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A graduate student recalls how her advisor remarked that starting a family would be a demerit to a successful graduate education. An employee complains that the Parking Services office made no effort to accommodate her when, during the third trimester of her pregnancy, they permanently closed the parking lot located near her office. A postdoc is unable to pick up her children from daycare because lab and departmental meetings are scheduled in the late afternoon, and her supervisor demands that all staff remain at work until after 5 p.m.

These are among the testimonials collected and recorded on index cards collected at the Duke University Women's Center by a group of concerned working parents known as Parents@Duke. Organized in April 2001 by Dr. Pegeen Reichert-Powell, a postdoc in Duke's writing program, Parents@Duke aimed to address a workplace that it perceived as unfriendly to working parents.

Duke's first maternity leave policy was adopted in 1986 after a subcommittee discovered that Duke lagged behind several peer institutions in failing to offer paid parental leave for its faculty. When the policy was adopted, birth mothers who were on faculty were offered paid leave for up to 3 months. The policy excluded non-regular-rank faculty women, all faculty men, and those faculty women adopting children. Staff employees used paid time off--vacation, or sick time--or went unpaid if they wanted to take any time off after the birth of a child.

Reichert-Powell spoke to colleagues and identified working parents who shared her frustrations in dealing with unsympathetic co-workers and supervisors. Some parents, she found, had experienced trouble securing any significant parental leave. Reichert-Powell and these other parents found a sympathetic ear--and voice--in Naomi Quinn, a now-retired professor in cultural anthropology who, with other women faculty, was an advocate for an inclusive parental leave policy back in 1986. Mary Ellison Baars, at the time a first-year undergraduate student, also took an interest and wrote about the topic in a freshman writing assignment. Concurrently, members of the Duke Student-Employee Relations Coalition learned about Parents@Duke and decided to make the concerns of working parents an important issue.

Soon after its inception, Parents@Duke began meeting over lunch two or three times a month to discuss how the university was supporting working parents, and these meetings have continued. Most of those who attend are recent mothers employed on academic or administrative tracks who are experiencing first-hand institutional friction and disregard for family responsibilities. The Duke Graduate and Professional Student Council's taskforce on child care and the Duke University Postdoctoral Association have also been involved.

Parents@Duke identified four critical issues that it felt the university administration had to address:

  • Implementation of a fair institution-wide policy for paid parental leave, with accommodations for adoption and elder care;

     

  • Arranging inexpensive on-campus child care or off-campus alternatives;

     

  • Properly maintaining the five medical center lactation rooms and establishing new lactation rooms on campus; and

     

  • Improving the campus climate for working parents.

Parents@Duke collected testimonials and presented them to University President Nan Keohane and members of the Women's Initiative committee. Parents@Duke also provided input into the recommendations of the Women's Initiative committee, and members wrote editorials for various on-campus publications.

The Duke administration was responsive. In April 2001, President Keohane announced the formation of a committee of university administrators to study issues of gender equity at Duke. The initiative included independent focus and discussion groups organized by the committee and the Duke Administrative Women's Network to identify the causes for gender disparities in the workplace. When the Duke University Postdoctoral Association's 2002 Survey identified gender disparities and a lack of support for postdocs with families, calls for reform grew stronger.

In August 2003, the final report from the Women's Initiative was published. The report acknowledged that the academic culture at Duke University was not favorable for working women. Although not all of the proposals put forth by Parents@Duke were adopted, many of the recommendations were included in the report. The university implemented a parental leave policy for non-regular-rank faculty and employees, increased the number of spaces available in its on-campus child care facility, created the Duke Child Care Partnership to help subsidize child care costs at neighboring off-campus facilities, and renovated the five lactation rooms at the medical center.

Until 1 September 2003, untenured full-time faculty, nonfaculty administrators, postdocs, and other employees lacked access to paid maternity leave benefits. New parents in these groups were expected to use the 12 weeks of unpaid leave mandated by the federal Family Medical Leave Act. No provision was given for new fathers or parents who adopted children. But on 1 September, a new policy was adopted that grants up to 3 weeks of paid leave to any full-time Duke employee who will serve as primary caregiver. These 3 weeks of parental leave commence 3 weeks after the last day of work; during the first 3 weeks, employees are expected to utilize any combination of sick leave, personal leave, and vacation leave, so new Duke parents now have access to a total of 6 weeks of paid leave time. The new policy extends not only to birth parents, but also to parents who choose to adopt a child.

Despite this progress, the work of Parents@Duke isn't over yet. The group continues to meet to identify and address issues in the Duke community that impact working parents. Parents@Duke also continues to do little things to improve the lives of Duke parents, like organizing exchanges of car seats and children's clothing and conducting seminars on topics such as choosing the right child care facility and strategies for balancing work and family life.