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Work-Life Balance

On this page, the CSWA has compiled resources on the problems faced and solved by two-career couples in astronomy and other fields of science. Section (1) focuses on developments related to institutional polcies, and section (2) concerns problems and solutions in individual lives, and section (3) specializes to parenting for fathers. Each link is accompanied by a short quote, chosen by us, or a short summary. The webmaster would welcome suggestions of additional resources.

(1) Working hours, employment policies

The CSWA's response to the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative (PDF 153 KB)

"We applaud the updated parental leave policies for PIs and the updated paid family leave policies for NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics postdoctoral fellows and for NSF Earth Science postdoctoral fellows. However, these policies do not address the retention and recruitment of the work-horse population of early-career scientists – graduate students and postdocs supported by faculty PI NSF grants."

"The White House and National Science Foundation Announce New Workplace Flexibility Policies to Support America’s Scientists and Their Families"

From this press release, September 26, 2011, selected points from NSF's new policies:

  • Allow postponement of grants for child birth/adoption – Grant recipients can defer their awards for up to one year to care for their newborn or newly adopted children.
  • Allow grant suspension for parental leave – Grant recipients who wish to suspend their grants to take parental leave can extend those grants by a comparable duration at no cost.
  • Provide supplements to cover research technicians – Principal investigators can apply for stipends to pay research technicians or equivalent staff to maintain labs while PIs are on family leave.
  • Promote family friendliness for panel reviewers – STEM researchers who review the grant proposals of their peers will have greater opportunities to conduct virtual reviews rather than travel to a central location, increasing flexibility and reducing dependent-care needs.

"Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline," by Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden, and Karie Frasch, University of California, Berkeley (PDF, 573 KB)

Want to advocate family-friendly policies at your institution? This article is good ammunition.

"Our research addresses the effect of family formation on both when and why women and men drop or opt out of the academic science career path and on those who remain on the path. It offers an extensive examination of the experiences of researchers as well as the role that institutions of higher education and federal granting agencies play in regard to the leaky pipeline in the sciences. We collected data from a number of sources: A national longitudinal survey, the Survey of Doctorate Recipients, created by NSF; and several original surveys."

"Federal agencies—particularly NIH and NSF— ... efforts include the provision of no-cost extensions for caregiving purposes ..., grant supplements to support family responsive policies or needs, gender equity workshops, formalized agency policies or statements supporting women in the academic pipeline, allowing part-time effort on fellowships or grants, and extending the fellowship period for caregiving."

"A Postdoc's Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave," by Kathleen Flint Ehm, (National Postdoctoral Association) and Amelia Linnemann, (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

"Developed as part of the National Postdoctoral Association's NPA ADVANCE project."

This guide provides general information on pregnancy and maternity leave for postdocs, including tips for keeping your research going and talking with your supervisor. This guide is intended primarily for postdoc women who are pregnant or are planning for pregnancy; expectant postdoc fathers or adopting postdoc parents may want to consult our forthcoming companion guides on paternity and adoption leave.

"All in a Week's Work: Average Work Weeks of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers," by Thomas B. Hoffer and Karen Grigorian, NSF InfoBrief, December 2005

The report lists average work-hours per week for science doctorate holders in full-time employment in education, industry, and government. The average across all employment sectors in the physical sciences is 48.3 (with 2 hours more than this in education and 3 hours less than this in goverment). Within academia, hours increase from non-tenure track position holders (48.7 hours/week), postdoc (50.3), tenure track (51.1), and tenure-track but not tenured (52.5).

"Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences," by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, Mary Ann Mason, report from the Center for American Progress (November 10, 2009)

"Family formation—most importantly marriage and childbirth—accounts for the largest leaks in the pipeline between Ph.D. receipt and the acquisition of tenure for women in the sciences." ... "Some universities may be out of compliance with Title IX requirements."

"Why Graduate Students Reject the Fast Track, by Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden, and Karie Frasch," from AAUP Academe (2009)

"A study of thousands of doctoral students shows that they want balanced lives. ... major research universities may be losing some of the most talented tenure-track academics before they even arrive. In the eyes of many doctoral students, the academic fast track has a bad reputation—one of unrelenting work hours that allow little or no room for a satisfying family life." Table 1 gives a fascinating gender breakdown of students' reasons for opting out of the "academic fast track." The article ends with suggestions for ways to modify institutional structure and culture.

"The Work-Life Integration Overload: Thousands Of Researchers Weigh In on Outmoded Work Environments, Unfriendly Family Policies"

'Attracting workers into science and technology fields could be hampered by work-life integration issues according to a new international survey. Drawing data from 4,225 publishing scientists and researchers worldwide, the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) finds that lack of flexibility in the workplace, dissatisfaction with career development opportunities and low salaries are driving both men and women to re-consider their profession. '

Executive summary of this report.

"Faculty Project at Stanford Aims to Foster Work-Life Balance With 'Banking System'," by Katherine Mangan, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 16, 2012

'A team at the medical school is trying to change that mind-set by setting up a "banking system" so that medical professors can build more flexibility into their schedules, guilt-free. The broader aim is to improve the retention of medical professors by making it possible for them to better balance their professional and personal lives.

'The system, which is being rolled out over the next month in five pilot groups, asks professors to keep track online of the hours they devote to work like mentoring, serving on committees, and helping out a colleague by taking on extra clinical hours. Such work translates into credits. The professors can cash in the credits whenever they need a variety of services that make juggling work and home life easier.'

"Family-friendly as an institutional culture," by Tanya Urrutia, from Tanya's Astro Blog, October 22, 2012

Highlights from a talk by Bryan Gaensler, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) at Sydney. Gaensler's very good policy recommendations are listed, with comments.

"Parental Leave Policies at Astronomical Institutions" from AstroBetter, December 2012

'This page is intended to be a resource for prospective astronomy graduate students and job seekers to compare parental leave policies at different institutions. The goals of this wiki are: (1) to allow astronomers at different career stages (graduate students, postdocs, research staff, and faculty) to easily compare parental leave policies, and (2) to encourage institutions to enact better parental leave policies by showing how they compare with other institutions. ...'

A summary of the parental leave policies for postdocs is available here. This document is a work in progress, with some institutions yet to respond to inquiries. For many important details, see the wiki linked above.

CSWA-sponsored special session at the 221st AAS meeting: "Family Leave Policies and Childcare for Graduate Students and Postdocs"

Slides from the presentations by Dave Charbonneau, Natalie Gosnell, Bob Mathieu, Edward Ajhar, and Charles Beichman are posted here. Charbonneau's presentation included the first report of preliminary results from the CSWA's national survey of astronomy Ph.D.-granting department chairs on this topic. Gosnell and Mathieu reported on implementation of a forward-looking policy at UW-Madison. Ajhar reported on the NSF's work-life balance initiative, and Beichman described NASA's fellowship programs and their parental leave policies.

"All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting." by Jennifer Senior, in New York Magazine, published Jul 4, 2010

'One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can't be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children - and happier parents.

"Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they're born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you're no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you're no longer wondering how to pay for your children's education and health care (because they're free) - well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. "We've put all this energy into being perfect parents," says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, "instead of political change that would make family life better."'

(2) Individual Problems and Solutions

"24/7 isn't the only way: A healthy work–life balance can enhance research," by Julie Overbaugh, from Nature 477, 27–28 (01 September 2011)

"During my training, I experienced many different lab styles and, in the process, realized that I was not cut out for clocking long hours for the rest of my life. I decided to try to do science in a manner that I could integrate into my life, leaving time for an extensive network of friends and family and other interests, and accept that there would be other paths if this one did not work — a crucial mindset for not succumbing to a frenzied work life."

K. E. Fast, "Setting the Treadmill"

In Women in Astronomy and Space Science: Meeting the Challenges of an Increasingly Diverse Workforce, Proceedings from the conference held at The Inn and Conference Center University of Maryland University College, October 21—23, 2009, edited by Anne L. Kinney, Diana Khachadourian, Pamela S. Millar and Colleen N. Hartman, p. 244

Nice informal discussion of the author's experience: "... Kids will take everything you have to give. However, keep in mind that your colleagues are big kids – they will also take everything you have to give! Be content in your own mind that you are giving sufficiently to each. Neither will ever be fully satisfied, but you should be!"

"A Cosmologist Resists Academia's Work-Life Norms," by Sarah Reed, from Science (2010)

"Bridle also knew that the culture of academic science dictated working long hours, but she decided she didn't want this lifestyle. She promised herself she wouldn't be in the office late in the evenings or bring her work home on weekends. Contrary to what some people assume, she says, this helps her to get more work done."

"How To Survive and Thrive in the Mother-Mentor Marathon," by Galit Lahav, from Molecular Cell (2010)

Lots of good advice on time management. For example, "One of the most helpful principles I have discovered is the “good enough” principle. In many situations we need to decide that a specific task has reached a good enough level and it is time to move on, so as to free time up to work on something else."

"Women Leaving Science and Engineering – Tips for balancing work & home life," by Elena Strange, from Webgrrls International blog

More good advice on time management. For example, "1. Implicitly establish your hours. Set a precedent that you leave at X o’clock every day, and that you are unavailable in the evenings. As long as you’re performing well, your colleagues and boss will get used to your established availability—even in a workplace that values 'face time.'" Unusually good comments on this post, too.

Telecommuting: How to Make it Work for You by Vickie Elmer, Glassdoor.com

This advice mainly applies to corporate settings, but some of it might apply to postdocs and others in academia.

"Pregnant job seeker," from Job Doc in The Boston Globe, posted by Elaine Varelas, May 27, 2009

What to tell your prospective employer about your plans for returning to work after you have your child, and when to say it.

'I have seen some great hires of talented woman while they were pregnant. The managers and organizations who took this "risk" were able to get exceptional employees with unbelievable organizational loyalty.'

"When to tell the boss that you are pregnant," by Tara Weiss, from Forbes on msnbc.com, updated 8/7/2008

"Be up front and professional to avoid being placed on the 'mommy track.'" Advice geared to corporate settings, but many elements also apply to academic.

"It's never too early to think about how you'll transition to maternity leave. In fact, you might head off your boss' anxiety by proactively figuring out how the work will get done while you're gone. First, consider who will be able to cover for you. Is there someone who does the same job as you or who is interested in learning the skills that come with your position? That person might be ideal to take on some of your responsibilities."

"Forging ahead with astronomy, baby and all," interview with Randi Ludwig by Toni Feder in Physics Today, December 21, 2011

'Randi Ludwig had a baby at age 20, when she was a sophomore physics major at the University of Oklahoma (OU). Because she took time off to care for her daughter, she graduated a year later than expected, at age 23. Now 28, she is at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is on target to the finish her PhD in astronomy next summer. "I feel like I have a very different perspective on life than my peers because of this experience under my belt," says Ludwig.'

"When Scientists Choose Motherhood," by Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci in American Scientist, March-April 2012, p. 143

'A single factor goes a long way in explaining the dearth of women in math-intensive fields. How can we address it? ... The tenure system was created at a time when few women worked outside the home and when raising children was assumed to be women’s work, and thus it was designed for people without significant responsibilities in household work or child care. In fact, many early professors were unmarried men who were expected to live in residence at their universities. A lot has changed since then, but the tenure system itself has remained much the same.'

Persuasive arguments, with data, for universities' adopting family-friendly policies. Attrition rates from research-career-track faculty positions are similar for men and women without children, but, for people with children, are much greater for men than for women.

This article argues that discrimination, including unconscious bias, has only minor impact on women's careers in academia - at least, it doesn't lead us to change jobs.

"The Next Step for Female Scientists," by Mary Ann Mason in The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13, 2012

Discussion of recently adopted parental leave policies at the NSF and the NIH.

'In its newly issued report, "A Forgotten Class of Scientists," the Federal Demonstration Partnership and its Task Force on Parental and Family Leave for Research Trainees focus on graduate students and postdocs, the most vulnerable class of scientists, with the fewest benefits. These are the young female trainees, in their peak childbearing years, who are most likely to abandon a career in research science when they have a child.

The partnership, sponsored by the National Academies, is a cooperative project among 10 federal agencies and 119 academic institutions that receive federal research money. Its study looked closely at the different policies pursued by leading granting agencies and at the laws and regulations that bind the organizations. It also examined how several universities interpreted those laws and regulation. What it found was a tangle of rules and policies at different universities.'

Working Mother - a dedicated web site!

Many resources, including "Working Mother 100 Best Companies" for family-friendly policies.

"Pregnancy and Science Careers," by Sue V. Rosser, from Inside Higher Ed, April 4, 2012

Thoughtful discussion of parenting-related issues in the author's career and the careers of women she has interviewed. The article ends with good, practical steps for women and their mentors to take.

"With an 'S' on My Chest: The Reality of Being a Superwoman," from Women in Higher Education (no author listed)

The subject of this article is Dr. Cynthia K. Gooch, associate VP of equity and diversity at Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College. She discussed 'the topic of work-life balance at the University of Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership conference, held in Lincoln in October 2011.' Here is some of her advice.

'Set clear boundaries about your time and attention. Weigh what’s important to you and what you want to focus on. This can include family and friends, but also pets and hobbies, things that make your life fuller and richer. Build a circle of support.'

'Manage other people’s expectations about your time without being hostile. It’s your job to manage your dean and supervisor, not the reverse. Start early with the need to be flexible and convey it to all parties. Let people know about your other responsibilities and don’t let them minimize what you value.'

'Use effective time management tools and leverage technology to your advantage. Email, online classes and Skype allow you to do your job while staying in one place.'

'Organize your home, your workspace and your car. Just like the old story about eating an elephant one bite at a time, with a bit of organization you can eliminate a lot of work clutter and make your schedule work for you. But avoid the temptation to over-schedule.'

"Why Women Still Can’t Have It All," by Anne-Marie Slaughter, from The Atlantic

A long article, full of wisdom, about how to manage a demanding career, with emphasis on high-level government careers but with relevance for all careers. The author is a law professor at Princeton and spent two years as the director of policy planning at the State Department.

'Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men. After all, we have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand "supporting their families" to mean more than earning money.'

'"Having It All" Is Not a Women's Issue,' by Stew Friedman, from Harvard Business Review Blog Network, June 26, 2012

'We already know what works. The challenge is not figuring it out, again. The challenge is execution. And yet cultural change is a slog. I encounter nearly universal skepticism about the prospects for what most people call "balance," a term that is retrogressive because it compels you to think in terms of tradeoffs. But work and life are not different sides of a see-saw. We need both. It would help if we got rid of that slash between "work" and "life" and, instead, gave more attention to the mounting body of evidence that demonstrates how it is possible to have more of it all — not all of it, but more of it — than most people currently think they can have, by practicing leadership in all parts of their lives; taking realistic steps forward, rooted in what matters most to them and to their most important people, and enlisting the support of others.'

"Balancing act: Early-career scientists discuss the challenges of juggling work and family life, by Cristy Gelling, in ASBMB Today, from the American Society for Biochemistry And Molecular Biology

'... I think we need to hear more from those at the center of the issue: early-career scientists with young children. So on behalf of all those friends who are standing at the brink of parenthood and professional success, I asked 25 postdocs and untenured faculty, both men and women, to share their perspectives and advice on being scientist-parents. What are the challenges? What strategies do they use to cope? And most importantly, what advice do they have for all those fearful would-be parents?'

"On not being Superwoman, or, this is how she does it," from Melissa Terras's blog, August 8, 2012

'It's been almost a year now since I returned from maternity leave to my full time job as an academic at UCL. At the time, I had three children aged 3 and under (The Boy, and The Boys - fraternal twins). Not a week has gone by without someone commenting on the fact that I am Superwoman. So I thought I would explain how I balance having rather a large family of small people and academia: partly to show that it can be done, partly to show that I am not superwoman but incredibly lucky, and partly as a record for myself in the future when I think "how did I do that?"' ...

'So there you have it. A confluence of luck, good choices, hard work, and support have meant that - whisper it - its not terribly stressful to be an academic working mother, for me. It would be much, much harder work to stay at home looking after 3 small boys day in, day out. I've done it. Believe me.

I dont like being called superwoman. It suggests I'm heading for a fall, in lots of ways. So how about this, I'll let you call me superwoman if I maintain my academic trajectory and my boys all make it to a happy, healthy adulthood, and are fulfilled and settled in their own ways (whatever that may turn out to be). Then you can call me superwoman. But for now, I'm just a woman who happens to have a larger-than-usual young family and a job that I really enjoy (and how lucky am I, in both counts?). There are lots of us around, all doing our best: it can be done without fanfare.

You'll also spot that I havent mentioned "work-life balance". I dont believe in it. There are only 24 hours in a day, and its all my life. My work is my life and my home is my life and my family is my life and my addiction to mid-century Belgian ceramics on eBay is my life. Going to the British Museum for a work meeting is as much my life as scraping squashed peas off the floor from under the dining room table, or cranking out a book chapter, or leading a sing-song of She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain, or looking at the UX of an iPhone App, is. Life is full, round, packed, joyous, tiring, exhilarating, exhausting, fast, fun, and being lived. I love my family. I love my job. And this is how I do it.'

"In the World of Tech, Women Can Have It All," by Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky from TechCrunch

'If there is one place where women have the greatest chance to carve new paths toward a fulfilling life and career, it's in tech.'

To see the authors' good reasons for thinking so, read this post.

"Sex and the Working Mom," by Herminia Ibarra, from Harvard Business Review blogs, posted September 5, 2012

'At one of the companies with which I work there is a legendary story about work life balance.

'The firm's most senior line woman was asked to join a newly constituted high-level diversity committee, which included the company CEO. One of the hurdles that was holding women back, everyone agreed, was the high degree of transcontinental travel required of executives in the uppermost echelons, who had to attend a variety of global and regional meetings. Asked about her experience, she told the high-level group: "Let me tell you what diversity means to me. My husband told me 'there will be sex in this house at least once a week, whether you are here or not.' " '

"The Imperfect Balance Between Work and Life," by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, posted August 28, 2012 in Harvard Business Review Blogs

'You can have it all. It just won't all be perfect.

'After years of observing individual struggles to achieve work-life balance - and of enlightened companies to provide it - I've concluded that one major hurdle is artificial images of perfection. Certainly institutional structures don't make it easy to balance work and the rest of life. This is especially true in the U.S., where vacations are short, sabbaticals are rare, school schedules don't align with office hours, and working parents cobble together their own costly support systems. But in addition, American culture holds up myths of perfection — the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect child, the perfect lawn — that consume time, money, and attention. This plagues everyone, but especially women who are candidates for high-powered careers.'

Guest Post: "Graduate Student Mom," by Hannah Fakhouri, in Women in Astronomy blog

'(As an aside, some people say graduate school is a great time to have a baby, but that is highly dependent on other factors in your life. Not only do I have a supportive advisor, but I am married and my husband has a stable job and a good income. These considerations make having a baby feasible, though certainly not easy.)

'I want to share with you a few lessons that I have learned in my journey thus far; they are things that I have always known, but now know much more fully:

'1) Don't be afraid to ask ...

'2) Deadlines are motivators ...

'3) Children require sacrifice' ...

"What's the Best Age to Have a Baby? (It's Older than you Think)," by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, from Huff Post Women, November 29, 2012

' ...The biological "best age" for a baby is clearly out of step, then, with what might be the sociological "best age." Many twentysomethings consider themselves way too scattered and irresponsible to have a child. As Mirowsky put it, "Humans mature reproductively about a decade before Americans mature socially."

'You could also define "best" as meaning the best chance for the health of the infant, rather than the health of the pregnancy itself. With that definition, according to Mirowsky, one California study concluded that the "best age" for first birth, in terms of lowest rates of birth defects, is 26. ... A different study, based on national data, looked at a different measure of a baby's health--rates of overall infant mortality rather than birth defects--and pinned the "best age" even older, at 32.

'Or you could define "best age" as the best outcome for the mother's long-term health--which puts the ideal age older still. ...'

(3) Sharing parenting

"Publish or parent: New College of Education study explores how tenure-track fathers negotiate work-family conflicts," from the University of Texas

'Rochlen, Reddick and graduate students Joe Grasso, Erin Reilly and Daniel Spikes surveyed and interviewed tenure-track assistant professors from a variety of ethnicities and academic areas, all raising at least one child under six years of age.

Many respondents reported experiencing pervasive conflict and strain as they faced tenure demands while trying to play an active, meaningful role as fathers. A common theme was that the tenure process, even when parenting wasn’t figured in, presented considerable challenges to their personal relationships and physical health and mental well-being. How they coped with these challenges often affected the decision whether or not to have more children.'

"Men and Parenting," by Mary Ann Mason, in The Chronicle of Higher Education

'If we want fathers to become equal participants in child raising, we must encourage them to do so. Family-friendly policies must include fathers as well as mothers.'

"Scientist Dads Step Up," by Vijaysree Venkatraman in Science Careers (2010)

'Once women scientists sought role models in laboratories; perhaps it's men who require role models now: male scientists who embrace domesticity.

'If you are focused, efficient, and lucky, it is possible to strike a successful work-family balance, Metallo says. It helps, he admits, if you can afford help ...'

"Why Do Dads Lie on Surveys About Fatherhood?" by Katherine Reynolds Lewis, from Slate

'... this puts men at about where women were 30 years ago—new to the work-life-balance issue and unsure how to square all their identities.'

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This page last updated: May 28, 2013