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Tipping the balance toward sane work-life practices

Changing demographcs also have increased the demand for family-friendly policies across all campuses

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference brought an “aha!” moment for Dr. Kate Quinn, of the University of Washington. It perfectly described the creation of the Sloan-funded initiative “Balance@UW,” which she directs as a major part of her duties as special assistant to the executive vice provost.

About half of the hands in the room went up when she asked an audience at the College and University Work/Family Association (CUWFA) conference in February how many had read the book. She and Randi Shapiro, UW assistant director of balance and work/life, used the “tipping point” model to explain the recent success of work/life developments at the University of Washington.

Shapiro has been working on work/life issues at UW since 1988, starting with childcare. “On all of our campuses, childcare has been the bellwether,” she told WIHE. Chipping away bit by bit, they developed several onsite childcare centers and other family-friendly benefits. The Washington State Breastfeeding Coalition named UW 2006 Employer of the Year. But gradual work/life progress could not keep up with increasing demand and campus childcare had a two-year waiting list.

Suddenly in the last few years, the rate of change has dramatically accelerated. The colleges of engineering and arts & sciences got a three-year $3.75 million National Science Foundation Advance grant to increase the women faculty presence in science, math and engineering. Then last fall the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation selected UW for a $250,000 “Flexible Faculty Career” award to accelerate progress.

What changed? “The stars were aligned,” Shapiro told WIHE. “It’s about being ready to move when the time is right. I’m glad the issues I hold near and dear are resonating with others.”

Law of the few

Gladwell’s focus in The Tipping Point is the moment when something small and gradual takes off like an epidemic. Water heating over a burner suddenly starts to boil. An obscure book becomes a bestseller. Something reaches a critical mass.

Just as a butterfly flapping its wings over China can change the next week’s weather in New York City, a few people are enough to trigger an epidemic.

The book lists three types as critical.

Connectors. Do you know somebody who knows everyone on campus? Someone who loves connecting with people in every walk of life? Most of us move within a particular circle and our friends know each other. Epidemics spread through those rare connectors who cross boundaries and carry the “germ” of an idea from one community to another.

Like many schools, UW had a variety of committees, task forces and study groups where subjects like childcare came up. Each held its own conversations unaware of the others.

“Obviously these are not new discussions,” Quinn told WIHE. As a graduate student funded to do research just a few years ago, she met with many groups that didn’t routinely talk to each other. “It put me in a perfect position as a connector,” she said.

As the Sloan application took shape, she and Shapiro served on a number of overlapping committees. Shapiro brought institutional memory, having spent long years planting the seeds for what Quinn saw as rapid growth. Complementing each other, both became connectors across campus.

Mavens. Think of the people who know all the facts and can’t wait to tell you. These are the people who know the price of strawberries in every store and actually read their junk mail. They’re the ones who call you up with corrections as soon as they get your memo.

Information specialists or mavens contribute to epidemics by spreading the word. Marketers love them. As soon as mavens know where you’re going for your next conference, they’ll recommend a hotel or a restaurant.

“We’re all mavens on work/family,” she said. Look for mavens in human resources and work/life. And look in unexpected places among graduate students, faculty and staff to identify topic experts who enjoy sharing their knowledge.

Salespeople. They aren’t all sleazy and smarmy. Salespeople are the charismatic ones whose enthusiasm is positively contagious. They’re effective at tailoring their message to their audience and spreading it to a broad market.

Quinn and Shapiro contacted the engineers, scientists and mathematicians involved in the NSF Advance grant. That might seem like preaching to the choir, but the NSF group provided the perfect salespeople. One woman in electrical engineering was very outspoken about her experience of lack of childcare.

You may need to be very intentional about contacting the salespeople; they may not regularly interact with your group. Among them are the people who have risen to visibility through speech-making or media contacts.

Who are the players on your campus? Who knows everybody, who knows everything and who can sell a message? It takes only a few people to start an epidemic, so long as they’re connectors, mavens and salespeople.

Sticky messages

No matter how many people your message reaches, it won’t help if it goes in one ear and out the other. Whether a message sticks in your head depends on both content and packaging.

What effective sound bites can you recall? What catchy ads do you remember from way back when? Answers may be different for different generations, but the lines everyone remembers are the sticky ones.

Sticky messages speak simply and clearly to concerns people are already struggling with. What issues are hot on your campus: diversity, gender equity, scholarship? What’s keeping your administrators up at night? “There’s a simple way to package a message and it’s up to you to find it.”

Quinn described two groups of childcare messages that stick with different audiences on campus. The grassroots message is that a two-year waiting list means people can’t find childcare when they need it.

Upper administrators struggle to meet competing needs with limited resources. The message that sticks with them is that work/life policies are a tool for faculty recruitment and retention.

UW engineering made an offer to a high-powered woman with $5 million in grants. She had twin 14-month-olds. Having had childcare in her previous position, she could not afford to move and go on a waiting list. Jumping her ahead of the list would not be fair to hundreds of other waiting parents.

They finally found her a nanny, but the near miss helped the recruitment and retention message stick. It also put resource limitations in a new light. Childcare costs money, but so does losing potential star faculty with grants in hand. Sometimes messages that stick aren’t the ones you intended. Identify them, figure out where they’re coming from and plan a positive message to use in response.

  • Unwanted message: It’s an individual problem, not a campus problem.
  • Possible response: Recruitment and retention are campus issues; so are diversity and gender equity.
  • Unwanted message: Our centers serve over 250 children; how can you say we don’t address childcare?
  • Possible response: Not everybody knows two years in advance when they’re going to have a child.
  • Unwanted message: We never yet lost a faculty member over childcare.
  • Possible response: We very nearly just lost a hotshot in engineering, and how many more that we don’t know about?
  • Unwanted message: Highly trained women are opting out to stay home with their kids, so why should we support them?
  • Possible response: While some are opting out, the number of women in the workforce is large and growing. If we want these women to stay, we must create a positive environment for them.

Power of context

In a study done with theology students, Gladwell describes how each was given a few minutes to prepare an impromptu paper and sent across campus individually to present it. The researchers asked the reasons for their career choice. Assigned topics were the Good Samaritan for half and something theoretical for the rest. Half were told they were running late, the other half that they had minutes to spare.

Crossing campus one by one, the students came to a man slumped in the alley, coughing and moaning. Who stopped to help? It didn’t reflect their motives for seminary or whether they’d just been thinking about the Good Samaritan. Those who thought they had time stopped. Those who thought they were late passed by on the other side.

Context is everything. With the arrival of a new president, a new provost and several new deans, supportive new leadership changed the climate for faculty flexibility at UW. “Even at the national level, this is on everybody’s radar,” Quinn told WIHE. Changing demographics also have increased the demand for family-friendly policies across all campuses.

Flexible tenure-track faculty careers were a goal of the 2005 American Council on Education Agenda for Excellence. In 2006 the National Academies proposed flexible policies to attract and hold women in science and engineering. “Just because you’ve had these conversations for years and they haven’t gone anywhere, don’t give up. The national climate has changed,” she said.

Most campuses have multiple officers, associations and advisory committees concerned with work/life policies and services. Go back to them. Connect them with each other. Tell them about the new the national trends; being part of something larger makes change easier to consider. Identify new collaborators on campus. Who are the connectors, the mavens and the salespeople? What message addresses current concerns? Use the campus context effectively. If you tried it before, maybe the timing was wrong.

“To have it come together so fast has been very exciting,” she told WIHE. Balance@UW is already making a difference on campus, with a new moms group initially targeted to women with babies six months old or younger. New moms on the faculty are delighted to have this interpersonal support.

Much of Quinn’s work right now is data collection but she’s also talking to people all over campus and beyond. Faculty flexibility and work/life issues have reached the tipping point. You too can help to spread the epidemic.

Quinn, kquinn@u.washington.edu

Shapiro, randis@u.washington.edu

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