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The Balancing Act

Why work-life balance matters in higher ed, especially for retaining faculty of color — and how institutions can get it right

September 27, 2018
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Research in higher education has repeatedly pointed to a need for more faculty of color: non-white faculty members make up only 21 percent of full-time faculty nationwide and can often face discrimination, racism, and isolation throughout their careers.

Research has also pointed to the dire need for work-life balance among academics. Lack of work-life balance is associated with poorer health — both physical and emotional — for faculty members, as well as lower rates of job retention and satisfaction.

But what role does work-life balance play in retaining faculty of color? Could helping people achieve work-life balance mean losing fewer qualified faculty to other fields? Those are questions that researchers using data from Harvard University's Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) sought to answer by analyzing survey results from nearly 3,000 faculty members at 69 institutions. About 36 percent of the analytic sample were Asian American, 17 percent African American, 12 percent Latinx, and 35 percent were white.

Overall, the researchers found that ambivalence or dissatisfaction with work-life balance cuts through race and ethnicity. Race did not predict perceptions of work-life balance, except for in one case: Asian American respondents were far more likely to report satisfaction with their work-life balance; respondents from other groups tended to report either dissatisfaction with their work-life balance, or ambivalence.

While race, for the most part, did not predict perceptions of balance, the authors of the study say it is an important factor to consider, since lack of balance may add to the considerable stressors that faculty of color experience. Past studies have shown that faculty of color face repeated inequities, from undervaluing of their research by their peers and institutions to unreasonably high service expectations.

“Work-life balance literature focuses predominantly on white faculty, or it does not consider race at all, so we also felt like the literature on work-life balance was very skewed to focus on white faculty members,” says study co-author Katalin Szelenyi, a researcher from the University of Massachusetts Boston. “White faculty experiences were standing in for the experiences of all faculty.”

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It’s important to consider how the discrimination faculty of color endure shapes the entirety of their experiences in academia, including work-life balance.

Predictors of balance — or lack thereof

The study did find some factors, aside from race, that correlated strongly with faculty members' perception of balance, however.

For white faculty members, having kids was one such predictor of the perception of balance. White respondents who were married with kids tended to be more satisfied with work-life balance than their single, childless counterparts. (The researchers want to look more into why this was race-specific.)

Getting promotions was correlated with balance for respondents of all races, echoing previous research that shows that faculty with higher ranks and tenure spend more time with their loved ones outside of work and have more power to change expectations about work-life balance in their workplaces.

The strongest predictor of perception of balance was a perception of institutional support for making a career in academia compatible with obligations in the outside world. Institutions and departments that emphasize work-life balance through policy and by cultivating a culture that values balance, are more likely to get balance. In other words, the clearest way to have faculty members who feel a sense of balance — and therefore, who are, on the whole, happier, more productive, and more willing to stick around — is to make balance an explicit priority.

That’s good news, says Szelenyi. “The fact that perception is so strongly related to work-life balance is really promising, because the institution can do so many things that shift the perception in positive ways,” including changing policies and starting explicit conversations about the importance of balance.

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How administrators can help
  • Make sure you're recognizing all of a faculty members' responsibilities — and compensating them accordingly.
  • Be clear about expectations, including around getting tenure.
  • Provide affordable childcare (and enact other concrete policies that help support families, too). 
  • Model work-life balance in your own life (and limit late-night emails!). 

Making balance an institutional priority 

James Soto Antony, the director of the higher education master's program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and a former associate provost at Yale University and the University of Washington), says that universities can take the following steps to create that perception of institutional support for balance — or, better yet, create actual supports.

  • Update job descriptions. A lot of faculty — especially women or faculty of color, who are more often tapped to be on committees or to serve as mentors — do a lot that is not in their official job description. Antony says that the way to change that is to make official what people are already doing, so they are recognized and rewarded. “Institutions need to get better at recognizing formal and informal commitments faculty dedicate themselves to propel institutions. Let’s codify it; let’s give credit people for work they’re doing so their work-life balance can be healthier.” That means, if they’re doing extra work, taking away some responsibilities, too.
  • Be clear. A lot of the workaholic culture in academia is grounded in fear, especially for junior faculty member — fear that if one isn’t working around the clock, tenure is out of the question. Institutions and senior faculty can remedy this by being clear about what goes into decisions about promotions and tenure. “Help people really understand where they stand and what they need to do to be successful,” Antony says, and then structure their responsibilities accordingly. If you want junior faculty to focus on research productivity, don’t saddle them with several classes to teach and students to mentor. You’re only setting them up for a never-ending work week — or failure.
  • Provide affordable childcare (and enact other concrete policies that help support families, too). Help people create boundaries between work and home by making it easier for them to make sure their children are taken care of while they’re at work. Be generous with family and maternity leave, and create the expectation that people actually take it. “There are things we can do to correct this culture and actually encourage the idea that work-life balance is not only important in its own right but yields better work for everyone.”
  • Model balance. Administrators and senior faculty set the tone, Antony says. “Faculty hold a lot of power in a university and they help set the tone for an entire institution,” and if you’re sending email at all hours of the night, staff, students and your colleagues will feel pressure to do so too.
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