The conundrum of work-life balance

Our discussions about ethics in class always lead me back to thinking about the pressures of academia that push people into non-ethical behavior.  I recently read an opinion article on work flexibility that I think relates to these kinds of pressures – the pressure people feel to balance work and families. The opinion article was about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent announcement that she leaves her position as vice-president of Facebook at 5:30pm to spend time with her kids:

While the opinion piece is a cry to arms in support of working women who choose work-life balance as a priority, it brought to mind a bigger conundrum to me.

Let’s look at an example: An individual chooses their career as their priority.  They dedicatedly work long hours and their goal is to move upwards into management.  In the same environment, we have a similar individual who has young children and can’t stay at work later than 5pm because of daycare hours.  This individual works hard, but is less productive because they make a point of spending quality time with their children.

Now both individuals apply for the same promotion.  Who do you choose??!?

If I were the one with the family, I wouldn’t want to be penalized for spending time with my family!  I still worked hard and was a productive member of that environment.

But if I were the individual who focused on their career, well, I would feel like my extra work and productivity should count and I should be picked for the promotion.

The conundrum in my opinion is we try to accommodate both individuals with childcare responsibilities along with those who don’t in the same performance evaluation systems – Publish or Perish! – whether it’s in academia or elsewhere.  How do we treat the people who choose not to have children?  Does protection of working parents inadvertently disadvantage those who do not have children?

In my example, the individual who chose not to have children probably looks better on “paper”, having been more productive, and would probably get the promotion.   This is where some of the outcry against pressure on working women comes from – that those who do not have children (or primary childcare responsibilities) are able to spend more time on their careers and ultimately have beefier resumes or CVs.

I don’t have the answer to this situation.  We evaluate people for jobs and promotions by their performance, and to better a workplace we try to hire the people with the best performance.  Even if we could completely change how job candidates/promotions are evaluated, how would we do it to be fair?  I’d love feedback!

About Cat Cowan

2nd year DVM/PhD student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Studying immunology, vet medicine and aiming to stay in academia.
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