Having none of it

Life/work imbalance hits women harder. But despair not, says Sally Feldman

July 26, 2012

Last month, a predictable storm erupted in response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s confessional in Atlantic magazine. “Women Still Can’t Have It All,” she declared, explaining why she had given up her dream job in the State Department to spend more time with her family. The gruelling demands of the Washington work culture - known, apparently, as “Obama time” - had taken their toll. “Juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys”, she’d realised, “was not possible.”

Many feminists were outraged, regarding her decision as a betrayal. A similar reaction greeted the announcement a few years ago by journalist Allison Pearson that she was giving up her Daily Mail column because conflicting responsibilities had triggered her depression. “We always suspected there would be a price for Having It All, and we were happy to pay it; but we didn’t know the cost would be our mental health,” she wrote.

While Pearson was torn between the demands of work, children and elderly parents, Slaughter was defeated by the long hours and the assumption that she would be constantly available. In Japan this workaholism has become so extreme that they even have a term for its corrosive effects: karoshi, meaning death from overwork. Approximately 10,000 deaths a year in Japan are attributed to karoshi. We may not have reached quite that level, but many of our institutions and corporations share a culture of “presenteeism”, where commitment to the job is equated not merely with long hours but with visibility. You have to be there to show how hard you’re working.

But is the world of higher education, where in the UK only 17 per cent of vice-chancellors are women, really any different? Clearly it is for Slaughter, who happily returned to her tenured post as professor of politics at Princeton University, teaching a full course load, writing, public speaking, broadcasting and researching a new book.

The difference is that, while she puts in long hours, she has control over her schedule. And this sense of autonomy has always been one of the attractions of academic life. People work hard but on their own terms, and they value the flexibility. One of the main reasons women transfer to academia from the less than family-friendly creative industries is because it’s so much easier to combine work and motherhood.

But in today’s increasingly harsh regulatory regime, is that precious freedom being eroded? It certainly feels like it, when electronic diaries are open to scrutiny, and workload allocation systems demand precise time slots for every activity. But according to my colleague Barbara Allan, dean of Westminster Business School, these workload models can actually be a liberation for women, as they can be negotiated openly to accommodate domestic responsibilities. She hopes that the flexible working patterns that London universities are currently having to establish to avoid the summer’s Olympian traffic congestion will be an unexpected legacy of the Games.

But a more intractable problem, Allan suggests, is that electronic devices such as email and texting mean that we’re never really free of work. Colleagues and students can plague us at any time. You must have experienced that ominous late-night flash on the smartphone, signalling that a senior colleague is not merely intruding on your leisure time but proving that while you may be sipping wine and watching reruns of Mad Men, he is still hard at it after midnight.

Allan remembers with a shudder a formal complaint from a student about an unresponsive tutor. It turned out that when the student had emailed her tutor at 2pm on Christmas Eve she hadn’t received a reply until six o’clock that same evening. That case was dismissed. But in the new higher-fees landscape, will there be an avalanche of similarly unrealistic demands?

And given the budgetary onslaughts on the sector, even with better management it doesn’t seem likely that people will be able to operate their ostensibly reasonable allocated workloads. Nor will it be possible to avoid electronic intrusions at home. Everyone is having to do more, and that’s harder for women.

And there’s another reason, too, why women are held back, according to Liz Schafer, professor of drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. “My salary was falling behind because I wasn’t threatening to leave on a regular basis,” she wrote in a Times Higher Education article last year about her equal pay claim. She realised that women are paid less than men because they are seen as less mobile, so don’t merit retention inducements. “The system rewarded discontent and punished loyalty.”

So what can be done to rectify such inequalities? One solution might be to restrict working hours for everyone. The New Economics Foundation recommends a complete national overhaul with a compulsory limit of 21 hours a week. It’s an attractive but somewhat utopian notion. All those competitive banking mavericks and thrusting entrepreneurs would simply find ways around the rules, and use their ruses as yet more evidence of their power. Besides, if it were imposed in universities, how would we ever get the teaching done? The dubious consensus seems to be that either women have to stop trying and accept that we simply can’t have it all - or else we have to become like men. “To get to the top women need to do all the things that men do to get there,” advises Heather McGregor in her book Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women. “And they have to do extra as well.”

But surely we shouldn’t have to accept either counsel of despair? There’s another, far more attractive solution, recommended by Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg: simply find a supportive husband who will share the workload. That way the woman won’t be held back from her ambitions. And if as a result her partner’s own progress is constrained just a little - that will help us even more.

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