Equitable Working Conditions are Essential to Improving Research at UC

Christina Priest
Jul 11 · 4 min read

It’s no secret that academic research — and STEM fields in particular — has a diversity problem. In biomedical fields, for example, women outnumber men in attaining Ph.Ds. but hold only 33% of faculty positions. For researchers from underrepresented minority backgrounds, this gap is even larger. Lurking behind these statistics are inequities in the research workplace that not only prevent advancement of women and other underrepresented groups, but hold back research progress. Workplace equity must be a priority if our research system is to reach its full potential.

I work as an Assistant Project Scientist at UCLA studying the molecular mechanisms of metabolism that impact obesity and diabetes. Last fall, I along with about 5,000 of my Academic Researcher colleagues at the University of California formed a new union (Academic Researchers United / UAW 5810) comprising the largest group of unionized non-tenured researchers in the US. We do experiments, write grants, mentor students and colleagues, and keep labs running. Taking on workplace inequity at UC — and thereby making research careers more diverse and inclusive — is central to our mission as we bargain our first-ever union contract.

The University of California has made addressing these disparities a priority, but there remains a long way to go. No portion of UC’s academic workforce approaches gender equity, and hiring of underrepresented groups lags behind national averages in many STEM fields. Through improving equitable treatment for Academic Researchers, we will improve the research system itself, as a lack of diversity means lost talent. A host of research shows that more diverse research teams are more productive and creative.

To create an equitable research system, we need to change the structures that discourage underrepresented groups from pursuing careers in academia. Where universities have expanded family-friendly benefits such as parental leave, retention of women has improved. Unions have played a major role in this. For example UC Postdocs, who are also part of UAW 5810, negotiated for much more paid parental leave than is available to Postdocs at similar institutions. This policy helps ensure Postdocs can have a family if they choose, stay in their careers, and share parenting responsibilities. They also have access to a grievance procedure if they are denied leave.

Academic Researchers are also following our Postdoc colleagues’ lead by taking on academia’s exclusionary climate. Fifty-eight percent of women in academia experience harassment and other forms of discrimination, and studies have found similarly high rates of bullying. On the first day of bargaining in May, we proposed protections modeled after contract language won by Postdocs and UC’s own policies. These proposals include strong and enforceable protections against harassment and discrimination, interim measures to ensure that those who report can continue their research in a safe environment, and effective prevention to stop abusive behavior in the first place. We await a response from UC’s bargaining team and hope they will join us in adopting progressive policies that will set an example for other institutions to follow.

The importance of contractual protections really hit home when one of my Postdoc colleagues, Sandra Koch, was retaliated against for bringing a claim of pregnancy discrimination. Despite Sandra having secured funding for her project and the support of her faculty advisor, UCLA administration initially blocked an extension of Sandra’s position. After Sandra filed a discrimination grievance with the backing of thousands of fellow UAW members at UC (Postdocs, Academic Researchers, and Academic Student Employees), the University reversed course and agreed to extend her position.

Improving equity also requires improvements to promotion and job security. In STEM fields nationwide, nearly half of women and 72% of African Americans report unequal access to promotions and career advancement. For myself and other Academic Researchers at UC, we face an opaque and arbitrary system for attaining promotions and salary raises, which enables discriminatory treatment. I’ve heard from researchers whose funding was threatened after reporting discrimination. Another AR watched as a faculty member she had reported for bullying was made head of her research institute, a position with broad authority to advance or end other researchers’ careers.

Similarly, UC’s practice of only offering short-term appointments with little job security also creates a constant sense of insecurity and a barrier for fair treatment. For international researchers on visas, each short-term appointment can necessitate traveling back to their home country, weeks or even months of uncertainty while waiting to get a new visa, and lost wages. To equalize the promotion and career advancement system, our bargaining team has proposed longer appointments and a more transparent and fair process for approving raises and promotions.

Addressing inequity in the workplace is absolutely critical to maximizing the UC research system’s potential. Working conditions and employment policies that enable all researchers to excel are essential to achieving that goal. As bargaining continues this morning, we are hopeful that UC administration will seize the opportunity directly in front of them and work with ARs to create a more equitable University of California.

Christina Priest is an Assistant Project Scientist in the Department of Pathology at UCLA, and an Academic Researchers United / UAW 5810 Bargaining Team member. Learn more: http://academicresearchersunited.org/, https://twitter.com/ARs_United, https://www.facebook.com/AcademicResearchersUnited/