Can women in academia aspire to a work-life balance?
As women academics, we have fought hard for gender equality in a male-dominated world. We have sought the simple acknowledgement that women are capable of taking our rightful place in higher education. It took a war, the biggest of them all, for British and other nations’ women to enter the factory floor. We moved up, and in the US, for example, female enrolment in higher education has tripled since 2005. But, by 2019, only 27% of tenure-track positions were held by women academics.
The deck remains stacked. Women academics must over-achieve to receive the same recognition as their male counterparts. Therefore, when we speak of work-life balance, we may be faced with the challenge of trying to juggle three parallel lives, none for which we are willing to sacrifice quality. We take on roles as:
- Professionals in academia, with career ambitions.
- Life partners, crafting a shared future; and as
- Mothers who wish to give our children a better future.
Even if in some distant future, the gender equality gap should be bridged, the demands of running these parallel lives will only be possible if certain conditions can be met. We offer some strategies worth contemplating.
Co-parenting with partners, family and friends
Love is blind, as you may have learned. Co-parenting was probably one of the last things on your mind on your first date. But, if home-life means living with someone else, and potentially raising kids and meeting your partner’s demands, this is the place where a formal arrangement may be best, as Mom often becomes the default caretaker. Having a committed partner and a clear delineation of duties allow for more effective planning of your busy weeks.
If both of you are busy, get honest about which aspects of your ideal home-life each either cherish or positively hates. See whether you can afford to outsource the latter entirely. Is there a family member nearby who could help? Or a professional service? Create structure, make shared home activities a family affair rather than a drag, and build the neighbourhood homework club. Six kids working with one parent means you’re in charge of homework only once every six days.
Culture of the clock
For anyone who has served on a faculty committee that had to execute a major project, you would know that it took a delicate balance between time, money and resources. When your team faced a deadline, additional graduate assistants were roped in. When short on resources, you moved out the deadline, especially where self-imposed. And so they dance – time, money, people.
Even if you are organised enough to arrange a bun fight in a bakery, you are not on your own. In each of your roles as academic, partner and parent, your schedule is highly susceptible to those around you. Therefore:
- Professionally: Set the calendar and enforce your calendar. No unannounced drop-ins and no last-minute excuses. Your colleagues and students will get to understand that you take this seriously.
- Personally: Getting ready to work often takes as much time as the work itself. When next you step away from your desk, line up the next phase of reading or writing for when you return.
- Family: A fixed routines for you and the rest of the family can be worth its weight in gold. When they learn to keep an eye on the time, you get better at using your time too. As much as everything should have its place, it should also have its time.
Create zones for your alter egos
Does your academic writing occur in what some call “the zone?” That special place where your mind is so deeply immersed in the flow of your work that, returning to your own writing later, you are surprised that you were the author?
If this productive mode happens at home, plan both the time and physical space where you, but more importantly, everyone else in the family, know that there will be no interruption. Likewise, shut out the digital distractions that could jerk you out of the zone with their incessant “pings” and “pop-ups”.
Who said it is easier to bring your academic life home than the opposite? University campuses are stimulating and relatively safe spaces, so find a place for your family-life on campus. A willing librarian might enjoy helping your teenager with a research project while you are in a seminar. The Education faculty may have research initiatives where they would love to have your kids spend time? There is hardly a graduate student who won’t need the bucks for a few hours of kicking a ball or helping with homework for your kids.
Make the hard choices
Bridging that gender gap and getting appointed as the next assistant professor will require some choices. It may be a myth that you can have it all, but with the right strategy, you could be the one to get it right.
More and more universities recognise the multiple pressures that women face when trying to achieve this balance. There are programmes and policies in place, but the choices we face are still limited and shaped by subtle expectations of society and the academy. It will take serious commitment from ourselves, our partners, our colleagues in academia and society to help break these barriers.
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