Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Work-Life Balance: Theory and Practice

Last spring I started a monthly "Diversity and Inclusion" luncheon in my department to which graduate students, postdocs, staff, and faculty are invited. Typically about 20 people attend. Each time one or two members facilitate discussion around a topic of broad interest. This week the topic was work-life balance and the interest was high. I had encouraged participants to read the Report on Work-Life Balance in Astronomy 2009 based on the survey and workshop organized by Sarah Bridle (see the November 24 blog entry by Laura Trouille). The staff facilitators also presented statistics from US reports and from my own university's faculty and staff quality of life surveys. Not surprisingly, faculty report stress associated with the workload and with the difficulty of integrating work and life. These stresses are generally higher for untenured faculty than for tenured faculty, and for women faculty than for men.

We know that many talented students choose not to pursue academic careers because of the difficulties -- both real and perceived -- of balancing work and family. For example, at this week's luncheon a senior female faculty member reported that one of her male graduate students had told her he didn't want to work as hard as she did and so would avoid a faculty career. A junior male faculty member with a baby said he wished he had a male senior faculty role model. After some discussion, we realized collectively that work-life balance is made scarier for young people when it is ignored by their senior colleagues. We would encourage more young people -- men and women both -- to consider academic careers if we support and model balanced lives.

Who, me? Model a balanced life? For many of us, this generates an experience of Impostor Syndrome! My typical workweek is 55-60 hours (including a couple of hours/night at home), and my frequent travel can be hard on loved ones. It's a challenge sometimes to put work away in order to focus full attention on the people we love.

Still, I leave work early when needed to pick up my child and I ensure that staff and faculty know it's expected they will do likewise; faculty members share experiences of child-raising and we strive to help new faculty with child care (yes, we have an on-campus day care center, with far too few spaces); we have parental leaves and tenure clock-stopping for childbirth; and we try to promote a family-friendly atmosphere by, for example, welcoming parents to bring their children to some events and providing childcare or play space when needed.

There are some advantages for a parent who is also a faculty member. Taking a teenager overnight to an astronomical observatory is a wonderful experience for both. Having the flexibility to schedule time at the office around family needs is wonderful, and the university is a fun place for students of all ages to explore. The pay and benefits are good; while PhDs may start out earning more in some industries, there are excellent opportunities for advancement and raises (admittedly, these may be harder in some stressed state universities at this time). We don't work the crazy long hours of lawyers or of employees of start-ups. As one female faculty member stated at our luncheon, it's also nice to be treated to an elegant dinner and mini-vacation in a nice hotel during a colloquium visit.

Our stories are not discouraging. We can find happiness balancing work and life, and I believe we should promote this aspect of our careers -- even those of us who, like me, struggle at times with that balance.