STEM Family-Friendly Writing Retreat Aims to Boost Productivity

STEM Family-Friendly Writing Retreat Aims to Boost Productivity

Retreat, funded by a New Scholars grant, serves as a model for helping faculty achieve work-life balance

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 7:45am

CONTENT: Article

To address inequalities in work-family balance among STEM professors and to retain women in science fields, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln held a STEM Family Friendly Writing Retreat last year in June. Faculty members participated from throughout the US and Canada.

The event was funded by a grant from the Elsevier Foundation’s New Scholars program.

Writing Retreats provide dedicated time and space for the writing that is critical to success in higher education. Dedicated writing time is crucial to productivity and achieving tenure, but finding time to write is often one of the biggest challenges for new faculty.

Although initially, the idea to include child-care was not central to the grant, we discovered quickly how crucial it was to boosting productivity for the large subset of parent scholars who often have the least amount of time to write. This targeted intervention also provides a model that could change the perception that science and parenthood are incompatible.

We are currently seeking funding to expand Family Friendly Writing Retreats at our university, either with grants or by turning it into a business where participants and universities pay to take part. However, we also want these retreats to be something that anyone can replicate. To this end, we plan to publish guidelines by early next year.

Research shows need for support

Most STEM faculty have children; however, women scientists and engineers, still in the minority in most academic fields, face the added challenge of the overlap of their biological clocks with the academy’s rigid tenure clock.

Women who choose an academic career tend to delay childbearing until after the tenure process. Men do not pay the same penalty (Mason & Goulden, 2004). Among the future faculty, graduate student women are more likely to see the academy as incompatible with parenthood when compared to men students, and this perception causes many graduate student women who want to have children to choose a career path outside of academia.

Although family friendly policies at universities in the US, such as pausing the tenure clock for childbirth, attempt to remedy this inequality, faculty often choose to not use such policies for fear of negative judgment by their colleagues or superiors (Drago, 2006).

Their fears are warranted: in a recent study reported on in The Atlantic, men and women faculty who choose to “stop the clock” for tenure were paid less than their peers who did not use the policies despite no differences in their productivity (Manchester, Leslie & Kramer, 2013).

National data show that the effect of child-rearing on research productivity is temporary; the only impact appears to be on mothers with children under the age of 12. Gender differences in hours spent on research or publishing and overall productivity only occur in the early career stages (Misra et al, 2012).

The STEM retreat gave 21 faculty members dedicated time and space to write. Twelve of them brought children.  They were from a broad range of STEM disciplines, including medicine, anthropology, zoology, chemistry, statistics, environment, biomolecular engineering, civil engineering, geography, sociology, limnology and atmospheric sciences.

Professional writing coaching and peer feedback were mixed with large blocks of unstructured writing time, work-life balance discussions and communal meals. The inclusion of a special child-care program, a partnership with the Lincoln Children’s Museum, enabled faculty to bring their children for a science-themed day camp.

Retreat leads to publications and grants

Six months after the retreat,  seven papers had been submitted by the 21 participants, and two of those have been published. In addition, two books and a book chapter were submitted. Finally, four participants worked on grant proposals, and two of these were funded, totaling $1.5 million dollars.

We are continuing to follow participants to evaluate the impact of the writing retreat on writing attitudes, behaviors and overall productivity.

Dr. Brendan Harley, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois, credits the writing retreat with his NSF CAREER Awardthis past April. He came to the retreat as part of a dual career couple with their 4-year-old daughter. In an email, which we’re sharing with his permission, he wrote:

“I got notification that my NSF CAREER grant (the one I came to the writing workshop to work on) was officially funded. I can’t tell you how much having that dedicated week to work on ideas meant for this proposal as well as the 5 or 6 other proposals I have submitted since.”

In a post-retreat survey, participants said the workshop was extremely helpful to their careers as well as enjoyable. When asked to comment for this article, Dr. Ian Dworkin, Associate Professor of Zoology at Michigan State University, wrote:

Like many parents of young children, my focus is often on them. While at work, running the lab, the day-to-day needs sometimes can overwhelm the longer term – but equally important – need. This retreat was great as I could focus just on writing. Even though I did not bring my kids to the retreat this time, I would in a heartbeat if I ever got to participate in it again.

Dr. Erika Marin-Spiotta, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, has attended many writing workshops, but said she found the retreat to be especially helpful.

I liked sharing meals with the other participants and having some social time. I was also highly impressed by the opportunities provided for participants with children. This definitely should serve as a model for other types of retreats or workshops. …

It is so easy to schedule meetings or other things that come up on top of writing time, and I was not honoring my schedule. Going on this retreat was my way to commit myself to my writing. I feel that I was very productive and was sad to leave behind a week where my only responsibility was to my writing.