Pregnancy Discrimination in Science (and Why We Need Unions)

I am an international scientist with more than 10 years of experience as a postdoctoral researcher. I have worked in three different countries including the U.S. My work has mainly focused on the use of modified viruses to change the genome (gene therapy) to either treat cancer or correct genetic diseases.

I am currently a permanent resident in the U.S., but previously I have worked on both student (J1) and worker (H1B) visas. When I first came to Seattle, I joined a research group at the UW as a postdoc. The group leader is one of the most brilliant, respected and internationally renowned scientists in the gene therapy field. In the lab he demanded high quality work, but he also diminished scientists and postdocs. You could hear from him racist and misogynist comments and jokes, even when most of the people in the lab were international postdocs and half of us were women. However, he never complained about my work, he was always happy with my professionalism, my performance and my results. A few times he referred to me as the best postdoc he ever had. After two years of hard work he pointed me for promotion in the department.

Shortly before my promotion was effective, I became pregnant. It was not planned, but in science there is never a perfect time to form a family. I told my boss as soon as possible because at that time I was working with large amounts of radioactivity and I wanted to find out the UW policies regarding limits of radiation exposure for pregnant women. He was very upset with the situation; he refused to transfer the radiation experiments to other scientist in the lab working in the same project and he refused my suggestions of alternative non-radioactive experiments. The response of the radiation safety office was disappointing too. They cited regulations saying that I can keep working with radioactivity and that the use of a dosimeter (a device used to measure absorbed radiation) was optional. Of course I requested a dosimeter, at least I want to be aware of how much radiation my baby was getting. I was completely shocked when I ran into one of the people working at the radiation safety office outside of the UW campus, and she told me I should stop doing experiments with radioactivity. Nevertheless, I did not work much longer on those experiments because within three months my boss told me he had lost the funding to pay me and asked me to take a voluntary unpaid sick leave. I was six months pregnant. He had already talked to the department and everything was ready for me to sign. However, I knew that the funding for my salary came from different grants, and I knew that the grant he lost covered only 36% of my salary. Therefore, before I accept to the unpaid sick leave, I tried to investigate if there was any other option, such as work at 50% time until we got other funding.

Seeking institutional support was a nightmare. Nobody in the department talked to me or explained me what other options I might have. I went to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. They said they would keep my case confidential, so I openly talked to them. They said they could find out if my boss had other funding that could be used for my salary and would help me negotiate with him better conditions. Within 24 hours, my boss asked me for a meeting. To my surprise, someone from the equal opportunity office had called him directly. He was incredible angry. I tried to explain to him that I just wanted to know my rights and nobody in the department helped me. He said I did not have any rights, and if I did not accept the unpaid sick leave immediately he would cancel my H1B visa and I would be deported. Unfortunately, he could cancel my visa without explanation and I would be forced to leave the country. It was so stressful that I ended up at the doctor’s with premature contractions. For my health and my baby’s health I accepted the sick leave. I felt not only that I lost my job but more importantly my career was over. I was just promoted, I could not work as a postdoc anymore. Who would hire me in a new position without a recommendation letter from my boss?

Four years have passed. I have a beautiful and healthy family and I am back to work in a new job with a new boss. I feel incredibly lucky for my job and my current boss. When I was looking for a job as a research scientist, a lower position to what I held before, my current boss told me I was overqualified for the scientist position and she gave me the opportunity to continue my academic career with the same position I had when I was forced to leave my job. She trusted me and supported me without knowing me. I changed my field of research and it has been very hard but my effort has been recognized and I have just been promoted to Assistant Professor.

I am still scared of what would be the consequences for my career if my name is made public. However, I need to tell my story to make sure steps are taken to guarantee this situation never happens again. We have to raise awareness to this problem. We need to work together to protect pregnant women and make reconciliation of work and personal life a reality. We have to make sure that the institutional structures work to protect us. I believe that formation of unions will help to bargain stronger protections against pregnancy discrimination.

*The identity of this postdoc is being protected.