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Women in Science

Work–life balance is about how people combine work with the other areas of their lives, such as children, family, friends and outside interests. In academic life there is a ‘long-hours’ culture, which may make the work-life balance difficult (Etzkowitz & Ranga 2011) and, as many women observed, there is never a point when you feel that you have ‘finished everything’ at work.

A work-life continuum

Several of the women we talked to said that they were so interested in their work and so excited by their findings that they found it impossible to separate work from other aspects of their lives, and appeared to be happy with this situation. Some women described working 12 hour days and also at weekends. Irene T, when talking about her job, said, ‘It isn’t like a job. It is truly like a hobby, and it’s an absolute privilege and luxury to be a scientist’. Anna said that she doesn’t stop thinking about work when she’s at home, and she said, ‘It’s not just a job, it’s your passion’. Charlotte said 'I guess my work invades my life' but she finds it exciting and interesting so doesn't see this as an imposition.

Eleanor S described a 'complete absence thereof' in terms of a work life balance; she described how she could get hooked into a email cycle at the weekend 'and suddenly the whole weekends gone and all you've done is email which is terrible'. She will turn everything off on holiday because there is little she can do from a distance if something goes wrong in the lab.

When asked if she had ever considered working part time Barbara explained why this, for her, would be impossible.

Barbara doesn’t split the day into segments where she thinks about only her work, or only her daughter: both are with her all the time

Portrait of Jane Langdale© Women in ScienceJane says that her scientific work ‘never goes away’. It is ‘always in your head’. She sees her work and the rest of her life as a continuum, not separate.


Click for Charlotte's interviewCharlotte's enjoyment of her work means she will sometimes 'choose' to work weekends.


Click for Marta's interviewMarta finds her work enjoyable and exciting, but it means it can fill up all her time.


Helen B has learned to accept that, however hard she works, she will never be able to clear her desk; 'I think you just have to accept that and work as hard as you can and try not to let it stress you out'.


Striking the balance

One woman said that she thinks it is important to make time to think about what you value and what makes you happy, and to consider the balance between work and other interests. She pointed out that people’s values change over time so work-life balance should be re-evaluated, and thought about roughly every five years. This is something Lois tries to do.

Portrait of Lois Brand© Women in Science Lois thinks that she is currently managing to be ‘good enough’ at her clinical work, the medical students and her family responsibilities. She tries to ‘pro-actively manage’ and ‘internally audit’ this on a regular basis.

Jamie, who is doing a DPhil, had worked in publishing before becoming a student. Like her husband and many of her friends, she tries to work 9-5 or 9-6 and protect the evenings and weekend for friends and family. She is productive and likes to work in this structured manner. Many of the other women we talked to worked very long hours, either in the lab or in the office, often by choice and it seemed usual to take work home for the evenings and weekends. Helen A’s husband works in London during the week so they make sure they spend time together at the weekend. Leanne goes into work early and goes for a 6am run with a colleague a few times a week.

Click for Helen's interview© Women in ScienceHelen is working as a GP, teaching and doing research for her DPhil which is ‘all encompassing’. But she likes the flexibility compared to the demands of clinical work.


Portrait of Leanne Hodson© Women in ScienceLeanne’s work-life balance is ‘not so good’. She avoids taking work home but she works about 12 hours a day and some weekends too. This is partly by choice, because she enjoys her work so much.


Portrait of Bryony GrahamBryony doesn’t think she is very good at her work-life balance, partly because she commutes from London. As a post doc she works less at weekends than when she was doing her doctorate.


Click for Eleanor's interviewEleanor finds she can get caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of work, which can lead to tiredness and being less efficient that she could be.


Molly said that the people she has observed who are successful scientists are those who are ‘deeply curious’ and who would rather look at the results of an experiment that finished at 5.00pm on a Friday night than go to a party. She recognised that this might not be very ‘healthy’ in terms of work-life balance but she said that there will always be people who will choose to work long hours and that those are the type of people she is competing with in Science (for more see ‘Messages for others thinking about a career in science’).

Family life

Most of the women with children explained that they had to ‘juggle’ work with family life (For more see ‘Child care’). This could involve missing aspects of work, like going to the pub with colleagues, because of young children or working in the evening because of childcare commitments during the day.

Portrait of Catherine Swales© Women in Science Catherine didn’t manage as many publications from her fellowship as she had hoped because she worked part-time and was caring for her children, but she doesn’t regret her decisions.


Kay argued that flexible working hours makes science a good career because it makes it easy to combine family and work. Catherine, a clinician, pointed out that some specialities are better than others for a good work-life balance. She said that rheumatology, for example, is a good speciality because she doesn’t have to be ‘on call’ at the hospital. Persephone said that she never had enough time to do ‘everything properly’, and that she sometimes felt that she was fire-fighting on all fronts – at home, at work, at conferences and meetings. But she also recognises that it’s not possible to do everything perfectly and ‘it’s an enormous privilege to be able to do those three things’. Helen M explained how she manages her very demanding and rewarding job. It helps that she is judged by her outputs, not her hours, which means that she has the flexibility to attend an afternoon school play and catch up in the evening.

Portrait of Helen McShane© Women in ScienceHelen thinks she has a ‘lovely balance’ that is very grounding, even though she has a lot to ‘juggle’. The hardest parts are the overseas travel and the workload.


Click for Kristina's interviewKristina commutes from France and is in Oxford two days a week – she finds the time away from home benefits both her work and her relationship with her children.


The flexibility was raised by Kylie who said, 'If I don't make it in until 10 o'clock nobody actually cares that much. But on the other hand, the academic job just never ends and there's always more you can be doing'. Marian said that her work-life balance is ‘dreadful’, and that basically she has her family and her work and not much else. She ‘juggles’ these but doesn’t have much of a social life. Others spoke in a similar vein.

Portrait of Prof. Eleanor Barnes© Women in ScienceEleanor is excited by her work and works harder than ever before, so doesn’t have time to do many of the things she once enjoyed, like hiking in the mountains, or socialising with friends.


Click for Angela's interviewAngela works hard in the week so that she can keep her weekends free for her children.


Click for Helen's interviewHelen has found having children changed how she approached her work priorities.


Portrait of Samira Lakhal-Littleton© Women in ScienceSamira is very busy with work and looking after her young son. At the moment she doesn’t have much time for sleep or for hobbies, but she has a lot of energy and life is rewarding.


Lucy, a clinician and an associate professor, said that there are times when life seems ‘pressured’ and that it is impossible to ‘survive’ in her type of career without putting in a lot of extra hours. Maggie, who is a Professor of Psychology and the President of St John’s College, would like to spend more time with her children and grand-children, but her research and her College commitments make this difficult.

Alison W is usually home by 6pm and focusses on her children for the next three hours. She used to worry that her children would feel neglected because she worked such long hours but has realised the her children are happy and that women like her provide really good role models for their daughters.

Click for Alison's interview© Women in ScienceAlison finds her work exciting but sometimes feels a bit ‘burnt out’. She spends time with her children, sings in a choir on Fridays and tries to keep weekends work free. She also takes regular holidays.


Elspeth used to worry about this too, but recently her elder daughter reassured her that she always felt encouraged to do what she was interested in, has never felt 'deprived', and that when she and her sister were at school they liked getting on with their livers without constant parental interference. Her daughter's reassuring words were an enormous relief to Elspeth. She reflected that the quality time she spent with her children was more important that the amount of time she spent.

Several women spoke about how they sought to keep strict rules of not working at weekends, although Alison E. and Julia found this changed as their children got older and they did not need so much direct attention. As Charlotte commented; 'I think probably the work life balance was fine because I decided the children came first. Now I think it's harder for me to stop working, so I probably tend to work too hard'.

Click for Tamsin's interviewTamsin tries to keep strict barriers between work and home life, to avoid working at weekends.


Click for Amy's interviewAmy finds she may sometimes work long hours, but tries to maintain balance by not working weekends.


Several women commented on positive changes in their department around balancing home and work life (see Athena Swan).

Portrait of Prof Maggie Snowling© Women in ScienceMaggie loves her research and sometimes chooses to spend time on it at weekends, but thinks that she may not apply for more funding because she wants more time with her family.


Other activities

Women also described spending time on other activities such as singing, dancing, painting, running or Pilates and said it was important to make time for holidays. Several mentioned having dogs and cats.

Some women recognised that they had gone through periods when they hadn’t taken enough time off work for holidays or other activities. Jenny said that women should make sure that they arrange other activities because otherwise work ‘constantly fills up the time, because it is never ending’. Xin tries to keep at least one day each week free to ‘recover’ from all her hard work. When she is away from home she keeps in touch with her teenagers by Facetime and Skype. Elspeth said that for most of her life she has worked and looked after children, with little time for anything else apart from Pilates and rowing, which she did until she had a car accident. Now she feels it is time to find some hobbies.

Click for Eleanor's interview

Eleanor goes dancing with her husband and finds it an 'essential' part of her life.


Policies and initiatives

Departments at Oxford are trying to make it easier for men and women to combine work with caring responsibilities and other interests. A better work-life balance is being encouraged (For more see ‘Athena SWAN’ and ‘Changing the culture in science’). These changes include:

  • Meetings held during core hours
  • More opportunities to work part-time
  • Flexible working (see ‘Part-time and Flexible working’)
  • Funds to support people returning from caring leave
  • Talks and seminars given by senior women about work-life balance

New government policy is also making it easier for new parents to share leave with their partners (for more see ‘Taking parental leave’.)


Etzkowitz H & Ranga M. (2011) Gender Dynamics in Science and Technology: From the “Leaky Pipeline” to the “Vanish Box”. Brussels Economic Review Vol 54 (2/3) 131-144

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