Flexibility: More than a women’s issue

Last night, Pub-Style Science (formerly Isis vs Tomasson) had, by all accounts, a very stimulating discussion about being a #scimom. Although I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, it sparked a flurry of Twitter & blogging activity in my feeds (e.g. from PLS & Drugmonkey). Dr24Hours had a post on the work-life “balance” and its importance to all scientists, not just those with kids, which set off another deluge of tweets. This is the context under which I return to one of the action points of A Chemical Imbalance.

Create a workplace that supports everyone and allows for flexibility

When I posted my take on the action points, I commented, “This doesn’t focus on family or on women, and I think it’s all the more important for that reason.” With some of the responses to #scimom floating today, it seems an opportune time for a brief explication.

Inevitably flexibility comes up as a solution to family issues and the “leaky pipeline”. I have no doubt that there are special, additional considerations when childbirth and childcare come into play. But when it comes to the discussion of schedule flexibility, I think we need to stop making it about family. I think making it about family can be to the detriment of parents, but also can be to the detriment of the childless.

Focusing a supportive & flexible work environment on those with children creates a divide – an “us vs. them” scenario (from either side of the issue). It frames the issue as if there are different work expectations for the two groups, when in reality, I don’t think there are. Productivity is measured by the same ruler, but there might be the perception in the moment that different burdens are placed on parents vs. non-parents and that there is animosity of the childless toward parents. It calls attention to parents & casts the approach as a “special privilege”, even though it likely confers no real advantage with regard to research.

The flip side is that we need to acknowledge that there are many reasons why someone might need flexibility. Off the top of my head:

  • elder care
  • substance abuse/rehab
  • care for an ill partner
  • depression or other mental illness
  • chronic illness or injury
  • coping with trauma or major life events

We don’t talk often talk about these things and how they might necessitate support & flexibility. Maybe that’s because they’re less prevalent. In some cases, though, there’s a fear of stigmatization – and just a general sense of “it’s none of your business”. My body, my mind, my relationships – those are mine. I should get to decide with whom I share what. Those should be decisions based on trust and connection, not a sense of obligation to explain why I need to adjust my schedule.

But you don’t need to have some challenge plopped in the middle of your life to benefit – both professionally & personally – from a little extra flexibility. Some folks work better in intense bursts, others at a steady, more moderated pace. And I firmly believe that people perform better at their jobs when they have the time & freedom to do things outside work. As Dr24Hours noted, “no-work” hours matter for everyone.

A supportive, flexible workplace is not a thing for women. It’s not a thing for families. It’s a thing for human beings and our messy, messy lives.

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5 Responses to Flexibility: More than a women’s issue

  1. A. Postdoc says:

    Can you tell my advisor that “no-work” hours matter? He didn’t get the memo, and emailed me almost every day of my vacation. The best was the email to multiple faculty telling them that he was on vacation but I would do something that day.

  2. sciwo says:

    I agree whole heartedly and would add that we need to rethink the default idea that academic science careers 60+ hour per week jobs. They’ve gotten that way based on outdated models meeting modern funding/pubs arms races and only work to the advantage of the universities who get away with and benefit from paying salaries to fewer people with PhDs.

  3. inbabyattachmode says:

    You’re right and we did actually talk briefly about how leave policies should also include things like taking care of sick parents etc etc. There’s all sorts of issues that can get in the way of the rather rigid career path in academic science.

  4. dr24hours says:

    I second all of this.

  5. Pingback: Wrapping Up #scimom and Announcing #glamgame for Sept 10, 2013 | Pub-Style Science

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