In the wake of sexual assault and harassment claims against Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and other powerful men, women across the country and in every field have stood up and demanded an end to workplace sexual assault and harassment. In a timely coincidence, at the University of Washington, postdoctoral researchers in higher education recently exercised a critical tool to help them ensure that their workplace is free of harassment and to fight discrimination: they have petitioned to form a union.
Higher education employees—particularly those in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields—are no strangers to gender-based discrimination. And it’s not just that women are less prevalent in STEM fields. As in other workplaces, women and gender non-conforming researchers in STEM are frequently not credited for their contributions, receive less pay, are subjected to sexual harassment, and face retaliation when they stand up for fair treatment. In a culture where a strong recommendation letter from a prominent scholar can propel a budding scientist’s career for years, and the threat of a bad reference can set it back or end it, a young researcher might not speak out when abused or mistreated, particularly when facing the daunting task of speaking out alone.
Consider a recent account from a scientist who was fired for being pregnant while she was a UW postdoctoral scholar. Posting on Medium, the scientist, who was not a U.S. citizen during her postdoc work, writes that her supervisor was a respected and internationally renowned scientist, and yet he told “racist and misogynist comments and jokes, even when most of the people in the lab were international postdocs and half of us were women.” When she became pregnant, her supervisor immediately found an excuse to fire her. Her attempts to gain institutional support failed, and so she had little choice but to leave her position. She feared that pushing back too steadily would create a divide between her and the references she worked so hard to establish and, therefore, would impede her ability to work elsewhere.
And these types of work environments are not rare in STEM. Consider the recent well-publicized story of tenured Professor Michael Katze, who was fired from UW after subjecting his employees to sexual harassment. Though Katze’s termination was unprecedented at the school, the issue itself is anything but. From being subject to overt sexual harassment or being subtly pushed out because of pregnancy or family caregiver responsibilities, academic professionals have seen it all.
Unions make a difference. When university employers fall short, unions give academic researchers a tool to address sexual misconduct and unequal treatment. An empowered workforce can deter arbitrary treatment, and this can help ensure long-term career stability—particularly for women and non-binary employees.
Unions also help Washingtonians realize the promise of the new workplace protections our state has put in place in recent years. In the past two years, Washington State has passed one of the best paid family and medical leave plans in the country, a landmark law designed to protect workers against pregnancy discrimination, and an initiative that raises the minimum wage statewide and ensures paid sick and safe leave for many workers. These are groundbreaking policy advances, which set standards to create greater economic security and stronger protections against gender-based discrimination. Unions provide workers, in academia and beyond, with the resources to ensure these policies are followed.
However, it’s important to note that unionizing challenges the status quo. This is something that institutions of higher learning aren’t very comfortable with. That is perhaps why Columbia University turned to the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board for help in overturning the right to collective bargaining. And perhaps why UW has previously fought efforts to unionize.
Despite the legal protections women and transgender and gender non-conforming people have won over the last decades, it is clear that without collective work to ensure their enactment, real progress towards equality will not come. Unionization is one important step towards making sure that equitable practices become an intrinsic part of the professional environment.
As the postdoc workers themselves said in their letter to the university president, “While Postdocs make vital contributions to the world-class research conducted at the UW, many of us still struggle to pay rent in our expensive city, to care for our children and families, and to overcome the challenges associated with job insecurity and arbitrary treatment.” This is not what an equitable workplace looks like. The UW has a history of taking progressive stances on issues surrounding health care access, immigration, and economic security; now, the university must align its policies with those positions and support these workers’ efforts to unionize.
Sara Ainsworth is advocacy director of Legal Voice, a progressive feminist organization using the power of the law to make positive change for women and girls in the Northwest. Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building an economy that works for everyone.