THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

October 25, 2012

Is achieving a desirable work-life balance in the academy impossible, particularly for women? asks a post on the University of Southern California's 21st Century Scholar blog.

Sarah Fisher Gardial, dean of the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, writes that "despite advances in 'family friendly' campus accommodations", such as the provision of childcare, problems persist. "Female faculty members still express more concern and stress regarding work-life balance than their male counterparts," she says.

Dr Gardial says her experiences at a research-intensive university highlighted "unique challenges" for academics trying to balance professional and personal lives. There is "no question" that the timing of gaining a permanent position is "on a collision course with biology, family planning, and child-rearing. However, a less obvious factor may be an even more insidious contributor to academic work-life imbalance: flexible work schedules."

An ability to choose the time and place for tasks such as reading, writing and grading allows academics to shift work to accommodate personal responsibilities, but "this flexibility, along with a lack of deadlines and scant structure around many of our activities, leads to very porous boundaries between our professional and personal lives, and it comes with a real down-side" in which work obligations "creep ever-deeper into our personal time and space".

"This can become a guilt-inducing trap," she continues. "The computer is constantly beckoning. Home and vacation lose their capacity for refuge and renewal. We are nagged by thoughts of what we could be doing, even when not in our 'work' environment. Given ever-increasing workloads and the high stakes for promotion, it is almost impossible to sustain strong boundaries and appropriate expectations to differentiate the professional and the personal."

Is there a remedy? Dr Gardial references a widely discussed essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, in The Atlantic magazine. "Dr Slaughter suggests that we can, in fact, have it all; we just can't have it all at once. We can control our 'life' choices, including delaying families, delaying career progress, and marrying/partnering 'well'."

But although such strategies are helpful, Dr Gardial notes, they are not entirely satisfactory. "Fairly or not, females are far more likely to make compromises and accommodations than men."

There are also "environmental" choices, such as electing to work at institutions with support for professional/personal balance. However, these "initiatives are still lacking on many campuses", Dr Gardial says.

"And even when institutional supports are available, they do not necessarily solve the more tricky cultural problems: e.g., the senior colleague who advised a probationary faculty member that while she was entitled to take childcare leave, 'it wouldn't look good'."

The only real solution is top-down advocacy and visibility by campus leaders, she concludes. "This issue cannot and will not go away until those at the top commit themselves, their resources, and their bully-pulpits to continually highlighting both institutional successes and failures."

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