Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Work / Life Balance

The Women in Theory workshop had a panel on Work/Life Balance. I've now been to a couple of similar panels, and they usually make me leave fuming and incoherently trying to explain why what I just saw was a train wreck. WiT did a much better job at this and instead left me thinking about what usually goes wrong. It's the assumptions often made by the people on the panel when they generalize from their own experiences. Here are some of the common ones:

  1. It is important to maintain work/life balance. Who says that life and work should be in balance? This implies that work is not a part of life, but just something we have to do with some of our time. The idea of having a life outside of 9-5. But that's not academia - it's not even what I want academia to be. In other words, the premise of the panel itself is faulty (as nicely pointed out at the WiT panel). Also, it seems that this is another of those "women's issues" - work/life balance is seen as something that men don't need to worry about, probably because of the following assumptions...
  2. "Life" means having a family and taking care of it. Really? Because I also like to be outside and hang out with friends and...
  3. We all want husbands. This should be obvious, but just because we're all women, doesn't mean we're all the same. Some of us are American, some are black, and yes, some are gay. Plus some might just be happier single.
  4. We all want children.
  5. We all want to bear children. No, this and the previous assumption are not the same.
  6. Our children would be better off if we stayed home with them. In fact, having been raised by two professors, I believe exactly the opposite...
  7. We will feel guilty about going to work instead of staying home with our kids. ... and so no, I'm not going to feel any guilt about doing work.

I'm not saying that it's a problem if the women on a panel talk about any of these things. Please do - it's all part of your experience and that's why you're up there. But when they start assuming about the audience ("when you want to have kids...") or when the panel presents a uniform view without explicitly acknowledging that they have bizarrely all had the same experience, then it just serves to marginalize the "unusual" in an already marginalized group of women (aka - it makes me fume).

5 comments:

Jaymie Strecker said...

You're so right that these balance panels often focus overwhelmingly on parenthood. This has made it difficult for me to connect, too. But I don't get mad. Instead, I come away feeling grateful that achieving balance in my life is not nearly as difficult as it would be with kids! I try to translate the suggestions about parenting into something that applies to me, or will someday (e.g., "pay for day care" => "pay for a housecleaner").

What's wrong with assuming that it's important to maintain balance? True, "life" is not the best word choice, but if you say instead "non-work", then what's the problem?

Here's another faulty assumption I've noticed: If a non-single woman has a career, then so does her significant other. When I was growing up, my mom worked as an accountant and my dad raised us kids and did the housework. As far as I know, everyone was happy with this arrangement. Yet nobody on these panels seems to mention it.

Jonathan Katz said...

I'm sorry, but I don't understand most of the griping. You were at a work/life balance panel. So why are you upset that it focused on the work/life balance (your first complaint)?! If you don't want a balance, don't want kids, or want kids but don't want to be at home with them, great -- then skip that panel.

I'll also add that men do worry about life/work balance. At least all the ones I know with families do.

sorelle said...

The problem is really that these panels assume that it's bad if women want to focus on their work exclusively. That's bad even if the people at the panel DO want work/life balance (I do) because it's an assumption that's not made for men (even if it should be). Which means that women who have no interest in work/life balance are are burdened by the assumption that they should.

Ryan said...

"The problem is really that these panels assume that it's bad if women want to focus on their work exclusively. That's bad even if the people at the panel DO want work/life balance (I do) because it's an assumption that's not made for men (even if it should be)."

- I agree with the panel. In the sense that they are there to advocate that women should have a balanced work/non-work life.

Infact I think men should have the same thing! It's a good point that they don't.

"Which means that women who have no interest in work/life balance are are burdened by the assumption that they should."

Well, what did you think the point of such a panel would be about? Being a work-aholic while it may be ok for you right now, is not ok for everyone, and in general too much of anything is bad. I would argue that you shouldn't go to these panels if you don't care about the messages they will try to convey.

Anonymous said...

As people age they tend to be more concerned about work/life balance. You don't see as many 50 year old professors pulling all nighters as you do PhD students. You shouldn't assume that your priorities when you are 25 will be the same as they are when you are 40.