On work/life "balance"

May 15 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I don't want to alarm you, but a lot of the stuff people go on about when it comes to a discussion of work/life balance is about as real as unicorns. The only "balance" is in choosing which ball you are going to let drop today and deciding not to drop the same ball repeatedly. If you want to call that balance, feel free to amuse yourself.

But to me, the key is that last part: don't keep dropping the same ball. There will be days you miss important things with your kid, or push too much responsibility to your significant other. If those days build up you are looking for trouble. There also have to be days where you say "I can't make that meeting" or "I can't be in the field that long" in order to go home early.

You need to make decisions that will allow you to live your life and accept that you won't be making everyone happy all the time. This includes yourself.

If you choose yourself and your job all the time, you'll probably end up dispensing terrible advice on listserves to junior people, much like Clara Jones has done on the Ecolog-L over the last few weeks.

Dr. Jones started off by basically telling all young female scientists that: A) Babies attract bears*, B) Women go to too great of lengths to achieve their goals, C) Science and families do not mix, D) Guilt caused by having a family you can't interact with will hurt your research output, E) You ladies should be the type of women who can lose a kid and show up (on time!) to work the next day, and (my favorite), F) If you have to have kids, consider surrendering custody, like she did!

BUT WAIT! There's other ways to make a family compatible with a career in science, just freeze your eggs!

Seriously, what the hell is with all you ladies wanting to have kids before you are full professor! While we are at it, I propose to freeze one's parents so they don't get old and need help while you are on the tenure track. Probably safest to freeze any grandparents, good friends and pets while we are at it. Oh, and obviously you're gonna want to freeze your significant other** so they don't feel like you're never around.

Which one of you ladies needs a mentor? I bet we can hook you up with Dr. Jones!

If we continue to frame the discussion regarding work/life balance and gender equality in science as "How can you manage your life to be least obtrusive to your career?" then we are going to keep losing good people, and especially women, from science.

*Between babies and menstruation, I don't know how any women goes in the woods without getting mauled!

**If they are also in academics, make sure to freeze them before they get you! Being frozen for a decade or two totally kills your h-index.

59 responses so far

  • Susan says:

    head:desk.

    I agree: if we keep defining success as the result of what white men with SAHM wives have done for decades, we'll not be solving the problem anytime soon.

  • anon says:

    Having gone through ivf, infertility and all that crap (with no success), I can tell you that freezing eggs has rarely worked. I've read that there are probably <10 people on this planet who were conceived with the use of previously frozen eggs. Frozen embryos are whole different story, and this has been successful, although not as much as using fresh material.

    Comments like that from Dr. Jones really aren't helpful (I assume this is your point). I'm not an ecolog person, but women are capable of safely preventing menstruation with the use of oral contraceptives. Hence, avoiding attraction to bears.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I assume this is your point

    You assume correctly.

  • Lady Day says:

    Good points. One question: is "menstration" like the male equivalent of "menstruation" in women? Definitely rhymes better with "station," as in "menstration station," instead of "menstruation station." "Menstration station" should be the phrase that replaces "man cave."

  • CK says:

    That paragraph about freezing everything = funny. But also scarily close to what it *feels like* is expected. Sigh.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Spelling is not my thing.

    Come on, CK! Liquid nitrogen for all!

  • Erik says:

    I'm glad your post keeps it real. Regarding Dr. Jones, someone who is experiencing much professional success but little personally probably should not blog about both of those things. Have you found some successful, more senior female mentors and role models in academia who have made it to tenure as well as kept a family intact? Their views would be most valuable.

  • Lady Day says:

    The real problem is that women aren't demanding more help with things like:

    1.) up to one year maternity leave with job protection (because, let's face it: some pregnancies can be difficult and some postnatal care can also be difficult), and

    2.) government-funded day care facilities at academic institutions/workplaces, so that we can be closer to our spawn.

    How many of us have to deal with taking the "hit" when kids or parents or grandparents get sick? A lot of this may stem from the dynamic between husband and wife (regarding who does most of the child-rearing/nurturing/taking care of family), but there should be some effort by our government in our workplaces to address societal/cultural inequalities that more often put women at a disadvantage over men.

    I don't feel that most men are going to demand these things for women, sadly. I've been around long enough to notice the lack of empathy for women as mothers among my male colleagues, and I really don't think it's ever going to change. Or if so, their attitude will change very slowly. We have to demand these things for ourselves. Of course, doing so may make us "suspect" among some of our male colleagues, but all that matters is that we achieve a goal that is of mutual interest to women.

  • sara says:

    Agree 100% with Susan, the standards of today are of a bygone era.

    Also, my entire thesis committee was made up of men who were on their second marriages. Coincidence?

  • Drugmonkey says:

    all of them, Lady Day? not one is sympathetic?

  • [...] are differences in importance within the scientific career arcs, for different work/life balance issues. And yes, the reason most presentations sponsored by your local post-doc association and/or [...]

  • My wife (also a PhD, now staying home with our kids) went to one of these "work/life balance" seminars focused on women, back when she was a postdoc. The panelist was going on and on about how she had struck the perfect balance and "has it all." For example, when she is at a conference she FedExes her pumped breast milk back home so the baby doesn't miss out. Yes, I'm being serious.

    Any panelist on these work/life balance workshops is going to be utterly convinced that their way of doing things is the best way, because it's the way they've chosen to do things. Neither of us has found these to be very helpful. There's no one-size-fits-all solution.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Jeez, there are a bunch of lunatics out there. I'm wondering when is St. K3rn going to divorce his wife to be with Dr. Jones. Definitely Jones is the she-K3rn for all of us with ladybits.

  • Isabel says:

    "I agree: if we keep defining success as the result of what white men with SAHM wives have done for decades, we'll not be solving the problem anytime soon."

    Where does race come into it??

    "Have you found some successful, more senior female mentors and role models in academia who have made it to tenure as well as kept a family intact?"

    You make it sound like it is an endeavor for women to accomplish, with men as supportive, outside cheerleaders.

    "don't feel that most men are going to demand these things for women, sadly"

    Why for women? When are they going to demand time-off for themselves so they can do 50% of the work of raising their children?

    "For example, when she is at a conference she FedExes her pumped breast milk back home so the baby doesn't miss out. Yes, I'm being serious."

    That sounds like a creative solution. She was encouraging creative solutions. Why are you mocking her?

    These workshops are indeed insulting to women, and will be to the day they start being aimed at both sexes. Until then the problem isn't about academia, which is a hell of a lot friendlier to parents than most jobs, especially low level ones. It's about this acceptance that raising kids is a female problem.

  • I really liked Dr. Jones' advice to read Marie Curie's biography, because even though I'm not going to say anything bad to someone who has two Nobel prizes, she's maybe not the best contemporary role model for female scientists....

    Also, this bullshit advice really pisses me off and gives people that are insecure about life choices such a pessimist view of how things are.

  • drugmonkey says:

    gives people that are insecure about life choices such a pessimist view of how things are.

    There is always tension on the pessimism/optimism axis and the real politik/wayitshouldbe axis.

    Things don't change unless people make them change. So yeah, we need to point out the things that need changing and try our best to change them.

    but real is real and someone can suffer (in my view) from a lack of appreciation of the way things are and the risks they run trying to be the change they want to see.

    IMO, the best way is to make the realities clear, bring the problems/concerns to the fore and try our best to negotiate a personal balance that makes us relatively happy and relatively successful.

    This may be considered highly pessimistic for the person who wants it all.... attachment parenting, PR in the Ironman and a Nobel prize as well. /shrug

  • drugmonkey says:

    when she is at a conference she FedExes her pumped breast milk back home so the baby doesn't miss out. Yes, I'm being serious.

    who the fuck are any of us to question this though? hmm? being pro-choice means being pro-all-the-choices doesn't it? It sounds kinda ingenious to me....

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My point was that there is no "ideal balance", merely a series of choices about daily priorities. When things start to go to shit is when anyone consistently chooses in one direction to the exclusion of everything else. IMO, you can "have it all" as long as you are willing to recognize that you can't have it all at the same time.

    Pretending that one can balance everything all the time OR one must choose career over everything (including child custody) just to be competitive, are both equally bad advice.

  • Lady Day says:

    @DM: I used the words "most" and "some" for a reason. Not *all* men are total unsupportive baboons. : )

  • [...] now there’s a new kerfuffle about work-life balance arising on the internets, and some jacknut wants everyone to be [...]

  • [...] now there’s a new kerfuffle about work-life balance arising on the internets, and some jacknut wants everyone to [...]

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    You know...there is a little smidge of this where she's right. But, you have to squint to see it.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's the part about bears, right?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    What I do see is an unmistakable signature of "if you want to play with the big boys...." and I realize that there will always be someone who wants to up the ante. But to call on anyone to dedicate their life to a job (any job) as a necessity for success is to close the door to the vast majority of those who will make meaningful contributions. These are not papal robes and celibacy from a life is not an expectation.

  • neurowoman says:

    She signed over custody of her children? Wha? To whom? if true how terribly sad.

  • DM said: This may be considered highly pessimistic for the person who wants it all.... attachment parenting, PR in the Ironman and a Nobel prize as well. /shrug

    DrugMonkey, I don't REALLY want that PR in the Ironman, and I'm of course not the person to say that you can have it all, because I'm nowhere close to having a TT position, but I would like to think that it is possible. I might be wrong though.

  • Susan says:

    >>"I agree: if we keep defining success as the result of what white men with SAHM wives have done for decades, we'll not be solving the problem anytime soon."

    > Where does race come into it??

    I meant that the generic mental picture of success is a white man (with a SAHM wife); not that people with colored skin do (or should do) anything differently in their efforts to get to success. I apologize for implying that.

    It's this mental picture of success that needs to change. Part of that is the skin color on our mental picture of success, and part of that is the productivity level and the time at work that comes when 1950s men had a female support staff at home.

    > Why for women? When are they going to demand time-off for themselves so they can do 50% of the work of raising their children?

    Completely agree.

  • datamonkey says:

    Oh Thank you for writing this before I went freak-ass on Ecolog-L and invited an inboxplosion of people trying to be more PC than thou about how fem-aware they are. I'm also junior faculty frolicking in the land of unicorns and bureaucracy; female, with toddler and reverse-model stay-at-home dad for husband. You have made my day, and probably saved the majority of the rest of it too.

  • WorkingMum says:

    Unfortunately, even when the academia does cater for child-rearing responsibilities of academics, it still thinks that it is solely the task of a woman. I went back to work full time while my academic husband stayed at home with little one until he found a scholarship. At an information event of this grant, the speaker said that female researchers' eligibility is extended if they gave birth in the last few years, in order to allow for their maternal responsibilities. No-one ever asked what happens to male academics who are stay-at-home-dads for a period in their lives...

  • Another Prof says:

    I really liked Dr. Jones' advice to read Marie Curie's biography, because even though I'm not going to say anything bad to someone who has two Nobel prizes, she's maybe not the best contemporary role model for female scientists....

    Why do you think this way? Can you offer a concrete explanation?

  • @Another prof sorry that was meant ironic, I just don't think Marie Curie is the best role model for people because there are so many other role models out there that people can better relate to because they live now. For example this book http://www.mamaphd.com/ or the countless people that blog about being in academia with kids.

  • biochembelle says:

    Pretending that one can balance everything all the time OR one must choose career over everything (including child custody) just to be competitive, are both equally bad advice.

    This is spot on - regardless of one's myriad obligations.

    Science mag ran an interview a couple of years ago w that year's .female Nobel recipients, in whuch Liz Blackburn commented that there was no such thing as balance - family is intense, career is intense; there will be be times when one commitment dominates and on the whole you hope/try to get them to even out.

  • azileretsis says:

    Or, like I have suggested to a friend, we can let intelligent women die off.

  • You're Pfizered says:

    One question: is "menstration" like the male equivalent of "menstruation" in women?

    I believe that is 'manstruation'...

    ; )

  • [...] image-research results, inspired by assorted posts on WLB on other blogs this week (for example, here and here).Here’s how it started, this image-research: Every once in a while, I encounter an [...]

  • The comment from biochembelle attributed to Liz Blackburn (there is "no such thing as balance - family is intense, career is intense; there will be be times when one commitment dominates and on the whole you hope/try to get them to even out") seems spot on. And I think that is the general thrust of this post. It is not a balancing act on a tightrope but a juggling act. And sometimes we drop things. So thanks for the post and the considered comments.

    However, I find some aspects of the post and comments disturbing. The personal attacks about people's choices are not at all helpful. It is fair enough to say "I think this or that is bad advice", or "This or that is extremely sad". People need to hear the experiences of others and their concerns. Open and honest discussion about gender related issues in academia is important for achieving gender equity; solutions are not going to be found unless we know the roots of the problem.

    The tenor of the conversation is not as extreme here as elsewhere. But most people will not engage in this conversation (here or elsewhere) if they feel they are going to be subjected to personal attacks for the choices they have made.

    People's choices about how to juggle intense commitments are often gut-wrenching. Can we please cut everyone some slack and avoid the personal attacks and sarcasm in this discussion about people's life choices?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    What, exactly, are you referring to Michael? The original point was that telling women that they need to sideline everything in their life in order to be taken seriously is not only terrible advice, but just about the most destructive attitude that any field can take. I took umbrage with the repeated blatherings of Dr. Jones, whose egregious statements stand at the very core of why women (and many who don't fit the white man scientist mold) leave the science "pipeline" in droves.

    Are you contending that we should respect this point of view?

  • I think it's an interesting questions: what is good advice in this discussion and what is not? I think the answer to this is to make as many role models as possible visible for people. Like FeMOMhist has tried with this year's blog carnival for international women's day http://femomhist.blogspot.com/2012/03/blog-carnival-for-international-womens.html
    We have to acknowledge that everybody is different and that what works for some might not work for others. Having many visible role models will enable everybody to learn from one another and pick the advice that is suitable for your life and the situation that you are in.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    But there is a difference between people doing things differently and people actively excluding others or closing the gates to anyone they believe "doesn't want it badly enough". I refuse to believe it is okay that young scientists be taken less seriously if they decide to have a family. This is an unacceptable bar to be held to, and doubly so because the main target is women. No one should ever be placed in the position of choosing between their career and having a family, yet that is EXACTLY what Dr. Jones is proposing - to the point where she claims to have made a mistake in having a family and gave up her kids in order to be successful.

    I'm sorry, but that is a personal statement being directed at women with the direct intent of saying "you are not serious if you care about your kids". That is wrong and deserves mockery, not pity.

  • I am not saying we should agree with the point of view. I also think it is bad advice, and it is fair enough to say so. And I think it is sad that someone would feel it is necessary to put so much aside for their career. That suggests there is a major problem in the scientific culture.

    But we do need to respect the person if we are going to encourage everyone to speak about these things. Sarcastic comments and personal attacks will intimidate many people from engaging in this discussion. I don't think that is helpful in the broader scheme of things because people will tend to be less honest about the difficult choices they have made.

    To be explicit about one example to which I took umbrage:

    Your line "Which one of you ladies needs a mentor? I bet we can hook you up with Dr. Jones!" is unnecessarily sarcastic.

    It's probably used elsewhere too, but there is expression, perhaps derived from Australian rules football: "one should play the ball not the person". That is, it is fair to go in hard at the idea, but take it easy on the person.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Ah, the ole' Call For Civility. It's been a few months... who brought the tea set?

    So to be clear, it's okay for an individual to use their standing in a community to actively bully and intimidate younger members of that community into making choices against their will, but we should respect that person and give them a fair shake?

    Hmmm, and who defines what is "unnecessarily sarcastic" and what is the proper mix of sarcasm to add to the conversation?

  • No, it is not "okay for an individual to use their standing in a community to actively bully and intimidate younger members of that community into making choices against their will". But it is not OK to bully them back if they do that.

    I'm not sure who defines what is unnecessary sarcasm.

  • But there is a difference between people doing things differently and people actively excluding others or closing the gates to anyone they believe "doesn't want it badly enough".

    True, so far, luckily I've not been in the position where people have made me feel like that, which is why I didn't consider this possibility.

    to the point where she claims to have made a mistake in having a family and gave up her kids in order to be successful.

    On a side note; I wonder if it happened this way around or that she lost her children in custody first and now focuses on her career because of that, and brags about it to feel better about herself. But that's slightly off topic.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes children, let's use our inside voices when respectfully disagreeing with the adults. We don't want to appear unruly. We wouldn't want to loudly expose bullying for what it is. Quietly discuss in your corners so no one hears and no one gets empowered by seeing others stand up to bullshit. Just take it, keep sipping that tea (pinkies up!) and eventually those old people will die out, amiright?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, it IS easier to turn a blind eye to bullies, ignore them because you are not their target (today) and call yourself a civil-minded individual, but ask the next person they target whether your civil discussion was useful for them.

  • [...] being said. After the initial discussion died down around Tuesday's post, along came a commenter to tsk tsk about what he perceived were personal attacks directed at Dr. [...]

  • Susan says:

    The personal attacks about people's choices are not at all helpful.

    On the contrary: it is everyone's responsibility to point out to Dr. Jones that her very own personal beliefs and choices are just plain sexist and should not be voiced where anyone else can hear them, let alone broadcast as general advice.

    Sarcasm and parody (see: The Onion) are sometimes the most useful and clearest tools to demonstrate the underlying truths, that we're all glossing over as we try so very hard to "respect the person".

  • Isabel says:

    I wasn't going to say anything, but I think you did unfairly paraphrase her words. And her message doesn't really come off as bullying to me.

    "Dr. Jones started off by basically telling all young female scientists that: A) Babies attract bears*"

    She mentions a trip with a 4-day-old baby in which bears were attracted to the tent, and speculates that the baby's scent attracted the bears, but admits "This idea, while plausible, is pure speculation."

    Also she is responding to a question from a specific woman going into the field with a small baby. Where does she address "all young female scientists"?

    "B) Women go to too great of lengths to achieve their goals, C) Science and families do not mix, D) Guilt caused by having a family you can't interact with will hurt your research output"

    I don't see where she made any of these assertions- is there more than one message?* I only could link to the one. She does mention that some sub-fields might be more accommodating than those that require long stretches in the field or at the bench.

    "E) You ladies should be the type of women who can lose a kid and show up (on time!) to work the next day"

    She found the story of a woman who did this to be inspiring, she never says anything remotely like "you ladies should do such and such" but she does recommend the book.

    "and (my favorite), F) If you have to have kids, consider surrendering custody, like she did!"

    She actually says: " My own "solution" was to surrender custody of my children; however, I
    am not recommending this choice to anyone else and know, from personal
    experience, that this decision is one that most females are averse to
    thinking about."

    She even ends on a kind and (from a work-life balance vantage point) optimistic note: ". all best...I hope you can find a way to make it all work out to your
    satisfaction...clara"
    "

    * She does make the following rather outdated plea - maybe the idea of the man doing 50% was never an option for her? In a way it is just a slightly more offensive version of all those work=life balance discussions aimed specifically at women:

    "p.s. As a final *opinion *to listserv readers; I consider it, possibly,
    irresponsible for major professors, mentors, parents, etc. NOT to advise
    female graduate students of the disadvantages associated with certain
    personal choices (marriage, motherhood) IF they desire competitive research
    careers."

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Oh man! If only I had just read the stuff she wrote! It's all so benevolent! I take it all back, she's just trying to help.

  • Mercury says:

    As a person who has serious health issues that make it challenging to work at 100%, I find it puzzling and sometimes offensive how the whole work-life balance discussion has to always be so focused on parenting. As a woman who does not (yet) have kids, I find discussions and events on work-life balance have almost nothing I can relate to, even though I really do have work-life balance issues. It's always about families. Yes it is a lot of work to raise children and this affects the career and there are specific challenges there, but is having a family really the only "life" most people can envision, the only "having it all"? Why is the model of success in work-life balance always someone with kids? People who choose not to parent or cannot for whatever reason are already in the fringes of society. Why exclude them even from academia/career discussions? If the statistics on infertility are true (15%), all these discussions are really not all holier than thou lets support families and women. It's actually discouraging and exclusionary to a large number of people.

  • Mercury says:

    I also read her original post and do agree with some of what Isabelle said above. Your sarcastic response doesn't address the real issue. Why are you so disturbed by this anyway? You have your family, so do most people. I mean it's your blog and all so you're welcome to it but you're definitely going at this with a bias yourself. It looks like you're all for protecting people's choices when they have family, but you don't respect hers. So basically I agree with what Michael McCarthy said. I am disappointed in this blog post for this reason. You can write about this topic without misrepresenting and making fun of Clara Jones.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Maybe you should read today's post.

  • las artes says:

    Write down all your roles in life. You might be a parent, partner, boss, friend, daughter, book club member, PTA chair — not forgetting to include the role ‘me’. Eight is the maximum you can juggle. If you have more, it’s a sign your work-life balance is out of kilter. Ask yourself: ‘What can I do to reduce my roles?’ That may mean delegating and reducing commitments.

  • BBBShrewHarpy says:

    I find her advice quite rational. Perhaps this is a generational thing.

  • AssocProf says:

    This assumes that if you did set aside family you would be taken seriously. If you are not coping with competing demands of family, you will instead be focused on the other barriers to success that arise for women. I find that the better I do in my work, the more hostile my male colleagues become and the more criticism I receive. Is that a coincidence? It would be very sad to set aside the joys of family and other non-work satisfactions only to discover that you cannot ever be good enough or work hard enough to be taken seriously because you work is defined as substandard because of your sex.

    Most of us in my field accept that we will be less productive (fewer papers, spaced further apart) and may not become famous, win awards etc. because we are women. But we can make progress on the questions important to us, make a contribution that we feel personal satisfaction about, and have a career no matter what the gatekeepers to the academic goodies think about us and our work. I think that is the key to finding balance.

  • [...] into various rants about how women academics were selfish and bad mothers. ProfLikeSubstance has a nice overview of that discussion on his blog and, as he points out in in a post yesterday, Jones was behind many [...]

  • [...] This was going to be a Friday links contribution, but I got a little carried away, so now it’s a whole post on its own. It is inspired by the newest round of discussions about women in ecology that have been occurring on the Ecolog listserv. For whatever reason, Ecolog seems to periodically feel the need to tackle the question of whether women are qualified to do ecology. For example, last spring, there was a long, disheartening (to me, and I know to others as well) discussion that started when a graduate student asked, quite reasonably, for recommendations for carriers to use with her baby when doing field work. Some people replied with their suggestions, but others replied with admonitions against bringing an infant into the field. One of my favorite replies came from  Lis Castillo Nelis, who pointed out (correctly, in my opinion), that, if a colleague over 50 had asked for gear recommendations, people would not have replied with warnings about the potential for heart attacks in the field; she then suggested that perhaps we should also assume that the original poster is an intelligent adult who has already evaluated the risks and benefits, and, being a competent adult, had come to the conclusion that bringing her baby into the field was the right decision. The discussion quickly devolved into one related to women and parents in ecology; the full threads can be found here, here, and here. Some of the most troubling replies, in my opinion, came from Clara B Jones, and were summarized and countered in this post on work-life “balance” from Prof-Like Substance. [...]

  • [...] the weekend @phylogenomics must have been catching up on some blog archives, because he linked to my old Clara B. Jones post from over a year ago. Regular readers may recall that this was a follow-up to Jones' comments on [...]

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