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A Chance to Break Down Gender Barriers at Columbia

Throughout history women such as Marie Curie, Maria Mayer, Rosalind Franklin or Barbara McClintock have made many important contributions to science. Even today women scientists across the world are on the frontlines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as Postdoctoral and Associate Researchers from across Columbia, we know institutional barriers based on gender often interfere with our ability to do our best research and make it more difficult for women to succeed in academia. Statements like, “having children while you are a postdoc is bad for your career”, or, “if her PI [faculty supervisor] wants to date her, she can always say no,” are all too common around academic science. But these seemingly innocuous comments paint over real institutional barriers.

Women in academic fields are more likely than men to experience bullying and sexual harassment, and over half of women trainees in STEM fields have experienced gender-based harassment. At the same time, over 40% of women leave academia or move to part-time work after having a child, due to discrimination and the lack of family-friendly benefits.

Our experience at Columbia confirms these shocking statistics. As we work to finish our fight for a fair first union contract with Columbia, we want to share some of the ways we believe a strong contract would make the university more equitable for postdoctoral researchers of all genders.

While Columbia is legally required by Title IX to investigate gender-based misconduct, a recent article in the Columbia Eye detailed how indefinite timelines, insufficient protections for survivors, retaliation, and lack of a neutral process have led many to lose faith in the current process. The unique relationship between Postdoctoral or Associate Researchers and our PIs also creates additional challenges to reporting harassment due to the influence they have over our future careers in academia.

Our bargaining committee has proposed some solutions to these problems: a timely grievance process that can be expedited in cases of harassment, interim measures to ensure researchers are free from harassment during an investigation, enforceable language providing recourse against retaliation, and access to a neutral arbitrator. Although over 2,500 Postdocs, Associate Researchers, and Graduate Workers have called on Columbia to take action, almost a year later Columbia has yet to agree to a proposal that includes these concepts.

We know these protections have worked elsewhere, such as a researcher at the University of Connecticut being able to complete her PhD away from the PI who she accused of harassing her, and a Postdoc at the University of California who fought pregnancy discrimination and won. By rejecting similar solutions at Columbia, the administration invites situations like one from 2018 when an eminent prize-winning neuroscience professor violated sexual misconduct policies but kept coming to work for months after being officially removed from his post. A more robust grievance procedure could help increase reporting, change the culture of silence, and increase the likelihood of fair outcomes.

Women researchers are also more likely to experience power-based harassment, or bullying, especially those of us who have traveled to the US on a visa. An international researcher’s experience at Columbia shows how bullying interferes with our ability to do our best research. After years of harassment by a former PI, she tried to use existing university channels to file a complaint regarding misattribution of her authorship. However, with no official Columbia policy on bullying and the investigation conducted by a panel made of her former PIs colleagues and collaborators, her complaint was dismissed. Ultimately, although she did nothing wrong, she was forced to leave her field and restart her career.

The lack of family-friendly benefits at Columbia creates even more hurdles for women trying to make a career in the academy. While Columbia has made some progress on parental leave by offering our bargaining committee one month of paid leave to supplement what the federal government already guarantees, the year-long vesting period they have proposed makes little sense for the vast majority of postdocs with yearly appointments.

Childcare costs in NYC average $16,250 per year — a huge burden on researcher parents at Columbia, where salaries have lagged behind most major NYC research institutions and do not account for experience or cost of living. In addition to financial struggles, the insufficient number of changing and lactation stations can make workplaces inhospitable for new mothers, an issue that researchers at the University of Washington addressed through their union.

Columbia prides itself on its commitment to equal opportunity and affirmative action, but the university administration can and should do better if we want to address the chronic under-representation of women in STEM and other academic fields. We urge the university administration to negotiate a fair contract that supports gender equity so that we can build a more fair and inclusive Columbia.

by: Chloé Pasin, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Dept. of Pathology and Cell Biology; Laureline Josset, PhD, Associate Research Scientist in the Earth Institute; Nicole Vo, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Dept. of Neurology

More information about the actions of the Union for Postdoctoral Researchers at Columbia University: https://columbiapostdocunion.org/

Postdoctoral research scientist @Columbia University. Biostatistics; infectious diseases and vaccine modeling.

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