Short-Term Appointments Make UC Postdocs Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

Consider this: After months of sexual harassment and psychological damage from her faculty advisor, a postdoctoral researcher finally builds up the courage to report the case. She’d like to put this experience behind her and move on with her career. But during the university’s lengthy investigation, she is placed on leave and falls behind in her fast-moving field. And since she’s on a one-year appointment, her term expires before the case is resolved and her advisor does not renew it, or perhaps tries to fire her. Facing the loss of her research progress combined with her harasser’s control over her career, she decides to leave academia.

Except this isn’t just a hypothetical situation. As we’ve seen time and time again, UC’s short-term employment model enables serial harassment by faculty members to go on for years without consequences.

As a member of the UAW 5810’s (the union for postdoc researchers at the University of California) bargaining team, and a woman scientist myself, the recent sexual harassment scandals at the University of California have resonated deeply with me. While sexual harassment impacts the academic workforce at all levels, postdoctoral scholars are acutely vulnerable. There are many troubling components to this, but chief among them is the reality that the vast majority of harassment cases are never reported. For UC postdocs, this can be linked to short-term appointments and an academic structure in which faculty supervisors wield great power over our careers.

Postdocs have completed PhDs, and we put enormous effort and sacrifice into our work. We are the front line of the academic research enterprise, and at UC our efforts are a huge driving force behind annual research revenues of nearly $6 billion dollars. Many of us have chosen to work in academia because — despite the long hours and relatively low pay — we are driven by passion for science that moves society forward.

In contrast to our clear value to the university’s research mission, we work almost exclusively on short, one-year contracts that are renewable at the sole discretion of our faculty supervisor (also known as a Principal Investigator or PI). The PI controls our access to research projects, funding, equipment, and materials such as tissue samples. On top of that, a supervisor’s reference letter and recommendation largely determines our future career prospects. In short, our present and future employment is in the hands of a single person.

This asymmetric power dynamic can be directly linked to the current sexual harassment crisis. Every woman colleague I know has experienced harassment, discrimination or exclusion, or knows someone who has. This reality was highlighted in a recent Atlantic Magazine article in which Dr. Kim Barrett, Dean of the Graduate Division at UC San Diego, said “she did not know of a single senior woman in gastroenterology, her subfield, who had not been sexually harassed.”

As our jobs and future careers rely on the support of our PIs, women often face the implied “bargain” to close our eyes and tolerate harassment or discrimination. To add to this, women in academia who raise children face numerous obstacles, and institutional sexism in career advancement is a documented fact. The high rate of women choosing to leave science at the graduate student, postdoc, and professorial level makes plain that the result of these policies is a disastrous weeding out of women.

This is even more complicated for the two-thirds of postdocs who are international scholars working at UC on guest worker visas. This makes us especially vulnerable to sexual harassers in positions of power. Imagine how much pressure this adds to an already very difficult, stressful situation. If an international postdoc were to lose her job, she — and her family — would need to leave the US within a matter of weeks, which would make pursuing a Title IX complaint or a grievance so much more difficult or even impossible.

Our union has sought remedies at the bargaining table on multiple fronts. On the first day of bargaining this year, we proposed longer appointment lengths so a postdoc who raises a sexual harassment claim (or any kind of grievance) does not have to fear for their job. We also asked UC to add protections in line with California state law against workplace bullying and abuse — these protections are key for remedying situations at an early stage so they don’t escalate into more pervasive harassment and discrimination

Additionally, we proposed a number of postdoc-specific reforms to strengthen UC’s sexual harassment policy, including faster timelines for investigation and resolution, and a guarantee that a survivor can continue their research in a harassment-free environment. When we made these proposals, UC’s bargaining team professed strong commitment to remedying the sexual harassment crisis and acknowledged the university’s reliance on postdocs to propel its research. But the university’s rhetoric has been contradictory to its actions.

Over five bargaining sessions spanning two months, UC’s proposals fail to adequately address the crisis. In fact, under UC’s proposal, not only would the timelines to resolve a sexual harassment claim get longer, but PIs would also have even more control over their postdocs’ livelihood and careers. UC needs to take a drastically different approach.

Bargaining continues on August 11 and 12 and the union’s bargaining team is ready to work together with UC to ensure that all postdocs work in a safe and equitable environment. But time is now running short, as our contract is set to expire on September 30. If the university won’t follow through on its own stated commitment, postdocs will do what we must to ensure that we have a harassment-free workplace to pursue our research that’s so critical to UC, the science community and the future of discovery for us all.