A New Year’s Resolution: Work and Family Balance?

Last month four female scientists received Nobel prizes in economics, medicine, and chemistry. These women should be lauded for their scientific achievements as they become role models to women around the globe. In October, Science held a phone conference between these women and some science journalists, with highlights from the discussion concerning career and family balance posted on the Science Careers Blog. As of 31 December the blog had received no comments or trackbacks unlike many of the women-in-science blogs found throughout the Internet, which are rife with comments. What is there within the personal stories—even the anonymous stories—found in women-in-science blogs that leads to commenting and an e-community? The community of women’s professional networks and the ways in which career and family can be balanced are topics discussed thoroughly in the Women in Chemistry Oral History Project. Did these new Nobel laureates say anything in their conversation highlights that differs or stands out from the stories of other women or the blogosphere? Yes and no.

Yes Carol Greider praised the flexibility that an academic position can provide, which does not necessarily have to be 9-to-5 as many traditional jobs are. “You know, I’ll go out for my son’s play at school at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then come back again, and that kind of freedom to have a flexible schedule, I think, is not always true in other professions. So it’s a reason for people to choose science over some other careers that they might have.”

Finding a job that is not simply 9-to-5 is often recommended to scientists trying to balance career and family. Since labwork and the constant writing associated with publishing and grants does not work on the same clock as other jobs, there often exists flexibility in hours and location of work. Many people will work part-time at work and part-time at home. In fact ScienceCareers recommends negotiating for such flex-time.

No Ada Yonath, when asked about work-life balance, answered: “In my day-to-day life, I don’t sit and think about this, it just comes. This is the way I am and this is the way I run my life, and I don’t really sit and organize myself. . . . It just happens.” While most of the oral-history interviewees have said they try hard not to waste precious time sitting and thinking about work-life balance, it is something that requires constant vigilance and is something that is never accomplished.

For instance, one of the two longtime bloggers at ScienceWomen signed off recently saying, “I need to stop. I need to refocus on how to do this job in a way that is balanced—and I don’t mean research vs. teaching, or work vs. home. Those are dichotomies that are too simplistic. I mean in a way that makes me feel as though I am focusing on a balance of important and urgent, that I have been able to do at least some of the things in life that are important and matter, whether at work or at home, whether in the classroom or out of it, instead of always feeling like I’m fighting fires wherever I am.”

Balance is clearly not something one can ignore or forget about. It is dynamic and often elusive. One simply cannot afford to become complacent. There is always the risk of running behind, being stretched too thin, or not being stretched at all and becoming lost in one aspect of your life.

In November, ScienceCareers conducted a survey of scientists to see what percentages hope to have a career and a family. The percentages were highly in favor of having a family. However, there was no statistical data to make this survey really interesting or conclusive. There was no gender breakdown, no disciplines noted, no understanding of what ScienceCareers meant when they asked whether people would wait to start a family until their career was established, and no way really to relate this survey to the stories of our Nobel laureates, oral-history interviewees, or others.

In her oral-history interview chemist Donna Nelson encouraged women to get as much advice as they could and do whatever was best for them. Whether the best thing is finding a 9-to-5 job that truly ends at 5, or a job with flexible hours that can sometimes be unclear when the workday ends, or . . . who knows.

Finding balance is a personal and often painful experience. It is so much more than a New Year’s resolution. Let us all learn from the newest female Nobel laureates and others: continue to discuss the issues of work and family balance, so no one becomes complacent.

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