Work-life balance and academic parents

I haven’t written here for a while because I’ve been busy hanging out with my new baby. I’ve also been busy thinking about how we still haven’t achieved a normalised work culture that truly supports parents/carers to build a career around their family. I’m writing from my perspective as a woman and a mother, but most of these points also apply to other parents and carers.

It’s well-documented that academia has entrenched problems with gender diversity at senior levels, partly because of women leaving/being forced out of academic careers due to their choices around having children. A lot has been done to address this, but there’s still a lot more to do.

We need systemic change, not piecemeal initiatives and more cupcakes. We need to normalise ‘having a family/life priorities’ at work. Instead of trying to help parents to maintain pre-baby levels of work productivity, academic work expectations have to change long-term to enable parents to truly find some work-life balance.

Forcing women to choose between relying on childcare to continue working vs. quitting work to care for their child is not equitable.

There are a lot of great articles out there about the experiences of mums and other parents/carers in academia and how academic employers can support them better. I’m not going to offer any ground-breaking new insights. But it is a conversation we need to keep having, so here are my thoughts on some of the broader issues around being a parent in academia.

A note on work-life balance

Work-life balance is almost always talked about in terms of the hours and days worked (a quantity) as a metric for balance (a quality).

One of the greatest tricks corporate bosses ever pulled was convincing us that completely disengaging work from the rest of our life is a sign of healthy work-life balance. In fact, it’s just a way to ensure your employer gets maximum productivity out of you, with no distractions.

Work and life are not mutually exclusive – work is just another part of your life. A necessary part to survive and achieve some goals, but maybe not the most important for your wellbeing. Work-life balance has very little to do with what hours of the day you actually work (9-5 M-F isn’t normal for most occupations). It’s about whether the expectations of your role are reasonable and, most importantly, how much flexibility and support you have to ‘work around’ your life.

For me, work-life balance doesn’t come from separating work from the rest of my life. It’s about being able to prioritise the most important parts of my life (family, personal wellbeing) over work when I need to, without falling behind on, or being forced to forfeit, my career path.

Some things I think could help parents:

1. Acknowledging career interruptions beyond leave time.
Being a parent is a full-time job. Your parenting responsibilities don’t magically end when your leave finishes. It’s great that we can claim parental leave as career interruptions when metrics matter, e.g. for grants and promotions. But it would help to differentiate parenting/caring from other temporary interruptions (e.g. unemployment) and formalise the long-term impact that parenting responsibilities have on a parent’s availability and productivity.

2. Give partners access to more paid parental leave.
Two weeks official leave is the (very low) standard for partners in Australia. When my husband booked leave with his employer, the admin person said “if you only want to take a couple of days off, just book that as personal leave [instead of taking the full 2 weeks under the parental leave category]”. The idea that mothers carry the full burden of care, and the other partner isn’t needed for support (let alone wanting to bond with their child too!), is entrenched. Increasing paid leave for partners is an important step to address this.

3. Promote work-life diversity, not rigid work hours.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us how important work flexibility is and how many tools we have to work remotely when needed. The corporate standard of 9-5 M-F works as a social contact guideline but not a physical expectation, especially for parents and carers. A lot of the discussion around banning emails outside business hours, or mandatory office contact hours are not equitable solutions. Work-shaming people who can’t be available within the boundaries of a corporate working week doesn’t increase diversity, it actively suppresses it.

4. Flexible grant deadlines and less intensive applications.
This is a recurring discussion that applies to all academics, but is particularly important to support parents. Ban grant deadlines during major holiday periods, e.g. ARC grants due Dec-Feb, and, regardless of grant deadline date, require shorter less intensive applications. There is absolutely no need for hundreds of pages of text and minute levels of detail when most applications won’t be funded, it only succeeds in deterring applications from many eligible researchers who don’t have time to write a long application.

5. Normalise and incentivise online conferences and committee meetings.
Parents often have to forfeit conference attendances or external board/committee meetings because of clashes with caring responsibilities. It took COVID-19 to show that online options are important for equitable access to attendance. In future, it would be great to see mixed mode meetings become the norm and the ‘fun’ attendance incentives (e.g. dinners, field trips etc.) also extended to online attendees in a more relevant form (e.g. vouchers, membership discounts).

6. Realistic admin expectations.
I’ve written before about the curse of unnecessary admin expectations and the struggle to balance teaching and research. Institutions and funding bodies could allocate funds (either separate small grants or eligible expenditure within grants) to pay for admin/professional staff to help parents manage some of the extraneous administrative load.

7. Service roles.
Service roles are essential for academic careers, and an important cog in the community network, but this burden often disproportionately falls to women with long term impacts on their career trajectory. The neoliberalist ‘just say no’ advice selects for certain personality types and unfairly outsources responsibility onto individuals, when it should be up to institutions to address this. Ideas to start: establish more standardised ways of measuring service contributions, develop standards for acknowledging external service (e.g. editorial work, peer review, society boards etc.) relative to internal roles, and also acknowledge emerging service roles such as public outreach and engagement. For parents in particular, institutions could reduce service loads, or target less intensive service roles specifically at parents.

8. Physical and financial support from employers.
There are so many ways institutions support parents at work, including dedicated parent rooms, on-site childcare services, ‘bringing children to work’ policies, core meeting hours during the middle of the day, making regular department and committee meetings online, scheduled social days (eg morning tea days) so parents can plan ahead to attend, and normalising flexible ‘work from home’ cultures.

Financial support is important too, including ‘returning from leave’ seed grants, funds to cover field assistants during pregnancy, more flexible sick leave to cover caring for sick children, and more (thanks to everyone who replied to my thread below!).

Hopefully, some of you will be thinking “but this is already happening in my institution/society/discipline!”. That’s great, but these things aren’t standard, and often they’re only accessible to those ‘in the know’ or the people who have been there the longest.

Parents shouldn’t have to ask and fight for support to engage with work on their terms. The ability to prioritise family without forfeiting career should be equitable and normalised across the board.

One final point. Academia benefits from supporting parents to stay in the workforce. Neuroscience research shows that ‘baby brain’ is probably real and, despite the derogatory myth, it’s a good thing. Mum’s brains change during pregnancy and birth to focus more on social cognition processes, including empathy and understanding other people’s emotions/intentions etc. Similar changes have been found in fathers and other parents/caregivers. Baby brain is an obvious benefit for looking after the baby, it may have long-term benefits for mum, but it’s also a much-needed skill in the academic workplace.

© Manu Saunders 2022

2 thoughts on “Work-life balance and academic parents

  1. Finola March 22, 2022 / 8:20 PM

    Great post, Manu – and huge congratulations to you and your partner on the new baby!

    Liked by 1 person

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