Amy Apprill was pregnant when she arrived at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to begin a competitive 18-month post-doctoral fellowship. She wasn’t eligible for the 12 weeks of unpaid leave granted by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but the Institution did offer six weeks of paid leave. The problem was, any time she spent at home with her baby would be subtracted from her already limited fellowship time.

Apprill decided to see what she could do about that. She did some research, then went to her dean with a request for a paid six-week extension on her fellowship. By the time they actually sat down for the conversation, she was in labor.

“The contractions weren’t too, too bad so we were able to get through,” Apprill said. “Right from the start, he understood my point, that this was important. For the most part, it was just he color of the money — how do we make this happen.”

By the end of the meeting, Apprill had secured her own extension and a promise that it would become institution policy. In fact, Apprill says that the Institution has since expanded their paid leave policy, and also created some programs to support parents and families after that initial newborn period.

Jeff Hayes, program director of job quality and income security at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, says Apprill’s story isn’t as uncommon as it may seem.

“The Family Medical Leave Act provides job protected but unpaid leave for 12 weeks for about 60 percent of the workers,” Hayes explained, noting the criteria that exclude the remaining 40 percent. “You have to have been with your employer, worked 1,250 hours, and that employer has to have 50 or more people.”

That federal policy leaves many early career scientists without a guarantee of any leave. Apprill fell into the category of not having been with the same employer long enough. In other cases, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers might not meet that criterion because the way they are funded and paid doesn’t officially make them full employees of the institution where they’re working.

Hayes says that puts women at the mercy of state or institution policies, or simply, an understanding boss. And, while Apprill and Hayes both say they see a nationwide trend toward more paid parental leave, a perusal of half a dozen university policies turns up everything from a guarantee of 13 weeks of fully paid leave, to no policy, to an offer of “workload adjustment” in which a new parent would work full-time, but with more flexible timing and location.   

Plus, Apprill notes that many young scientists simply can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

“Being a scientist is not a very lucrative career,” Apprill said with a laugh.

It’s also a career with some unusual demands. Immediately after graduate school, researchers are expected to complete at least one, and often multiple, short post-doctoral stints in different laboratories. Then, if one is successful in getting a faculty job, there’s a tight timeline for demonstrating performance and securing tenure. This early, make-or-break career phase tends to coincide with prime childbearing years, and it’s when the representation of women in science drops.

Federally-guaranteed paid parental leave (something Ivanka Trump has called for), might help stem the loss of young women from science. But Hayes says he’s not hopeful Trump’s proposal will fly. And Apprill says that maternity leave is only half the conversation — and the easy half, at that. The harder part, she argues, is changing the culture of science to make time off for family care a normal and accepted part of a career.