Purdue University Graduate School
20220722_Wright_Dissertation_Deposit.pdf (3.92 MB)

Decentralized Labor, Disembodied Ideals: An Institutional Ethnography Examining the STEM Higher Education Institution from the Perspectives of Parenting Women in STEM Doctoral Programs

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posted on 2022-07-22, 20:45 authored by Casey Elizabeth WrightCasey Elizabeth Wright


Higher education has embedded systemic disadvantages for women within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. As a result, parenting women who pursue doctoral degrees in STEM fields face an uphill battle; yet the literature has given short shrift to the experiences of women who have children while training to become scientific professionals. This absence exists despite the fact that parenting is frequently an underlying theme in the literature on women’s decreased participation in STEM disciplines. Further, studies that do address parenting women’s experiences in higher education at large focus on individual characteristics and are limited by an emphasis on gender at the expense of other social inequalities. These inequalities have remained persistent and poorly understood. To re-imagine STEM higher education as an institution, it is necessary to understand the everyday social relations embedded within organizations that are a part of the institution. This institutional ethnography addresses these gaps. This study aimed to explore the social relations of the STEM higher education that shaped women’s experiences in STEM doctoral programs. Using Intersectionality and Inequality Regimes frameworks, this study examined women’s interactions with the institution, thereby providing a highly contextualized perspective on the STEM higher education institution. Data collection followed an emergent design with interviews with parenting women in STEM doctoral programs. Through these interviews, narrative events were identified that helped to isolate institutional processes that shaped their experiences. From there, data collection involved interviews with institutional informants and analysis of institutional texts (e.g., graduate handbooks, university policies). Data analysis followed narrative analytic methods using the Listening Guide, Labovian narrative analysis, and institutional ethnographic ruling relations mapping. Therein, three key studies from the data are shared. First, a narrative analysis with interpretation by Inequality Regimes showed how regimes of inequality shaped the experiences of two women who were pregnant and parenting while pursuing STEM doctorates. Second, an institutional ethnographic inquiry into the institutional relations that made up the lactation rooms and women’s interactions with them and revealed a decentralized organization that made accessing the spaces challenging for doctoral student women. And third, an institutional ethnographic analysis of women’s experiences with parental leave illustrated the lack of responsibility to ensure that students know about parental leave and could use the policy. Findings examine the institution’s organization around an ideal worker that many participants struggled to perform; this resulted in a diffuse and disorganized approach to policy and procedures for parenting women. Findings indicate that the neoliberal discourses in the institution shaped these experiences. The institution's masculine, white, classed nature results in it being insular to parenting women. While women persist within this environment, they face adversity emergent from the relations that make up the institution. I offer recommendations to improve gaps in consideration for parenting students, and a call to transform the overall institution to support parenting women at this critical juncture in their training. 


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Chemistry

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Alice L. Pawley

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Angeline Lyon

Additional Committee Member 2

Stephanie Masta

Additional Committee Member 3

Allison F. Godwin

Additional Committee Member 4

Shalini Low-Nam