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Webgrrls Wisdom » Women Leaving Science and Engineering – Tips for balancing work & home life

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Welcome to Webgrrls Wisdom, a blog to find commentaries about women's careers, business, technology, and the industry.

Women Leaving Science and Engineering – Tips for balancing work & home life

written by Elena Strange
Elena Strange
Topics: Business, Career, Women in Technology, Work-Life Balance
Veiw all posts written by

Last week, Forbes magazine published an article regarding why women leave science and engineering. Among other significant factors, such as pay and promotion disparities, they cite a force in driving women out of the field that really hits home with me: work hours.

We work long hours in science and engineering, no question about that. We work early, late, at home, on the weekends, and on vacation.  I’ve worked on planes (Efficient? Yeah, but I’d rather sleep.) and in Vegas hotels. Maybe we don’t work longer or harder than folks in other fields, but we necessarily have state-of-the-art technology and communication tools for our jobs, and we’re expected to use them even in our off hours.

I’m not perfect at balancing work and home, but I’ve learned a few things during my time as a software engineer, both from my own experience and from others’. Here are some ideas:

  1. Implicitly establish your hours. Set a precedent that you leave at X o’clock every day, and that you are unavailable in the evenings. As long as you’re performing well, your colleagues and boss will get used to your established availability—even in a workplace that values “face time.”
  2. Explicitly establish your hours. When you’re leaving for vacation, send a note to your colleagues that you’ll be offline during that time. When you’re working closely with a group on a hectic, high-profile project, let them know you’ll answer late-night emails or convene with the group first thing in the morning.
  3. If you can, shorten your commute. Move closer to work or find a job closer to home. A shorter commute means a shorter, easier day. I myself desperately need to heed this advice, with a San Francisco-to-Silicon Valley journey via bicycle and train that takes nearly 3 hours out of my day.
  4. Lie a little. Just a little! A tiny fib can make your life a little bit easier—you have plans, you don’t have access to email, whatever. If a half-truth will help you out, you have my permission to lay it on.
  5. Don’t feel guilty. You’re doing your job, and you’re probably doing it well. The company isn’t going to lose anything if you don’t answer midnight e-mails.

All of these approaches are easier said than done, and all of them
take a bit of chutzpah. But once you get caught in an expectation of
being always-available and putting in over-the-top hours, it’s hard to
break out of it—and that’s when women leave our field for something that seems more appealing.

Why do our hours help drive women out of the field, but not men? It could be that we have an egalitarian situation where both genders work the same number of hours, but it hits women harder. After all, surveys show that we still do twice as much housework as our husbands, a responsibility that makes it tougher to bring work home with us. On the other hand, maybe we have to put in more time than our male colleagues to create the perception that we’re working equally hard.

At my job, I’ve felt it’s a little of both. Sometimes I resolve to go home early, not check in over the weekend, and that always seems to be the day that my boss asks me, “Can you get this done by Monday?” He asks that on Friday. If I follow my own advice, maybe that can change.

Are you always-available when it comes to work? How have you put limits on your time?

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Did you enjoy this post? Comments (6)


Comment by Jack the black
2010-06-24 00:40:30

Great blog post and very illuminating

Comment by Renita
2010-06-24 11:55:37

I couldn’t agree more about your recommendations on how to balance the work and home needs. And you are correct, it is easier said than done. While I am not in the sciences, I have seen the toll it takes on my partner as she grapples with these issues.

Thank you for this important post!

Comment by Doh
2010-06-24 15:55:37

Dr. Strange,

All great thoughts. May I add a few?

In general:

1. Women are taught to compensate for others, so we end up caretaking at work and expending time and energy on others that men do not. We get tired.

2. We have an easier time of maintaining balance if we actually like going home and not working. Unless we have good taste in men, we often pick men who are not as generous as we are, so going home often means more compensating and caretaking. Work can look more attractive: At least there’s a pay off.

3. Women have more connections between the left and right hemispheres, so we can have more difficulty compartmentalizing. It is easier for guys to separate work/home/play, where we see responsibility/responsibility/guilt in the same trifecta. They also take less energy to make any decisions because they confine themselves to one simpler moral or ethical or practical code.

4. Women are much more aware of relationships, between work and the people, between coworkers, with spouses, while men just see a hierarchy and a task. So we are maintaining relationships while they are getting from A to B. You can stop anywhere on a trip from A to B, but you have to be busy with relationships all the time.

5. Women have been fighting since we were undergrads to be in science and be accepted, whereas guys were haled and patted on the back all the way. Looking at 20 more years of fighting, proving yourself over and over, yet still being paid less and offered less advancement would make anyone get the FIs (the Fooey Its) and move on.

I will take your advice, although I’m no longer in science, because it’s better than what I’ve come up with myself.

2010-06-26 08:41:44

Definitely good tips. I’d also add:

– It’s important to learn how to say “no”. I think a lot of people early in their career can be afraid to do this. But I’ve found managers respect those who show their ability to manage their time well in this regard.

– It’s good to delegate tasks when your plate is full. This is easier of you’re officially supervising people, but if you’re not, it’s helpful to learn techniques to convince others to do things for you. Sometimes if you say “yes” to something, you can ask for something in return. Sometimes you can store up favors. It’s all a bit of a delicate balancing act, but definitely one that is necessary as you move up the ranks.

Comment by Cameron Phillips
2010-06-27 02:00:57

Hi Elena,

I’d like to offer a bit of perspective which may, in the world of the internet where it is hard to judge tone, come across as a battle of the sexes. I assure you it isn’t intended that way.

You asked the very valid question, “Why do our hours help drive women out of the field, but not men?”

The short answer is that men still feel overwhelming pressure to be financial providers: we are supposed to put in long hours at the office.

In spite of our intellectual shifts about traditional gender roles over the past 30 years, social policy, workplace culture, Hollywood and Madison Avenue have yet to catch up. I’ll give you a few examples. A mom comes back to work after having a baby. If she’s coming back part time, she might hear, “Oh, you had such a promising career track ahead of you.” If she comes back full time she might hear, “…but what about the kids?” When a man comes back to work after becoming a dad, no one asks, “but what about the kids?” Why? Because we still expect men to be breadwinners and we totally devalue what fatherhood brings to our children. At least the apparent “no win” scenario for a mom coming back to work is borne from the fact that we respect her abilities and value as both a mom and a working professional. We don’t offer men that same dual respect when it comes to parenting. No one feels like a man is letting his kids down, or that they would suffer in any way by him being at the office (men still put in, on average, more hours at the office, by the way.) When you combine that with the fact that we still pay women less than men with the constant pop culture depiction of dad as the bumbling, inept caregiver who needs to be rescued by mom, the message we get as men is “Go to work. It’s the best thing you can do for your family.”

I am with you 100% that women are still doing the bulk of the work at home. I would suggest, however, that the end to that problem will come about when men begin to stand up for their rights to be seen as equally important caregivers to their children. It will come when men have access to the same sort of work place flexibility that is generally more accessible to working moms. It will come when men begin to speak out about their lack of work life balance (which according to some studies is now being reported more by men than women.) It will come when well-meaning-yet-unwilling-to-let-go-of-control mom stop criticizing dad for the way he dresses the kids or packs the diaper bag. And it will come when we say “no” to the constant depiction of “incompetent-dad” in pop culture (can you imagine a commercial where we the woman is the punch line because she’s failing in a traditional ‘man’s job’ simply because she is a woman?)

It gets much, much more complicated than that. And what might seem like a divisivie issue between the sexes is really two sides of the same coin. The same forces that put ridiculous pressures on women to still feel judged by how good a mom she is and how clean her house is are the ones that keep dad away from the family.

I actually run a business called Bettermen Solutions where I give corporate keynotes and workshops on this very issue—with my focus on overcoming the growing issue of men’s work life balance. At the root, however, the problem isn’t just a man’s issue or a woman’s issue, it’s a societal one.

Hope I provided some food for thought.

Cameron Phillips

Comment by Elena Strange
2010-06-27 11:55:19

I love these comments, thanks everyone!

@Cameron, I totally agree that we devalue men’s role in parenting. I have no kids myself, but whenever I hear about men “babysitting” their own kids or “helping out” around the house, it drives me absolutely *batty*.

And that goes right to your point of being a societal issue—I hear similar comments from men about themselves and from women about their partners. The attitude comes from all sides, I think.

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