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Women and the Work/Family Dilemma by Deborah J. Swiss and Judith P. Walker

Book Review By Ann Wehrle

Women and the Work/Family Dilemma, by Deborah J. Swiss and Judith P. Walker,
(Wiley: New York, 1993) is out of print, but available through www.bookfinder.com.

June 2001

Ann Wehrle is a staff scientist at the Interferometry Science Center (JPL and Caltech) where she does
strategic planning for science for the Space Interferometry Mission. She leads the SIM Key Project
“Binary Black Holes, Accretion Disks, and Relativistic Jets: Photocenters of Nearby Active Galactic
Nuclei and Quasars”. She and her husband have an 8-year old daughter and a 4-year old son.

THIS IS THE BEST BOOK I have read about professional women and the tradeoffs
made in combining work and family. The authors surveyed 902 graduates of the
Harvard Medical, Law, and Business Schools, aged 33-45 years. Seventy-five percent of the
women were married, 66% were mothers although 25% volunteered that they had had
fertility problems. Thirty percent had been selfemployed at some point in their careers.

In sharp contradiction to the authors’ expectation of finding many examples of workplace
support for these “top-credential” women combining careers and family, they discovered
most women had no recognition in the workplace for their dual role. They variously chose to
“fast track” in early years, to consciously start out in “family-friendly” companies, to work parttime,
to go into business for themselves, or to stay home full time after their children were
born. Many moved among these options, though women who left the “fast track” never returned. Many moved to the “mommy track” in their careers, with lower pay, fewer promotions, and
less professional recognition.

When do women change their plans or rebalance their lives? Often, there is a triggering
event such as a child’s serious illness or a difficult pregnancy. Simply announcing a pregnancy may
be followed by serious repercussions on the job, for example, losing clients, patients, or the most
“interesting cases,” or even having the offer of a promotion withdrawn. Women, exhausted after
years of doing the job at home and at work — one woman described being so tired that her eyes
would not focus at the end of the day — may find a last-minute business trip or missed soccer
game becomes the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Women were also painfully aware that the first woman to take maternity leave in her company
sets the standard by which other women are measured; if the first woman took two weeks’
maternity leave, the next woman was expected to do the same. Women compartmentalized
personal and professional lives, and set firm limits on the encroachment by work onto “family
time”. Some women went as far as to recommend others “have their children at one job, and have
their career at their next job”— in other words, hide their family responsibilities at the
second job.

In the event you can’t get the book, here are some career and family strategies that women in
astronomy may find useful:

  • Avoid long commutes.
  • Hire nannies; live-in nannies make it much easier to travel.
  • Pay for house cleaners and handymen.
  • Carefully manage home responsibilities by negotiating with husbands.
  • Make decisions quickly and efficiently, e.g., handling paperwork only once or prearranging
    backup child care.
  • Make yourself highly valued at work before having kids.
  • Work part-time, especially when nursing babies.
  • Call upon women friends for assistance.
  • “Vote with your feet” if companies will not accommodate family life.

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