Panel discusses work and family life
By Ashley Edmonds
Family dinner or dissertation? Late nights in the nursery or overnights in the research lab? These are only some of the quandaries facing today’s up-and-coming faculty members as they strive to balance desires for both family and tenure.
A diverse slate of speakers presented their viewpoints on the issue in a panel discussion, “Balancing Personal and Professional Roles,” in the Harrison Institute / Small Special Collections Library on Feb. 23. Co-sponsored by the Women’s Center, Women’s Leadership Council and the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, the panel comprised economist Amalia Miller, politics professor Steven Rhoads and English professor Susan Fraiman, all from U.Va., and Jessica DeGroot, founder of the nationally known ThirdPath Institute. U.Va. anthropology professor Pensri Ho moderated the panel.
Each speaker presented his or her views on the delicate balancing act based on either their research or real-life experience.
In her second year on the U.Va. economics faculty, Miller discussed her research on the timing of motherhood and its economic impact on a woman’s professional life.
“One of the major conflicts is between early motherhood and career achievement,” Miller said. Her work investigates whether the timing of motherhood affects later career outcome and earnings.
Through her research, Miller found that women who become mothers later in life earn more than women who become mothers earlier in life. “Motherhood delay causes benefits — a one-year delay in becoming a mother results in a 10 percent increase in lifetime career earnings,” said Miller. She also pointed out that the benefits of the delay were concentrated entirely in one subgroup of women — college graduates in “careers” versus “jobs.”
“Men and women both experience these realities,” said Miller. “But the trade-offs for the mother are greater.”
Rhoads, whose work focuses on sex differences and their implications for contemporary cultural, gender and policy issues, said his most recent study also found differences for women and men with new children.
“We found egalitarian attitudes with dramatically unequal childcare results,” said Rhoads, who looked at associate professors on the tenure track with children under the age of two.
Despite receiving a general response that men and women should share child-care responsibilities, Rhoads found that women and men both reported that the women perform a larger share of the work.
Additionally, he found that women simply like many aspects of child-care more than men. “Academic women enjoy babies and also love their jobs, but they are dramatically more likely to admit thinking of leaving the tenure track than men,” he said.
Paid post-birth leave is supposed to even out this disparity, but Rhoads has found this not to be the case. “Women take leave and take care of the baby. Men take leave and finish articles,” he said.
Based on this, Rhoads suggested that paid leave should only apply to women, entitling mothers to single-semester leave after giving birth. Going further, he recommended that part-time tenure opportunities be available to faculty so that women can think about tenure without worrying about reconciling their career aspirations with a desire for family.
Speaking from personal experience, Fraiman discussed her decision to delay pregnancy for a career in academia. “Being a ‘one-thing-at-a-time’ kind of person, I was glad that I waited until I had completed my work for tenure before having a baby,” she said. “By the same token, finally being pregnant made the months of uncertainty about tenure more bearable, knowing that at least I had not entirely put my personal life on hold.”
Fraiman and her now ex-husband, both tenured professors at U.Va., share a strong commitment to co-parenting, with her ex-husband moving in next door to her after the divorce. “My biggest work-life challenge now is reconciling scholarship with my son’s earnestly rehearsing rock band,” she said.
DeGroot, who founded her organization to provide families with practical solutions to work-family concerns, shared ways to reconcile these seemingly contradictory desires for work and family.
She discussed how to “redesign a job” to accommodate a family
life. Four areas of a job can be redesigned: schedules, need for physical presence, quantity and pace of workflow, and substitution.
A manager in a firm may have more flexibility when it comes to his or her schedule and need for being physically present in the office, DeGroot explained, but little flexibility when it comes to someone substituting for him or her. On the other hand, a receptionist may not have the same schedule or physical presence flexibility, but the job can be done by a substitute.
DeGroot said adjustments need to be made at all levels – the organizational level, the team level and the individual level. At each of these levels there are positive and negative forces to contend with. At the personal level, she said, an individual may have strong support at home, but not be willing to take the necessary risks to make changes.
“We are all connected in a big system, a big web,” she said.
Lively discussion from the audience, with more than 50 attendees, followed the panelists’ presentations, with topics such as cultural ideas of motherhood and the “nature versus nurture” question being debated.
DeGroot summed up the need to develop strategies and programs to aid ambitious faculty in juggling both diapers and research. “How do you create balance when the push is to always be able to work?”