point out the ways in which your chair and dean have ignored or violated said policy, if they have, and what they need to do to rectify this. (Depending on your department, your executive committee might be a better venue for addressing this situation. In any case, it should certainly be alerted to what’s going on.) If the sick leave policy outlines a clear means by which a sick person’s courses will be covered and whose budget will bear the burden, then you can just insist that your chair and dean RTFM and cope.
(Ordinarily I would advise your pregnant colleague to do this. However, you and your colleagues who have agreed to cover her classes while she is out have been brought into this situation. Furthermore, some of you might conceivably need sick leave at some point, so this is clearly a policy question that the whole department will want to be clarified. So I believe it is reasonable in this case for you to insert yourselves.)
If, however, the manual does not specify a clear process and guarantor of the money needed to solve this problem, you and your colleagues need to present your chair with a plan for how those of you covering your colleague’s classes will be compensated for the additional work you’re doing. You should remind your chair that all ze has to do now is pay you, because you and your colleagues have pre-solved the problem for everyone. Try to get the chair on your side in this, and then insist that ze take your analysis of the faculty manual to the dean and ask her for funds to help with compensating you. (It seems fair to ask a department and a dean to share the costs of extra compensation. Since we’re talking probably only a couple of thousand bucks max, ask them to toss the extra money into your research/travel accounts, so that you can use the extra dough tax-free.)
And finally, your chair needs to take this ad-hoc policy to the next dean’s meeting of all of the chairs in your college, and propose that this policy (or another one) needs to get written into the sick leave portion of the faculty manual. Because I don’t want to hear from I Can’t Fucking Believe This Is A Problem Again! the next time someone else in your uni has a bun in the oven, or a bike accident, or a MCI.
Money is just about the most useful and versatile substance there is for solving most of life’s problems. The crying shame of it all is that we make every pregnant young proffie reinvent the wheel, when it’s such a cheap and easy problem to solve. You and your colleagues are good eggs who just need to go the extra mile now so that you’re not dealing with no policy or dumb policy for the rest of your careers.
Readers: as the sign says, it’s your turn now: fire away! What advice do you have for our friend and her pregnant colleague?