This is one of several short essays that was prepared as a set of resources during the original NSF ADVANCE grant period. This essay, written by Vanessa Jean, introduces some of the literature on work-family conflict, work-life balance, especially as it relates to academic careers.
Work-Family Conflict and Theories About the Work-Family Interface
There are numerous theories that are often used by researchers to explain work-family conflict. One such theory is role theory. Role theory proposes that people hold many roles in life and that conflicting demands, in this case from the work and family roles, lead to interrole conflict. Work-family conflict (WFC) is defined as the interrole conflict that occurs when demands from work and family roles are incompatible, making involvement in each individual role more difficult as a result of the other role (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985).
Conservation of resources theory is another theory applied to work-family research, which states that individuals seek to obtain and manage resources, and that resource loss leads to the experience of stress (Hobfoll, 1989). In the work-family context, WFC leads to lost resources, which results in stress.
Key Research Findings
Some faculty members try to have their children at the beginning of the summer, when classes are not typically in session, to avoid the potential career consequences associated with taking time off for childbirth and early childcare. This phenomenon has been labeled “May babies” and is common practice in universities, as is hiding pregnancies from colleagues prior to achieving tenure (Armenti, 2004).
Goulden, Frasch, and Mason (2009) examined the grant funding of married tenure-track faculty with young children and found that female faculty were 21% less likely than their male counterparts to have their work funded (in full or in part) by federal grants. Although this research is correlational, it highlights potential career consequences faced by women faculty caring for small children that men with similar circumstances do not seem to experience.
Researchers have repeatedly found “motherhood penalties” for women and “fatherhood premiums” for men, in both academia and industry (Correll, Benard, & Paik, 2007; Mason, Wolfinger, & Goulden, 2013). Motherhood penalties refer to negative career consequences experienced by working mothers (e.g., salary reductions, job loss), while fatherhood premiums refer to the career bonuses (e.g., salary increases, promotions) fathers receive following the birth of a child.
Why Do Faculty Experience Work-Family Conflict?
One potential reason that faculty experience WFC, particularly female faculty, is the overlap of the biological clock with the tenure clock. According to data from 2007 and 2009, most babies in the United States are born to women who are 20-24 years old (Sutton, Hamilton, & Matthews, 2011). This timeframe for reproduction and caring for small children coincides with the tenure clock, which is critical for career advancement in academia.
Another potential source of WFC among faculty members is eldercare demands. Many adult children care for their or their spouse’s aging parents, and some even care for elderly parents while also raising children; this subset is sometimes referred to as the “sandwich generation” (Hammer & Neal, 2008). Eldercare presents unique challenges that differ significantly from childcare in their impact on the work role. For example, employed eldercare providers report having less supervisor support, less access to flexible work arrangements, and less job security compared to their counterparts who provide different types of care (e.g., childcare; Pitts-Catsouphes, Matz-Costa, & Besen, 2009).
Strategies to Improve Work-Life Balance for Faculty Members
There are many strategies that intend to reduce the WFC experienced by faculty members. For example, tenure clock extension policies allow faculty members to add a year (or two) onto their tenure clock timeframe due to the birth or adoption of a child, or other life-altering events (e.g., divorce, health issues). Tenure clock extension policies are designed to give faculty extra time to meet the bar for tenure while also handling family duties, and are usually available to both men and women faculty. Another benefit provided by universities for faculty and staff that attempts to alleviate WFC are onsite, high quality childcare centers. Having onsite childcare has been found to be critical for faculty with children and provides the peace of mind faculty need to complete their work tasks (Jean, Payne, & Thompson, 2015).
For more information, please consult these selected references.