Women on the verge: Meeting the demands of changes in life, career

By Lygia Navarro, JAWS Fellow

While balancing the ever-competing demands of work and busy modern lives was a constant informal conversation topic at JAWS Camp, several journalists sat on a panel Saturday afternoon to share their own experiences.

On the panel were Amy Alexander (author and long-time journalist and commentator), Mary Kay Blakely (veteran magazine journalist and professor at the University of Missouri), Phuong Ly (founder of a journalism nonprofit, former Washington Post writer and Stanford Knight Fellow), Brigid Schulte (Washington Post staff writer, New America Foundation fellow and author of a forthcoming book on time pressure and modern families), and moderators Lauren Whaley (radio, print and photo journalist) and and Lisen Stromberg (freelance journalist).

The discussion centered on the difficulties of balancing more-than-full-time staff careers in journalism with any kind of life outside of work. Many of the panelists said that they felt that, as staffers, their work lives (and, by proxy, their personal lives) were under the control of their news organizations’ schedules, a sentiment shared by women in many other fields in the United States.

Through research for her book, Schulte highlighted the need for policy and institutional changes to bring about more work-life balance, mentioning the discrepancies between the amount of vacation time and maternity leave available in the United States and other regions, such as Scandinavia. When asked by an audience member what she would like to see in an ideal company’s work-life policies, Schulte said, “What I would want is great transparency. Not just policies. A lot of companies have great [work-life] policies, but no one actually uses them” because the culture of the company is focused on productivity rather than balance.

Women on the verge
Mary Kay Blakely, speaking during panel discussion. – Photo by Nina Zacuto

Blakely added, “I would love companies that had flextime for any reason for anyone who needed it.” This would address the question, she added, of “how do you be a human being, and still be dedicated to your work that’s meaningful?” This was a welcome concept for childless journalists in the audience who voiced disappointment with the fact that most of the work-life balance discussions focus on women with children, rather than women with life-balance needs at all stages of their lives—including partners who become ill or are laid off from jobs, elderly parents, and caring for ill friends.

The discussion also ranged from how women reporters should safeguard their financial security, to the difficulty and importance of carving out non-work time on evenings and weekends, the unfortunate workplace divisions between women with children and those without, dealing with criticism from colleagues for deciding to go freelance to care for small children, and strategies to get bosses to grant flextime and other work-life benefits.

Audience members voiced the need for more complex discussions on balancing work and life, including issues facing older journalists trying to find balance, rather than just conversations about balancing childrearing with work. As a white-haired audience member said, “We’re used to working all the time. I am accustomed to having no exogenous limits on how much I work. How am I going to spend the time I have left, and not live like a pauper?”

Still other audience members commented after the panel that the discussion focused too heavily on the downsides to working while juggling busy personal and families lives, lacking an exploration of how working and maintaining family lives can be greatly satisfying for many female journalists. With the issue of work-life balance promising to be salient for much time to come, there are plenty of branches of the topic to explore at Camp in 2013.