Work-Life Balance for Whom?

Can women ‘have it all’ (i.e. have a family as well as a career) is a question frequently asked, and one Sally Feldman referred to in her article in last week’s Times Higher Education. Although the sub-title for her article said ‘despair not’ – despite the growth of presenteeism, the high-profile women who have dropped out of pressured jobs because of the call of family and the growth of out-of-hours communication via Blackberry and their look-alikes – despair not, she says, because ….well to be honest I’m not sure why she feels that way. It wasn’t at all clear to me from what she wrote. At the end of the article she referred to various utopian solutions and tossed out a final solution, she attributed to Sheryl Sandberg, namely ‘find a supportive husband’; but she wrote as if she lacked conviction. I certainly felt despairing reading her article, because it started from the implicit old, familiar premise that looking after family life is all down to the woman, and hence her final remark merely looked like an attempt at a little amelioration, rather than a solution.

Many years ago the norm was the model of male breadwinner and female stay-at-home wife. Society has moved on to the position where women are in principle able to succeed just about everywhere – no more medical school quotas, or rules forbidding a wife to occupy a more senior position in an organisation than the husband (as was historically the case in my own university), so the formal obstacles are reduced. But society has not yet really got to grips with the fundamental problem which is that, where family matters matter, someone has to deal with them. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be – by default – the woman’s problem. It just usually turns out that way.

It is disappointing not to see a wider recognition that it takes two to beget a child and, except for those unfortunate individuals whose partner is not still around once the baby comes along, therefore there are two parents to deal with most of the child-rearing issues. Maybe the mother feels the stronger bond, maybe even there are biological reasons which make that the case, but – once days of breastfeeding are over – there really aren’t significant tasks a man can’t tackle given the will. Yet, still, it remains the case that the standard societal expectation is that it will be the mother who does the lion’s share of the childcare (or be the one who seeks out alternative solutions) and women – in academia and elsewhere – will continue to be held back as long as that’s the case.

What works for any given family will be very personal, determined by a multitude of factors. I am hardly trying to suggest that women should simply look automatically for role reversal, but I found it disappointing that Sally Feldman’s sights were set so low. I was fantastically fortunate. I most certainly had a more-than-supportive husband and my success undoubtedly came at his expense . He gave up his own career aspirations so I could pursue mine and he bore the brunt of meeting children from school and being the one at home to allow me to travel (albeit I certainly did meet the children quite frequently and I severely restricted the travel). That ‘worked’, in so far as giving up career aspirations can ever be said to work, given our own situation. It was an action almost unheard of at the time all those years ago.  But it strikes me as not unreasonable that, before a child is born or even conceived, a serious conversation about how the childcare is to be sorted out/apportioned should be had between the parents, and that this should be regarded as the norm rather than anything exceptional. (Almost certainly the conversation will need to be had again in the months after birth, once reality has hit.) For many families, traditional patterns may well be best, but where a woman is making great strides in her career, let it not be assumed that it will automatically be her’s that then slows down.

I am pleased to say I do know academic couples where both opt to work part-time (probably just for a limited period), or at least both expect to slow down, cut back on travel or – at the very least – devise staggered patterns of working so that both can put in approximately a full day but perhaps at slightly unusual hours. The men involved welcome this shift in emphasis and recognize it as appropriate in an equal relationship, rather than see it as an imposition. Far from seeing the constant accessibility of email as a problem in this context (as Sally Feldman appears to), it seems to me it confers flexibility so that, if working late at night fits in with your schedule (and you can keep your eyes open), you can fit in lots of the drudgery of clearing up your inbox from the convenience of your own home once the children are safely tucked up in bed, having spent those crucial hours between end of school/nursery and bedtime with them.

At the meeting for postdocs at IC I wrote about recently, I was asked by one pregnant individual how she should set about things after the birth. She seemed surprised I raised the fact that, if her partner was still around, that meant there were two of them to find a solution. Why don’t we talk about this question more? The problem is probably more acute for women in academic science than in some other professions because – certainly in the field of physics – it is so common for women to be married to other (physics) graduates. The statistics on this (summarised here) show overall that more than sixty percent of women with PhDs in science have husbands with PhDs in science and that women in the sciences are much more likely to have spouses with science PhDs than is the case in reverse.  This can mean two people both with constrained choices for location of work and suffering a place of work with a long-hours culture.

At a recent meeting of the Russell Group Equality Forum I attended, one speaker pointed out that the change in paternity law, allowing the time off (maternity leave as was) to be shared between parents, was already having a discernible effect in their institution, where they had been proactive in distributing information about what the change in law meant. I would wish that people like Sally Feldman would move on from thinking a ‘supportive husband’ is sufficient – which sounds to me like one who is willing to go down to the supermarket with the children occasionally, or sometimes put them to bed, rather than one who is completely stuck in to shared parenting – to seeing childcare as a joint enterprise with neither parent automatically shouldering a significantly heavier load.

We – women and men – need, collectively, societally, to talk about the change in law and the consequent changes in practice it facilitates. The Scandinavians have been doing this for a while, to some effect although not complete success. This piece is not intended to be a feminist rant – for many couples the traditional model is likely to remain best, be it for financial, emotional or simply pragmatic reasons. But, unless we widen the debate and make it increasingly the norm that men assume practical responsibility for tasks still seen by default as the woman’s, we cannot expect to see the significant improvement in women reaching the senior ranks that might be expected, given the quality and number of women with their feet on the bottom rung of the professional ladder.




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21 Responses to Work-Life Balance for Whom?

  1. BB says:

    As someone following in your footsteps in this regard, I whole heartedly agree with everything you have said here!

    The most obvious indicator of inequality is that people have on several occasions told me how amazing it must be to have my husband willing to look after the baby, or how fantastic it is to see him out and about town with her.

    Don’t get me wrong, it IS fantastic – but no more fantastic than the job done by millions of stay at home mothers facilitating their husbands careers, and no different.

  2. LL says:

    Lovely article Athene. I’m away at a conference this week having left my little one in the care of my husband + nursery. The interesting response to this by friends has been ‘oh gosh, we must all rally round to help the husband’. Whereas his absence, leaving me to care for our daughter, has never provoked this response. There is an assumption that he is somehow less capable of caring for our 14 month old… Which is quite ridiculous!

  3. Things have certainly changed since my mother’s time, one local employer refused to even give her a job application form because he knew she had two primary school age children. She had, of course, given up her job when she became pregnant!

    A little late in life (well, 42) I am a father to a 6 month old. Our scheme is that my wife is taking a year of maternity leave and then she will go back to 3 day part-time and I have dropped to 4 day part-time. I am jealous of someone I follow on twitter who has shared the statutory parental leave with his wife (I simply took the “standard” two week leave). Neither of us can be described as high-fliers but we are both moderately established in our careers, however I suspect that the decision to go part-time will benefit neither of us at work. We both work at places where part-time working is moderately common and “accepted”.

    Perhaps this is the core of my point: a career based on part-time work (less than a 5 day week) should be perfectly reasonable and unexceptional – I suspect it still isn’t.

    My wife complains in the evening of not having an adult conversation through the day and I’m still waiting for any one of my colleagues to smile at me as anywhere near as winningly as Thomas does!

    • BB says:

      Nooooo….it can’t be six months already!?!

      Are you having a Pi day party? I can send you a recipe for a chocolate cake that approximates the value of Pi of you are….

  4. rs says:

    Nice post. I worked part time (and also took time off) when kids were little and return to full time research once they are in school. My husband, who did not share much responsibility when kids were little slowly starting to see that science is as important to me as him and things are changing for better, and yes, I do love the idea of flexible schedule.

    Once you move beyond post-doc stage, most the work is anyway writing, writing and writing (email, grants, publications, reports, letters etc etc) which can be done from your home computer or laptop in the afternoon while kids are playing, taking classes or late at night when they are asleep. With this flexibility, academia should be the most family friendly place, however, since it is so unfriendly at the earlier stages (graduate school, post-doc positions) with long hours and low pay, many women don’t survive until they reach to the stage where they can take the advantages of flexibility academia can offer.

  5. GA says:

    This is a good post on a topic close to my heart. What I think has worked well in Scandinavia is to give each parent 3 month leave on 90% pay (there are additional 3 months either parent can use). This is beneficial especially to new fathers who get time to bond and care for their children. All the men I know and have taken this leave say they feel more involved from then onwards.
    On the topic of single parents I have to say from experience that it can have it’s not all bad. I completed my PhD in 3 1/2 years as a single parent, and am trying hard to progress my science career. As many other parents I start work again after bedtime – but where it differs from two parent households is that I also have every other weekend childfree, where I have time to catch up on work.

  6. steffi suhr says:

    Hi Athene, I don’t normally respond to posts related to work-life balance, women having it all, and fathers looking after children… because the statements often made tend to really get my goat, and because we are probably a very, very odd family.

    My son was born in the US, so neither my husband nor I basically had any parental leave. We also both worked in the US Antarctic Program, which meant two more-than-fulltime, very demanding jobs with lots of travel. Which we both still somehow covered, with me however being the one to cut back on deployment to the Antarctic. (I’m not sure who got the easier end of the deal though: I had a house, garden, two cats, two cars and the baby/toddler to look after by myself for up to 5/6 months at a time, with few friends who could help out and the grandparents far away).

    We then moved to Germany, where my husband took over the role of stay-at-home dad. It was a culture shock for him in many ways, but he did very well. This made me the main bread winner for the family, with all that implies: the family’s livelihood suddenly depending entirely on me! This was a culture shock for me. (Part of that experience was that men’s employment situation seemed to be treated rather differently because they are assumed to be the provider for the family, whereas the assumption is that a woman’s job is less important/redundant – in terms of pay, job security, etc. – but that may be due to the specific situation I found myself in.)

    So when I say the “women can have it all” posts get my goat, I mean that they almost exclusively seem to assume that we must support women on the “family and rearing children” front to help them do well. This is so obviously wrong, as real equality only can only grow when:

    (a) both mothers AND fathers are supported, and
    (b) the work of a father who looks after teh children is just as much valued and respected as that of a mother.

    Now we’re in the UK my husband is back to a senior management position. For various reasons, he had to open a “global executives” account with a major bank, for which he was interviewed(…). When the lady asked about his last position, he said “well, I was a stay at home dad for a couple of years”.

    Response: “Oh, that is wonderful, Sir!”

    • Steffi
      Not least because of my own family’s unusual experiences, I entirely agree with you. Men who stay at home for family reasons are – as I have directly seen – treated as ‘failures’ as often as not and not supported or encouraged. Believe you me, it was worse all those years ago when my husband did it. Furthermore, schemes to support ‘returners’ absolutely must support men and women (as, for instance, the Daphne Jackson Fellowships do).Society hasn’t caught up with this, and this is why we need to open up the discussion so that we can approach true equality. It will take a long while,no doubt, because we are all so societally conditioned – but your story about your husband’s interview is very encouraging! Maybe the UK isn’t so bad…..

  7. @davidmpyle says:

    An interesting post, thanks. But can we return to the ‘work’ part of the work-life balance? For me, the challenge of trying to juggle bringing up small children with an academic career is that there is so much unnecessary work-related activity which is almost impossible to square with the demands of school hours, half terms and summer holidays: meetings that start before 9.30 am, seminars that end after 4.30 pm; social networking early on weekday evenings; international conferences in the middle of August; workshops that require you to miss two nights to squeeze in one day of meeting; workshops that stretch across whole weekends… I often try and explain why I decline invitations to such events – and sometimes you can see the penny dropping as colleagues with grown-up children vaguely recall those constraints of yesteryear – but it just hasn’t crossed their mind that it might be an issue for their younger male colleagues. I’m very happy with my choices, and I *hate* being patronised when I’m temporarily the sole carer, but for me the challenge is still to change the culture of the academy.

  8. Nick Isaac says:

    Thanks for these insightful comments.
    I’m a male scientist who works part time to share the family duties. Initially, I was deeply concerned that part-time working would be perceived by my employer and peers as not taking my career seriously. Fortunately there was a trailblazer in my department who had already been working part-time for some years. Moreover, my institute has been extremely supportive of flexible working. I would not have gone part-time before I achieved a degree of job security: this issue has already been discussed at length elsewhere but is clearly an issue for me as well as women scientists.
    Role models are essential to bring about change. We need senior male academics who can communicate clearly the message that equality is achievable and that it’s acceptable for men (as well as women) to seek a work-life balance.

  9. Nick
    The question of leadership is absolutely crucial, and one I have discussed previously where I made exactly the points you draw out. We need those at the top to commit to appropriate policies and show they mean it so that those moving up the ladder have confidence to use family-friendly policies as and when they need to.

    One of the issues that Athena Swan applications are encouraged to consider is whether core activities are held at unseasonable hours – it sounds like your place of work has not yet made a start on this, but you might want to point them in this direction.

  10. This is a great post! I agree that more balanced childcare is one key. Until recently, Australian universities offered quite generous maternity leave for mothers, but very limited leave for partners. That has now changed at my university such that partners can now more equitably access paid and unpaid leave to care for children (

    While more can and should be done, this suggests that academia is one profession where both women and men are seeing advances in balancing careers and child-rearing.

  11. Jen D (@JenDtweeting) says:

    Dear Athene,

    Many thanks for the thoughtful post. I was, previously, in +10 year relationship in which the assumption was that I would be the home-maker. The fact that I happened to pursue a PhD and thereafter became the chief-breadwinner was almost accidental. Thankfully, I woke up and “smelled the coffee” before children were on the cards. But it took a long time for the penny to drop that these assumptions didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps I was blind or maybe we are entrenched as a society in this line of thinking. I’m hopeful that moving legislation towards parental rather than paternal/maternal rights as a step in the right direction that will help to redress this imbalance.

    I now have a wonderfully supportive partner and while we don’t have children yet, and are both continuing to pursue research careers (my second post-doc, his first), I firmly believe, exactly as you suggest – with sensible conversation and discipline, that it can work. I do wonder how well women whose partners are unfamiliar with the “ivory tower” or other such working cultures fare. I know many people don’t understand the commitment to your work – being more than just a “job”. I am out of synch with most of my non-academic friends who are all marrying and having children now while I spend endless hours re-calibrating an instrument. It can be hard to understand.

    Regarding flexibility, earlier this year I had the pleasure of having dinner with Prof. Carol Robinson who, when asked about balancing motherhood and an academic career [Incidentally, nobody asked the 5 academic males at the table about balancing fatherhood and academic career], described how she hadn’t found it as problematic as others report. [She took care to not dismiss their experiences, just indicated that hers were different.] She didn’t miss her children’s first days of school and took them to conferences with her etc. I think that academia can offer flexibility that might not be available in other high-achieving workplaces.

    Finally, it seems to me to be insulting to men and the role of fathers that there is this assumption of their redundancy or ineptitude in the post. I remain hopeful that we are heading in the right direction. I passionately believe that education is the key to this.

  12. Jen D (@JenDtweeting) says:

    I just want to add that I wholeheartedly agree with Nick – we need role models and best practice to be followed for both genders! It is no accident that The University of York Chemistry dept is the only one in the UK with a Gold Award from Athena Swan. They have an enviable record of 3 female Profs and a slew of other female academics and a twitter contact from the department reliably informed me that the principles are applied to all members of staff equally so everyone benefits. This was achieved under the leadership of Prof. Paul Walton. Strong leadership is essential.

  13. zinemin says:

    I couldn’t agree more. It makes me sick to read for the 100th times the question: “Can women have it all?”
    What about “Can people have it all?” “Can scientists have it all?” “Can parents have it all?” or more to the point: “Can parents of small children have a career?”
    Why do these articles always start with the assumption that the woman needs to do the main work for the children? This just stupidly reinforces that tired old stereotype. I wish starting from tomorrow all these articles about being a scientists and a parent would be strictly gender-neutral. This would leave out the implicit judgement against stay-at-home dads and mothers with careers, which is extremely backwards.

  14. Anne says:

    Dear Athene, what a nice blog. I agree that people has to change their view on parenting but it is a long way! In Scandinavia fathers can actually get 3 months with full pay excl pension (some places up to 8 months) if they decide to stay at home with their babies (the mothers, however, loose the right for an equal amount of months- they do, however, need to take the first 3 months off). But more or less no fathers take up the chance… either because they will be teased at work (true!), loose out on career opportunities but most probably because their wifes don’t want to give up their time with the baby (women still believe they give up THEIR time – so men and women are not so different – clinging to the same family picture).

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