How work and family life conflict in the modern university

Academic science still operates on assumptions that have failed to catch up with the realities of today’s family lives, argue scholars

September 29, 2016
Male and female scientists at work in laboratory
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A new book explores how to “expand the family-friendliness of academic science”.

Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science is based on a survey of close to 3,500 biologists and physicists in top American universities, followed up by 184 in-depth interviews.

“We started out the project interested in women’s experiences, and thought of men as just a comparison group,” says Elaine Howard Ecklund, professor of sociology at Rice University, who co-wrote the book with Anne E. Lincoln, assistant professor of sociology at Southern Methodist University. “We weren’t that interested in studying men. And we were completely wrong!”

Although she points out that “there is much more of a ‘motherhood penalty’ than a ‘fatherhood penalty’” for those forging academic careers, today’s “young men are a lot more like women than older men in the importance they place on family life and the tensions they felt in combining it with a research career”.

Unfortunately, the book suggests, academic science (and particularly male-dominated disciplines such as physics) is still in thrall to the image of “the ideal scientist” – in essence an utterly single-minded “man with a supportive wife who takes care of all his personal matters” – and the notion that, as a source of “ultimate objective truth”, science is “the sort of activity that is worth putting everything else on hold to pursue”.

Failing Families, Failing Science includes many striking testimonies of what this means for individuals.

One woman recalls her boss saying to her: “Oh, yes, you’re giving birth next week, know, just don’t do anything, we’ll do everything. But can you write this grant and we’ll submit it in a month?” Another reports “hid[ing] the fact that she had chil­dren [during evaluations for promotion] in order to guard against ‘motherhood discrimination’”. A man describes having to choose between picking up a sick daughter and completing a proposal likely to bring in “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.

Today, notes Professor Ecklund, “the most successful corporations have day care centres on site and universities are behind the game on that”. Given this, as well as generally lower salaries and often ferociously long working hours, it is hardly surprising that “a lot of scientists are leaving academic science for the corporate world”.

So what can universities do to combat this loss to scientific research and individual hopes?

One crucial step, according to Professor Ecklund, is to offer their own childcare, since “the life satisfaction of scientists who had day care centres on campus was much better”. Also essential was to ensure that “conversations about family life involve both men and women”.

Far too often, she added, “mentoring programmes single out women and put a lot of emphasis on securing female mentors for other women”, which can leave those who are very under-represented in a field "hesitant to take part”. Far better was to make mentoring “more universal” and to acknowledge that “cross-gender mentoring can work perfectly well”.

Elaine Howard Ecklund and Anne E. Lincoln’s Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science was recently published by New York-University Press.

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Print headline: Professional and personal lives still in conflict in the academy

Reader's comments (1)

I have been researching work life balance issues in academics for many years. Work has intensified considerably - there are high demands, reduced control and support and much more conflict between the various roles that academics are expected to fulfil. Few institutions take work life balance seriously and long hours, working during evenings, weekends and holidays is pretty much the norm. Many employers are now realising that people need respite from work in order to recoup their mental and physical resources and a poor work life balance is unsustainable in terms of health and job performance. We are also partly to blame though, as my findings indicate that work is so central to the lives of many academics that they don't see the need to do anything else

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