Why Don’t We Talk About Work-Family Life Balance in Graduate School?

While at Fletcher we receive plenty of training, both directly and indirectly, to prepare us for our careers ahead. We learn how to network, draft resumes, write the perfect memo, and hone our skills with simulations. We also have the privilege of receiving numerous accomplished speakers in the field of international relations who come educate us about their work. At these talks, it is common to hear students and faculty ask the speakers for advice, or about how they made it to where they are today, but the answers rarely include the issue of balancing work and family; it seems as if this is considered a private matter, not suitable for professional encounters on campus. However, the problem is that this balance is something most young professionals urgently need to negotiate within the first years of their careers, as the choices they make will have a significant and lasting impact.

International relations is a male-dominated field. We hear this all the time at Fletcher. One of the consequences of such hegemony is that the jobs and careers we are seeking were designed under the assumption that those occupying the positions would have no impediments to applying themselves unconditionally to the job. What allowed these people (predominantly men) to offer such dedication was the fact that their partner (most often a synonym for wife) could in the meantime take care of the family and house chores. For decades this was the usual state of affairs.

The increase in the number of women working in international affairs in recent years has not transformed the field.  Instead, it has forced these women to fully commit to their careers, with the caveat that in many cases they cannot count on having a partner who stays home taking care of the family. Young couples, therefore, often find themselves both working long hours and so certain decisions and compromises need to be made. Men and women, however, do not face these decisions on equal standing. American women today are the most educated ever, and yet it is the most educated among them who face the biggest gender gaps in seniority and pay.[1] The jobs that graduate students tend to access have increasingly valued people with around-the-clock availability. This increase in demand has occurred roughly in tandem with more women accessing these jobs and marrying men with similar education levels. In addition to being paid less, women face more social pressure to spend time with their children, which is why they are often the ones who compromise their career: not only for the sake of their children, but also to better enable their partners’ busy careers. Senior-level and managerial jobs are currently incompatible with significant family time, and many jobs that require advanced degrees are “up-or-out” and make few accommodations to those who cannot compete, in terms of time available, at that level.

The nature of work today pushes couples with similar career potential to take on unequal roles. Homemaking is not valued, either socially or financially, as compared with standard employment. Research shows that college-educated women are the most prepared to have successful careers and yet their careers often flatline.[2] Men and women with advanced degrees have similar jobs when they first access the job market, but ten years later women earn significantly less. This is not only because of women being paid less for the same work, but because they work shorter hours and take more breaks in order to raise children and complete tasks at home. In other words, having a family is incompatible with both parents having strong, successful careers. Outsourcing childcare is an option for some but financially impossible for many, and it often relies on redirecting the dilemma of work-family life balance onto poorer women.

Given the growing attention paid to this incredibly difficult balancing act for professional women, and increasingly for men as well, it is surprising that it is largely ignored in our professional training. By avoiding this issue, we help obscure the impact it has on everyone’s careers, as the oft-unspoken consideration that can outweigh all others. As we are preparing to succeed in our respective fields at Fletcher, I believe we should begin to address this deficit by inviting guest speakers and faculty to discuss this issue more often or even to make it part of the Professional Development Program. I would also like to propose discussions on the difficult trade-offs between hands-on child-raising and a successful career in international relations. And I would like to hear more about the women behind the scenes—wives, nannies, housemaids, employees—who have made all of these glittering alumni and faculty careers possible. It is essential that the challenges of balancing work and family are not initially encountered once we have a child, commit to a partner, or take that first job leading into a demanding career. As part of the next generation of professionals facing these dilemmas, we must ensure that we are equipped with the tools necessary to become more responsible and effective citizens. Let’s start now by having these difficult conversations on campus. 

Written by: Amaia Elorza Arregi, F20

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/26/upshot/women-long-hours-greedy-professions.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/26/upshot/women-long-hours-greedy-professions.html