Universities strive for work-life balance

July 14, 2008 12:51:08 PM PDT
It's called the "unfinished revolution." The women's liberation movement of the sixties and seventies changed the landscape of the working world, but feminist leaders feel the changes didn't go far enough. Now universities are on the forefront of a growing trend, searching for solutions to balancing work and life with children.

When Mary Ann Mason became the first woman dean of UC Berkeley's graduate schools in 2000, she was thrilled to see that for the first time, women made up slightly more than half of all graduate students. However, she also knew that number would not be reflected down the line in those students' careers.

Even at Berkeley, only 23 percent of tenure track faculty are women. Two years ago, Mason says though women received 46 percent of the doctorates, only 26 percent of the new faculty hires on campus were women. She says that pattern has been the norm for 40 years and she set out to discover why.

"We were able to actually to clearly pinpoint when and at what point and for what reasons women dropped out of the pipeline. Why you got only 23 percent of the faculty when starting out you had and for a longtime been 40-some percent of the graduate students who were graduating," says Mason.

Mason's research turned into the book, "Mothers on the Fastrack: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers." It covers not only academics, but women with advanced degrees in professions like law and medicine.

She found that though women were getting in the door, having children was still a major obstacle to staying there and advancing upward.

"I call them the make-or-break years between about the ages of 30 and 40 and that's true for all these professionals which are set up basically on a male model and haven't changed frankly since the 19th century, that you have to work your hardest and show your best in the very same years in which you must reproduce if you're going to do so at all," says Mason.

She started by making changes in her own backyard, at Berkeley, developing family friendly policies to support women and men students who wanted to have children. She has stepped down as dean and is now devoting her time to creating Berkeley's new Center for Health and Economic Security for Familes. Among the issues it will address is work-life balance.

"It's something that society should think about not just individuals with individual solutions, this is a social issue with social solutions," says Mason.

Chris Golde is an assistant dean at Stanford. She says there is a real trend away from all or nothing careers among her students.

"More and more students are raising the questions early about balance and how to have balance so I think there's been a cultural shift in this country," says Golde.

"I would say right now we're in a very fertile period of experimentation trying to see what works," says Myrah Strober who teaches a class at Stanford's business school called "Work and Family."

"They expect to learn two things. One is how they might balance their own work and family lives and the second is how can they be the kinds of managers who are going to help people who work for them balance work and family," says Strober.

Strober's been teaching a version of this class since 1971. She says men are becoming more and more interested in it. Last year a third of her students were men. She thinks that bodes well for continued change in the workplace, though she cautions her students that at home, you're on your own.

"Deciding who to marry is probably the most important career decision you're going to make," says Strober.

Strober and Mason agree on one change that could revolutionize the workplace for everyone -- better childcare. The last childcare bill approved by Congress was vetoed by President Nixon in 1971.


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