Best Practice Guide: Supporting Students and Postdocs in Your Lab - The Pregnant Scholar
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Best Practice Guide: Supporting Students and Postdocs in Your Lab

It’s an all-too-common scenario faced by pregnant women in STEM: a Principal Investigator, under time pressure due to a grant, tells an expecting post-doc in his or her lab that she needs to return a few weeks after she delivers her baby.

This may be illegal under as many as four different federal laws (as well as state laws). Federal laws, including Title IX, protect students and postdocs from pregnancy discrimination not only in the classroom, but in the lab as well.

Students and postdocs (whether classified as trainees or employees) who are affected by pregnancy and related conditions are entitled to accommodations in the lab, just like in the classroom.  Your institution is required to provide pregnant researchers with at least the same special services and accommodations as researchers with temporary disabilities.

Some researchers may request accommodations to you directly, and the request does not need to use legal language.  Follow your university’s procedures, or when in doubt, contact the Title IX, HR (for employees), and/or ADA offices. By failing to make a good faith, interactive effort to address the researcher’s needs or by not following established policies, professors have opened their institutions up to lawsuits.

Remember, don’t make assumptions about the researcher’s capabilities or medical needs based on her pregnancy or related conditions.  For example, you cannot automatically mandate that a researcher avoid certain activities; such decisions are to be made by the pregnant researcher in consultation with her physician and in accordance with applicable university safety procedures.

Accommodations within a lab are often similar to the accommodations seen in other settings:

  • The option to use a chair or stool, rather than standing
  • More frequent breaks to use the restroom or to eat a snack
  • Avoiding lifting heavy objects and/or receiving assistance with lifting
  • Modified schedules

Other researchers may need unique adjustments due to the nature of their lab environment.  Additional information about mitigating risks to pregnancy in certain research settings is available:

  • Learn more about Reproductive Hazards and their possible solutions from OSHA
  • Access additional resources on pregnancy and research safety through the National Postdoctoral Association’s guide.

Students and non-employee (or trainee) postdocs performing research are entitled to receive leave, without penalty, when it is medically necessary due to pregnancy, childbirth, termination, false pregnancy, or related conditions and recovery. Because federal law requires that the student/trainee must be permitted to return in the same status held prior to taking leave, professors should make every attempt to preserve the student’s research for her return. 

Employee researchers, including students and postdocs who are employees, may be entitled to job-protected paid or unpaid maternity and/or disability leave.  The length of the leave, and whether the leave is paid or unpaid, will vary based on the particular position.  As a minimum, Title IX regulations require that employees are provided with leave for a “reasonable period of time,” after which the woman will be reinstated to the same status, “without decrease in rate of compensation or loss of promotional opportunities, or any other right or privilege of employment.” Under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave.

Requiring that a researcher cut her pregnancy-related leave short, or making statements that imply such a requirement exists, constitutes discrimination. 

See here for more information on employment issues.