A woman’s place is in the lab – even if she is pregnant

Legal action should not be required to convince universities to do more to help expectant mothers graduate without delay, says John Kaag 

May 31, 2018
pregnant woman warning
Source: James Fryer

Whitney Shepherd hoped that she would be celebrating her graduation this month. Instead, the chemistry major at Georgia State University is on the brink of a legal battle that illustrates that we still have a way to go when it comes to equality in the academy.

Her plan had been to finish her last upper-division course – chromatography – this spring. But that course involves lab work and she was pregnant; two professors and her healthcare provider warned her that the chemicals could be hazardous to the health of her child. She could still take the class, but it would be at her own risk.

She decided not to take the risk. Instead, she asked if some accommodations could be made. Could the university provide a lab assistant, alternative assignments or additional safety gear? No, it answered: it was not legally required to provide such remedies. She could either receive an “incomplete” grade for the laboratory component or re-enrol in the class at a later date.

Shepherd remained enrolled. She learned a great deal about chromatography, but even more about discrimination law and sexism in the sciences. According to Title IX legislation, universities “shall not discriminate against any student or exclude any student from its education program or activity…on the basis of such student’s pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom”.

One question is whether being allowed to take a class at “your own risk” is a form of discrimination. Another is whether accepting an incomplete or retaking the course later constitutes an adequate and reasonable accommodation. This is where the lawyers and ethicists should get involved.

The situation, however, gets even murkier. Title IX states that universities “shall treat pregnancy, childbirth…and recovery therefrom in the same manner and under the same policies as any other temporary disability”. This means that if, for example, a tutor is provided to a student who breaks their arm and therefore misses class, a similar service should be provided to women who miss class because they are pregnant or recovering from childbirth.

Georgia State’s office of disability services does provide lab assistants for students who, because of their disability, are unable to “handle chemical solutions, take measurements or operate lab equipment”. But the university contends that because it does not provide such services for students with temporary disabilities, it cannot be required to do so for pregnant students.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Women’s Law Center, which have taken up Shepherd’s case, assert in a letter delivered to the university on her behalf that the institution violated Title IX regulations “by excluding Ms. Shepherd from her lab, denying her requests for reasonable accommodations, and failing to propose alternative reasonable accommodations”. The bodies are “considering” taking legal action and a long battle could ensue.

There is a bit of a backstory to all this: this is Shepherd’s second child. She was also a student at Georgia State when she had her first child in 2015. On that occasion, her lab instructor didn’t even give her the option of continuing at her own risk, and she had to take the class the next semester instead. There was no formal policy concerning pregnant chemistry students’ participation in Georgia State labs – and there still isn’t.

In fact, definitive policies in this area seem very thin on the ground across the US. For instance, the chemistry department website of Purdue University states that “students in teaching labs should not be penalized for failing to perform lab work on account of pregnancy. Alternative, equally valid learning experiences should be made available. This may include computer simulation of the lab experiments [or] demonstrations as opposed to hands-on lab work.”

But these stipulations are actually from a 2002 “Bulletin Board discussion about pregnancy policies” and are explicitly “not Purdue or Purdue Chemistry Policies”. Indeed, they refer to the “Manitoba Human Rights Code” – even though Purdue is in Indiana, not Canada.

Regardless of whether Shepherd has a viable legal case, I think that she has a strong moral argument. Her situation is illustrative of just one reason why – as Eileen Pollack put it in the subtitle of her 2016 book The Only Woman in the Roomscience is still a boys’ club.

I worry that some men will not see this as a serious issue. Imagine, though, that Shepherd’s husband is an aspiring chemist as well, taking the same laboratory courses. He is just as responsible for the pregnancy and will (ideally) be just as responsible for the child. But he is not asked to withdraw or take an incomplete. His course of study is not delayed. He can go on to graduate school or start a lucrative career without delay. She can’t. Surely that is unfair?

The solution is simple: give mothers accommodations that even the playing field with fathers. Doing so would come at a relatively low price: all it would take is a lab assistant, a computer simulation or an alternative assignment.

This is not about giving pregnant lab-science students an “easy out” or lowered standards. It is simply about giving them a fair shake.

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

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Reader's comments (1)

It makes sense to provide a 'reasonable accommodation' for ANY student who cannot participate in an activity due to a temporary or permanent condition. In my time I have served as an amanuensis for someone who damaged their writing hand just before an exam (poor examiners, my writing's dire!), taken exam papers to students' homes when broken legs or indeed advanced pregnancy made it difficult to get in to sit them, and had students direct someone else (or myself) in doing physical work in a computing laboratory when teaching networking - the class had to demonstrate that they could hook up a network physically, and that's difficult if for whatever reason you have limited mobility. But that was me... as the relevant tutor. I'd organise stuff and tell the institution how I was handling it. Surely whoever was running the chromotography class could have provided a solution - perhaps draft in a graduate student to help, or pair the pregnant lady with another student who could handle chemicals safely.

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