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Off Balance: Musings on Work, Life, and Gender

Valparaiso University is about to go on Spring Break and for the next two weeks, things will get a little quiet around Linwood House.  Sort of.  The Fellows will be here less or not at all, as they do other work.  We all know that breaks are not often breaks for those who teach in universities and colleges.  These are times when one can get more work done.  The work of the LFP actually gets busier at this time of year, as we attend to network programs and other matters.  We may have a few long days here, and there, and in April we will start traveling to conferences and meetings.

Reflecting on all these things and this increased work load seems timely as we have just spent the last few weeks reading and discussing articles and short stories that deal with work-life balance.  We began with selections from Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass.  We read Bonnie Miller-McLemore, “Crises of My Own,” Abigail Zuger, “Defining a Doctor,” Jane Addams, “Filial Relations,” Martha Nussbaum, “Interview with Bill Moyers,” and Mary Catherine Bateson, “Composing a Life Story.”  We coupled the Bateson essay with the recent article in The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  (After two weeks of these readings, we dove headlong into Flannery O’Connor, beginning with “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” and ending with “The Enduring Chill.”)

The point of the two-week reading from Leading Lives That Matter was to explore the idea of work-life balance.  Much of what we read the first week pushed at how we determine what is important in our personal or professional lives and, specifically, as in the case of Addams, what part we play in our communities.  As we attempt to fit in quality time with our families, are we cordoning off sufficient time for professional development, for students, and being a good community member (both at our institutions and in our neighborhoods)?  The Miller-McLemore piece delves deeply into the balance question by describing how she resolved the question of children or work, which seems only to be posed to women.  She describes how she and her husband divided their time and made career choices to have their family.  Her essay, which is an excerpt from her work, Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma, identifies how gender factors into this question:

Gender distinctions, however distorted and unjust, remain a backbone of social order, undergirding not just society’s reproductive arrangements, but more plainly, the way people see and understand the world.  People and institutions have a heavy investment in perpetuating these distinctions.

Miller-McLemore goes on to point to the “[a]mbiguity in gender identity, from mothers in the workplace to transsexuality” that makes many uncomfortable.  People still (as she writes in 1994) are

uncomfortable with the inconsistencies, the lack of clarity, and the impossibilities of closure. Although adults learn far more sophisticated ways than do children to camouflage their uneasiness when a young father arrives at a preschool tea, and his wife comes and talks about her profession, they are just as uncomfortable. (Leading Lives that Matter, 265)

One can argue that today, it is more common and accepted that fathers tend to their children in public and private spheres.  They leave work to pick up the ailing child from day care, or they as in the case of Miller-McLemore’s husband opt for a position that enables him to be more present in their child’s life.  This is commendable, and we as a society tend to laud those fathers who blur the lines between personal and professional life.  Yet, what of the woman who has to leave work to pick up her sick child? Or brings her to office hours or class because her child’s fever broke, but not soon enough to be allowed back into daycare or school?  Is she subprofessional, whereas  is he all at once pitied for his sacrifice, praised for his involvement, and seen as a valued and stable colleague – a real family man?

The question, ultimately, for Miller-McLemore is, what do we value?  Answering that, one chooses.  And those choices could lead us to a new model for work-life balance, one that  should reorder the gender/work system by which we operate.  The academic world of higher education, Miller-McLemore asserts, still operates on an outmoded assumption that men are the bread winners and women stay at home with children.  This just isn’t the case any longer and since the academy is dominated by two-income relationships, why then, the author asks, doesn’t the structure of the academy change?  As one member of the colloquium offered, “the traditional tenure model makes it very difficult for a women to have children in the seven years leading up to tenure review, and yet these are also often crucial years for her biologically, should she want to have children.”  I would add further questions: How can we re-envision this process that is fair and equitable for those with and without families?    In the current climate where we constantly debate the future of the liberal arts and the changing model of higher education towards online learning, why not scrap the whole thing and rebuild the system from the ground up to consider a new gender perspective?

We are an ambitious bunch in our weekly Colloquium, but we only meet for an hour and a half.  We took up this question of work-life balance again the next week by coupling the second week’s reading, Mary Catherine Bateson’s “Composing a Life Story” with the now infamous Slaughter article that appeared in The Atlantic.  Slaughter’s article is troublesome for me on so many different levels that I could spend an entire post and then some giving you the litany of reasons.  I am troubled most by what Slaughter posits as success for women and how most women, myself included, will never achieve it because we chose wrong.  And to be frank, the day-to-day worries of economic sustainability all while being a thoughtful, productive (not to mention respected) member of my work community, and being a reasonably nice person at home, doesn’t leave room for a lot of second-guessing the choices I have made.

That said, Slaughter points to some very important issues that are meaningful and should not be dismissed.  Chief among these is women’s access to power.  Having women in key and central positions of power, whether political or professional, is one important way (hopefully) we will see greater gender equity in our society.  But, if those women in power do not work to support a change in the system as we know it which allows for more actual, healthy, work-life balance, then all we have are women in power perpetuating a system which punishes women for having families.

As we discussed Bateson’s essay, we thought about how we compose our lives – what choices propelled us in what directions and how we understand those choices to help us navigate our futures.  All this to say that we cannot plan out our lives; we do not have that much control.  This connected to Slaughter in an interesting way because by her own choice, she left a position of political power to spend more time with her teenage sons.  As a full professor at Princeton University, however, she is not devoid of power.   As a woman with power and a voice to which people actually listen, her message of how young women should “compose their lives” is that they have to plan every step, from the type of man they marry, to taking steps early to ensure their future fertility, and to, as one of my colleagues put it, “having impeccable timing.” (Slaughter’s model does not consider same-sex couples.)

What she is saying is not wrong.  It is just not very helpful to women (and to men).  Not everyone gets to be full professors at Princeton. Or at Valparaiso University for that matter.  If I may steal one of our questions from this late afternoon’s discussion,

To what extent do we think the academy has or has not dispelled the myths about women’s ability to succeed professionally while still being actively engaged with their families, especially a belief that individual choice can trump structural impediments?

Again, I would add to this question.  Because the academy is seen as a more liberal environment, can we assume that we have true gender equity?  Or is it just as subject to a persistent culture that preferences men over women and sets the standard of success based upon a male-centered norm?  This leads me to wonder if we often ask the question of work-life balance of women within this context of “having it all” and not nearly enough of men.  (What really is “it” and why would we want so much of it?)

Of course the hour and a half was up far too soon and we did not solve all the problems of the academy, our community, and our world.  But, we certainly tried.  The next two weeks we looked to Flannery O’Connor for some direction and inspiration. But, that is for another post.

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