Monday, February 11, 2013

Guest Post: J. Rigby on "While you're fixing broken family leave policies, cover queer families."

This week's guest blogger is J. Rigby. Dr. Rigby is an Astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Deputy Operations Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. Dr. Rigby's research interests include galaxy evolution, rapidly star-forming galaxies, and the star-formation, metal-enrichment, and black hole growth histories of the universe.

The 2013 winter AAS meeting in Long Beach featured a special session about family leave policies for grad students and postdocs at every one of the 28 US institutions that grant PhDs in Astronomy.  Dave Charbonneau and Laura Trouille of CSWA have surveyed the current state of our field.

I hope the survey results motivate our community to improve our leave policies.  If I want full participation of women in science, we've got to drop these antiquated policies that assume that scientists don't ever have to take leave to adopt, birth, or otherwise care for a child. As an egregious example, at four US institutions that grant astronomy PhDs, graduate students lose their health insurance if they go on parental leave.

Let me speak to those brave academics who are motivated to take the hood off their institution's broken family leave policies, pull out the stripped gears, and suggest fairer replacements.  Good going, brave repairmen and women!   Now that you've got the the policy disassembled…  Could you add protections for queer families?  It's the same theme of furthering diversity and fairness in a historically hostile environment.  It requires you to educate yourselves, engage queer allies, and stand up not only for your own interests, but for fairness and the interests of other minority groups, toward the greater goal of diversity and equality.

Does your institution allow employees, graduate students, and post-docs to put their same-sex partner on their health insurance plan?  (Look up your university or your company.)  What about the child of a same-sex partner?  Does paid leave cover adoption and leave by a non-biological parent, or does it only cover leave for birthmothers?  These are three questions that you can ask, and improve the answers to, that have a huge impact on equality at your home institution.

A bit more on each of these.

First, domestic partner benefits.  In their survey of family leave policies, CSWA kindly included questions about domestic partners and adoption, at the request of several LGBTQ astronomers.  The result was that only 57% of policies specifically include domestic partners.  In the other 43%, it's unclear whether students would be permitted to take leave.  The statistic is especially difficult to interpret because the legal landscape is so different in different states.  For example, domestic partner benefits will probably be phased out of states that now have marriage equality; the separate but unequal category's no longer necessary*.   Whereas at UT Austin, neither  employees nor students cannot provide health insurance coverage to their domestic partners or spouses.   So "no DP benefits" means something very different in Texas than in New York.

Second, coverage for the child of a same-sex partner.  It may seem obvious to you that the child of a gay couple is legally the child of both parents.  Unfortunately, this is often not true.  The legal landscape for LGBT families varies tremendously state-by-state.  In California, two women can have their names on the birth certificate from day one, and thus either could request leave as a legal parent.   In many other states, the non-bio-mom would be a legal stranger.  In other states, the non-bio-mom could become a legal parent but only after a lengthy second-parent adoption.  Thus, depending on state and circumstances, an LGBT scientist may be eligible to take caregiver leave and put the child on her health insurance -- or not.  Thus, pro-active workplaces may need to explicitly cover children of domestic partners, because the law does not.   There's no way you can reasonably learn all this.  What you can do is find colleagues in your campus LGBT group.  Tell them you're working to make the policies fairer for women.  Ask them to help you make them fairer for LGBT people too.  (Many of us, of course, are both.)

Third, adoption.  An obvious way to make parental leave policies fairer is to include adoption.  Adoption is much more common in the LGBT community than among straight folks.  Consider that in light of a policy like MIT's,which offers paid leave of up to two months, but only to birth-moms.  Other parents -- adoptive parents and partners of pregnant people -- can only take unpaid leave.  Such a policy discourages men from taking and valuing parental leave, and it's unfair to families where neither parent gave birth.

WGLE, the AAS's new working group on LGBTIQ Equality**, is preparing a best-pratices manual for how to foster LGBTQ inclusion and fairness in our departments.   One topic for the manual will be LGBT-inclusive family leave policies.  If you're interested in supporting LGBT equality within the astronomical profession,  please contact WGLE at wgle@aas.org.  WGLE, CSMA, and CSWA should be working together on issues of common concern.

* A notable exception being that until it becomes legal in the US to sponsor a same-sex partner for immigration, getting married have dangerous legal consequences for same-sex couples.

** (LGBTIQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer; nested acronyms are fun.)