2012 ASEE Annual Conference, San Antonio, Texas.

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Access and Definition: Exploring how STEM Faculty, Department Heads and University Policy Administrators Navigate the Enactment of a Parental Leave Policy A key feature in various reports exploring women’s persisting underrepresentation in STEM faculty positions in the US is the need to disseminate policy information to all stakeholders involved in issues relating to women STEM faculty underrepresentation and retention. Indeed, the National Academies of Science Beyond Barriers and Bias: Fulfilling the Potential of Women Academic Science and Engineering (2007) and the AAUW’s Why so Few?(2010) identify institutional policies, like parental leave, as a way to address an outmoded institutional structure that is increasingly at odds with the experiences of all faculty. We have undertaken a deep, comprehensive and systematic study of one such policy at one Midwestern institution, exploring the recently instituted parental leave policy that allows women and men faculty and staff to take a paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. The study uses Dorothy Smith’s institutional ethnography as a method to examine how people’s everyday real world experiences are mediated by textual documents (here the parental leave policy). We interviewed eligible STEM faculty, STEM department heads and university policy administrators to understand how the policy was being enacted or not in the everyday circumstances of STEM faculty and how other university members jointly navigate this process.We have presented prior work at ASEE 2011 on this data; our new paper will delve deeper into two select themes: the difficulty STEM faculty experienced in accessing the policy to meet their needs; and the challenges administrators had at understanding the exact definition of what the policy offered faculty. An emerging theme is that issues of access and definition seem to vary across STEM departments. With our focus on this access and understanding, we integrated our analysis with the work of sociologist Manuel Castells (2000) who examines flows of information between and within networks of people (here we focus on within networks, specifically departmental networks and the larger university network). By using this framework we can examine the different network structures and flows of information within departments which are nested within a larger university network. Disseminating information and coordinating action to address these ongoing issues is a complex problem as evinced by the findings in our initial study (2010). Combining institutional ethnography’s ability to reveal how organizational policy affects how people interact about and choose to enact or not enact a policy with Castells work on flows of information within networks stands to advance our collective understanding of access and understanding of these sorts of policies and suggest routes to improve both for STEM faculty. Findings can offer illustrative lessons about how these processes operate potentially informing other instances of similar policy introduction and maintenance. Further study of this policy comes at a time where broad changes in family friendly policy at NSF have emerged on the horizon; thus this study also offers a benchmark against which to contrast once these larger policy changes have come into effect.


2012, ASEE, parental leave, STEM, faculty

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