The Price You Will Pay for Work-Life Balance

One of the most common questions I’m asked now, and in the years when I was active as an academic, is how women in academia can manage to combine children and career.  I did it, having two babies as an assistant professor and still getting tenure and moving forward in my career.  But in the end, of course, it was my kids who were the catalyst for my leaving academia, in the sense that the pressures of coping with an awful and frightening custody battle, combined with the distractions of a stint in administration, caused me to cease research and writing, and indeed lose interest in the whole enterprise as a satisfying life goal (this is described in this post, Death of a Soul on Campus)

In my webinar, How To Manage Your Career Once You Have a Job, I begin and end with a single point—work-life balance is possible, but it takes vigilance and absolute commitment, it requires that you defy the expectations of your colleagues in the department and in the field at large, and that you be prepared to suffer a price for it, in terms of speed of promotions, raises, and career advancement.  You *can* have work-life balance, but it will be in resistance to, and defiance of, the norms that govern academic careers, and you will suffer consequences, and you need to be prepared for them.  And consequences that you don’t experience in terms of career advancement you might well see in terms of your physical health and mental well-being.

Now, today, there are two articles out, “Family Friendly Comes at a Price,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education and “The Mom Penalty” from Insider Higher Ed, that both provide evidence of the truth of this claim.  Please read them.

The irony of course, as one of the writers points out, is that only when more people, especially more men, demand adequate maternity/paternity leave, will the penalties and resentments directed at those who take it begin to diminish.

I close with this long quote from “The Mom Penalty.”

‘For women in academe, said Mason, “At every stage, there’s a ‘baby penalty.’ In the earlier stages, graduate students have children and drop out or grad students get turned away from the academic profession, in terms of the [lack of family-friendliness] they see around them.” Concerns about time demands in relation to caretaking, and worries that advisers, future employers and peers would take their work less seriously were all reasons female Ph.D. students, more than male, cited for not having a child or being uncertain about having a child in one survey of graduate students in the University of California system. In another survey of postdoctoral fellows in the system, more than 40 percent of women who had children during their fellowships were considering changing their career plans to those outside academic research, compared to 20 percent of childless women with no plans for children.

‘Young female professors with children leave the profession in greater numbers than their cohorts, too. The retention gap between female professors with children and those without, as well as men with and without children, narrows at mid-career – presumably when children are older and require less care – but women are still underrepresented at the higher rungs of the academic ladder. Tenure-track female professors also are likelier to be unmarried, divorced and childless than their male counterparts (12 years after receiving their Ph.D.s, 44 percent of female tenured faculty were married with children, versus 70 percent of male tenured faculty, according to the National Science Foundation’s landmark Survey of Doctorate Recipients, which has tracked 160,000 Ph.D.s in the sciences, social sciences and humanities since the effort began in the 1970s) – what Mason called a “double equity problem.”’

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The Price You Will Pay for Work-Life Balance — 21 Comments

  1. Great post. Although similar problems plague women in other white-collar professions. I don’t think this will change until, as a society we get over our glorification of workaholism. Even where “family friendly” policies are in place, they can’t be effective until there is broader cultural acceptance that our children and families deserve our time and protection.

  2. It would be nice to have a conversation about “work-life” balance that isn’t “work-children” balance masquerading as “work-life” balance. One is inclusive of all workers and possible lives, the other is not.

    • Excellent point, fig. Whether or not people have children, many do care for other family members (aging parents, a sibling who needs help, etc.). And even those who don’t still struggle with balancing professional expectations and demands and having a healthy life apart from their jobs.

  3. Compared to Europe, American workers in general taken less vacation days. In the UK we get on average 28 paid vacation days per year, with a couple of bank/national holidays thrown in there too. In other EU countries the number is usually above 21. (

    By contrast, when I worked in the States (industry) I got 14 days unpaid for vacation AND sickness leave. If I worked at that company for 10 years I could earn 21 unpaid days off per year as a reward. I can think of a lot of American friends who didn’t even use up their holiday allowance and stockpiled those spare days for *decades* at a time.

    So…I think improving the work-life balance in American academia needs more than a protest for maternity/paternity pay. It requires a complete overhaul of how Americans as a culture view working and their right to time off.

  4. I think the kind of needed changes are a bit more sweeping than a work-life balance. It is the nature of the work that requires balance. After doing this kind of work for ten years, the possibility of being an excellent scholar, an excellent teacher, *and* an excellent administrator seem increasingly remote–and the effort to excel in those areas is as much to blame for a messed up work-life balance as anything else. Who can be all things to all people? Who even wants to try? I’ve made peace with the fact that I will excel as a teacher and as an administrator and will be only a minor illuminary in my field of scholarship. If I make it to full, then great. If I don’t, well so be it.

  5. Thank you for this post. I am 5 years into an academic post with an almost 7 year old child. I find this to be true as well. As I suppose is the case with many structural issues, I tend to blame myself for my lack of advancement while attempting to balance work and family.

  6. When I found myself pregnant as a doctoral student and told my chair, I could almost feel her disappointment in me. I no longer had Golden Girl status. Strangely, at a predominately women’s university in a female-dominated field, I felt it was my female colleagues and faculty who looked down on me more for having a child rather than male colleagues and male professors in other departments. As a teaching fellow, I got no leave–I kept teaching, albeit mostly online, though the birth of a baby and the following semester uninterrupted. I have found that now most of the women in the program are either childless or their children are considerably older. Those of us with kids under 10 are a rarity.

  7. Interesting, but I’m not sure why “female” is used as a synonym for “mother.” Many women are not mothers. Many mothers are not care-givers. The quote that says women in academe suffer a “baby penalty” at every stage is only true if every woman is a mother and care-giver. The lack of clarity and precision in the statement leaves me wondering why I should rely on Mason’s insights.

    I agree that it is important and valuable to address the challenges parents, or even exclusively mothers, face in academe. The discussion is not aided, however, by sloppy mis-characterization of motherhood as a universal female state. At best, it offers warrant for easy dismissal of any argument made; at worst, it alienates potential allies by reducing women to their procreative function.

    • Women also pay a penalty even if they don’t have any children, by mere dint of the fact that people may assume that they intend to have children regardless of whether they do or don’t. During some of those “finding an academic job” seminars experienced faculty hirers have told stories of search committee members who tried relentlessly to find out from women of childbearing age whether they had or were planning to have children, even when they did not do the same thing to male candidates.

      Women are also harmed by the assumption (on search committees) that if they DO have children that they will be the primary caregiver for those children.

      • I’m a male PhD student, with a partner working full time outside of academia. We are planning a family, and we want to share the responsibility for care giving. I’m therefore faced with a dilemma: Do I continue in a field which is in no way supportive of a fathers being involved in primary care, with the expectation that my wife will fulfil that need, and thereby perpetuate the problem of gender inequality, OR do I leave the field and pursue a career path that allows greater flexibility?

        So men face the same problem, but with the opposite social pressure: it’s expected that our wives/partners will be the caregivers, and that we’ll remain committed to our careers. While women may struggle to remain on an equal footing with men in their careers, many men are removed from their families by the same circumstances.

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  9. Agreed. Women face other life stressors than children. Having children is a choice, other adversities (not challenges) are not. When I interviewed for my TT job, it was 3 days after I was told by my dads doctor that he was going to have to go to a nursing home. He died during my first year as faculty and I was his caregiver

    I also had 15 hours if surgery since. Of course, you can’t talk about illness with your colleagues in the same way women commiserate about their children. My husbands academic career gas also been impacted by all if this —but “he’s male, so he doesn’t have work/life issues, right?”

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  12. This world is not meant for women.I came to USA as an international student finished my PhD and now working as a Post-Doc. I have a toddler and pregnant with my second, plus the fact that I do not speak the american accent and being a women with a child and pregnant too is beyond imagination for my boss or any potential employer I had an interview with. They always assume that I will not be competent enough, though there are male colleagues around me who did not accomplish half of what I did.
    I used to think that the stupid ideas about working women is just something about my culture, then I discovered it is a universal thing. Now I am seriously thinking of quieting and leaving USA and just be a stay home mom and use my Ph.D degree as a piece of decoration at the house. I am tired of fighting …

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  14. I just want to point out something that I find in most of the work-life balance related articles a bit narrow-sided. Why is the “life ” part in that equation usually corresponds to having child, having family, being a mother?

    I love my job, I love being scientist, and I don’t want to overload myself with work because my wellbeing and health come first (and I managed to do it so far). But my life outside work is not just about family or kids.
    I want to do many other things beside my work and beside family. A balanced life is not just the balance between family and work. I hope the upcoming articles would focus on other aspects of life, not just family, and personal interests when it comes to balance.
    Just wanted to point out this. Life is whole, it is much more than work and family.

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