The Balancing Act
Interview by Nancy Schmucker ’98
In 1986, Kathy Luneau Simons ’74 found herself at a crossroads. She had spent the first part of her career as a teacher, then as the director of a child care center serving low-income and at-risk children north of Boston. It was a stressful job, and after having her first child, she decided to take some time off to think about the future, and maybe change direction.
After two years of part-time consulting and volunteering, Simons landed a part-time job with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Child Care Office, where she helped faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars, and students find child care in off-site facilities.
The move changed everything. In the years that followed, the Child Care Office evolved into MIT’s Work-Life Center, one of the most comprehensive employer-run programs in the country, with Simons its driving force. Now a national expert on work-life issues, she is co-founder and past president of the College and University Work-Life-Family Association, and MIT child care has grown to include six on-site centers with 400 spaces, a dozen of which are reserved annually by MIT’s provost for the children of women faculty and “supernova” faculty recruits.
Today, the center not only delivers services to individual students and employees but also works with MIT’s Council on Family and Work to evaluate the institute’s systems and culture, promote best practices for quality of life, and assist in the development of new policies and services that support community members at all stages of life and career.
As the senior program manager, Simons is responsible for the overall strategic development of the center’s initiatives. Working with six staff members and a variety of outside vendors, her team provides MIT’s 18,000 community members with a plethora of programs and resources—including on-site and backup child care and adult care services (MIT has added three new state-of-the-art child care centers under Simons’ leadership and with Simons’ input on design); guidelines on flexible job arrangements; breastfeeding support and lactation rooms; referrals on legal, financial, and daily living needs such as finding a plumber or a moving company; senior care planning and caregiver support groups; and seminars on raising teens, paying for college, navigating life and career as a young professional, and managing stress.
Recently, the Bulletin spoke with Simons about her professional path and the issues she sees trending in the work-life arena.
Alumnae Bulletin (AB): How did your work at MIT grow from a part-time job in child care placement to the flourishing program you are now leading?
Kathy Luneau Simons (KLS): When I first arrived at MIT back in 1986, it became very clear very fast that the resources were insufficient to meet students’ and employees’ needs. Cambridge is underserved with regard to child care support, so we couldn’t simply hand people lists of services available in the community. It was also clear that people’s needs extended well beyond child care. A broader set of resources was necessary.
So a colleague and I set out to do more. We persuaded MIT to create the presidentially appointed, and faculty led, Council on Family and Work, which I staffed, and we conducted the first campus-wide survey of work and family needs in the nation. We used those findings to design our early programs, and I published the survey results in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly. At conferences, I connected with people at other universities eager to address these same issues. That’s how the College and University Work-Family Association began. CUWFA provides invaluable support, allowing us to share resources, strategies, and best practices across institutions of higher education.
Very soon after that, I became an advisory member on a project led by the Families and Work Institute in New York that surveyed campuses across the country relative to family-friendly policies and programs; MIT was identified as a “leadership campus.” So, MIT was becoming a national model with a number of programs identified as cutting-edge, including the program for new parents that I had developed. We were also the first university to be included on Working Mother magazine’s 100 Best Companies list. This outside recognition helped to build excitement —and internal support—for our programs.
AB: Where did all this passion come from?
KLS: I can honestly say that my commitment and vision were forged at Bryn Mawr. As a psychology major, I took a range of courses that exposed me to a broad view of human development, culture, history, and psychology, and I was encouraged to think about how those disciplines intersect. During an internship at the Phebe Anna Thorne School, I became very interested in child development, early childhood education, parenting, family life, and the changing roles of women.
AB: MIT’s commitment to the center is pretty impressive. What’s its motivation?
KLS: Well, first, MIT’s mission is focused on solving many of the world’s great challenges and working effectively for the betterment of humankind; MIT has attempted to approach issues of work and family with this engineering spirit. Also, like other colleges and universities, we are, of course, highly committed to diversity and equity. We want to attract the best and the brightest people from all parts of the globe. That means we have to create a work environment that supports the success of all members of our diverse community, including those who are very far from extended family and other familiar social supports.
In addition, MIT is an extremely entrepreneurial organization. MIT encourages individuals to gather data, experiment, and take leadership roles. So, while there wasn’t a specific initiative for the work I was doing back in 1986, I was encouraged to develop ideas and programs to address the ever-increasing stack of concerns on my desk —and the provost’s desk—from faculty, students, and staff.
Leadership is also critical. MIT’s current women and men leaders have firsthand experience with the struggle to manage personal life and work responsibilities. It’s fair to say that work-life issues are viewed as deeply connected to MIT’s intellectual and research enterprise; we couldn’t do our work without new strategies and resources.
AB: Can you elaborate on the reasons it makes good business sense for organizations to make this kind of investment?
KLS: Sometimes the answer is very clear. For example, child care is a significant part of our recruitment and retention efforts and comes up regularly in negotiations with prospective faculty and staff. The business case for backup child care is also fairly straightforward: Backup care may make it possible for a faculty member to teach a class when his/her child is mildly ill, allow a staff member to attend an important meeting on a snow day, or provide extra hours of study time to a student during exam week. In these cases, the proposal to provide services is a relatively easy win.
But other services require more data to build the business case. For example, the results of MIT’s 2013 quality-of-life survey of faculty and staff made it clear that there’s a strong link between employee access to flexible work arrangements and employee engagement and retention. Employees who reported having a supervisor who was open to flexible work arrangements were considerably more likely to report being satisfied with their work-life balance and with being an MIT employee in general. This data will hopefully strengthen the business case for job flexibility. At present, MIT’s policy encourages alternative work arrangements when those arrangements do not negatively impact co-workers or job performance. Of course, manager attitudes, skills, and strategies vary. There hasn’t been a strong, consistent message to managers about implementing flexibility locally, as a business tool, nor consistently available manager training. Nor is there recourse for an employee who may feel that the supervisor has not thoughtfully considered his or her request for a flexible work arrangement. So, while many of us would like to encourage the use of the flex work policy and move the culture in that direction, we need more data to make the case. I am working with a subcommittee of the Council on Family and Work to use the data to expand on our earlier efforts.
AB: What are some of the trends regarding work-life balance?
KLS: Certainly there has been a shift from a case-by-case approach (typically assumed to involve an individual accommodation for a woman with a young child) to a broader business strategy that aims to create more flexible work environments to support recruitment, retention, and productivity, and that also enhance employees’ ability to adapt to changing work conditions and demands.
Another trend responds to the way in which technology allows our work lives to seep into our personal lives and create an increasingly fast-paced and hyper-stimulating environment. We work even when we aren’t at work; we never really relax. Last spring, we offered a seminar called How to Maintain Focus and Well-Being in a Fast-Paced Life. Over 150 people registered in two days. Employees know they need to self-regulate, disconnect, and learn how to “value break” their time but have great difficulty doing so.
Mindfulness practice is one strategy we’re using to address this issue. MIT offers individual employee consultations and classes on meditation, sleep, focus, and stress reduction, as well as training for departments that may encourage teams to work together on group practices to enhance pace and control. It’s exciting because it’s a tool that doesn’t cost much but can make a great deal of difference for the individual and organization.
AB: Are there any surprising trends that you’re seeing?
KLS: We’re finding that young professionals are thinking more strategically about career, personal, and family life. They’re more deliberate and conscious. When I think back on my departure from Bryn Mawr, I don’t think I had a clue about how career and family might come together. I definitely didn’t develop a plan.
Now, we have young adults asking us to organize seminars to help them develop strategies, clarify values, and make smart decisions based on how they want to combine important aspects of their work and personal lives. Last summer, we worked with a group of Millennials to develop a new series called Navigating Life and Career, and we’re very excited about the level of interest and the overwhelmingly positive response.
AB: Are the challenges different for women than for men?
KLS: The challenges are different, but the gender issue is starting to wash out a bit as fathers have increased the amount of time they spend with their children. As a result, fathers are experiencing more conflict between their notion of the ideal parent and the ideal worker. But women are still generally expected to, and do, carry the heavier burden of household and family management, including elder care. The persistent belief that primary caregivers should be women continues to have a negative impact on women’s earnings and advancement.
Shelley Correll, a sociology professor at Stanford University, conducted research that showed that mothers earn five percent less per hour per child than comparable workers who are childless women. They are also less likely to be hired if they try to change jobs. And some data suggest that the narrowed gap in earnings between women and men is primarily explained by advances among childless women.
In Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, Mary Ann Mason, a professor of law at UC Berkeley, reported that family formation—having children—damages the academic careers of women, but not of men.
Joan Williams, a professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, wrote a book with her daughter that addresses other persistent issues women face in the workplace. Titled What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, the book describes the baby bias (or what the authors call the “maternal wall”); the “prove it again” theory, wherein men are hired on their potential while women are required to have a more extensive track record and to prove themselves over and over; and the double bind women face around needing to act like a man but at the same time be feminine.
We know that men are beginning to experience these same double binds as they take on greater roles in family and home life. I don’t know if it should make women feel better, but men’s stress is increasing, and men are finding it more difficult to be both masculine in the traditional sense and also be the new kind of man.
I am inclined to see this as a painful part of our slow progress toward adopting social policies that better address the needs of children and families.
Kathy Luneau Simons ’74 serves on the board of trustees of Wheelock College and the board of directors of the Massachusetts Children’s Investment Fund, an organization committed to improving the quality of children’s programs by enhancing physical environments. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bryn Mawr College, her master’s degree in early childhood education from Wheelock College, and a postgraduate certificate in infant-parent mental health from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She has two sons and is married to Jack Simons HC ’73.
Ten Tips for Better Work-Life Balance
1 Step away from the phone
Is all that incessant checking of email, texts, and social media really adding to your productivity—or just your stress?
2 Just say no
Learn to stall when asked to add
another task to your to-do list. What’s the impact of your answer? If you want to say no, then stick to it. Be decisive and don’t justify your decision or give excuses.
3 Work smarter, not harder
Prioritize your work, allowing a certain amount of time per task. Don’t get sidetracked by less productive activities such as checking email or exhaustive research. Stay focused.
4 Leave work at work
Before you leave, write yourself a list of outstanding items that are on your mind. Then turn off the computer, grab your coat, and leave the list behind. If you must take work home, do it in a certain area of your home so you can close the door on it.
5 Forget about perfection
Sometimes, done is good. Don’t put extra pressure on yourself when you don’t need to.
6 Don’t be a martyr
The “I gotta do everything myself” attitude is exhausting for you and your colleagues. Let it go, and learn to rely on your co-workers!
7 Ease off the adrenaline
Stop hopping from one project to another, from work to the gym. You’re only setting yourself up for a crash. And don’t forget to get your eight hours of sleep!
8 Think about down time
Take time to develop interests and relationships that regenerate and add to your quality of life.
9 Make ’em wait
You don’t need to reply to every email immediately. Set boundaries by replying within 24 or 48 hours.
10 Set your own rules
Ignore the “shoulds”—those cultural and internal expectations we think we have to meet. Rely on your own intuition about what works for you in your life.
Work-Life Balance 101
Like Kathy Simons ’74, Associate Professor Marissa Martino Golden ’83 started thinking about issues of work-life balance when she returned to teaching after having a child. So Golden started reading the scholarly literature on the topic.
Fascinated by all the factors that complicate the issue—gender, race, culture, and policy, among others—Golden decided, like any good academic, to build a course around it. And so, Gender, Work and Family was born. This ever-evolving 300-level seminar was first offered in 2003 and, a decade later, consistently reaches its cap of 18 registrants.
Students are required to read the classic texts—Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift—along with newer works like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead. Additional readings frame discussions on more nuanced topics like how what it means to be a “good mother” is socially constructed, the role of income-earning power in family dynamics, and the changing role of fathers in striking the work-life balance for families as a whole.
The class is especially popular with McBride Scholars (all over the age of 24 and some of them moms) who, Golden says, add depth of experience to the discussion. But even they can be surprised.
Pam Lavin ’15, a McBride with three grown children, was surprised to realize that household tasks and child care often fall to the partner who contributes least to overall income. “I assumed that it always split along gender lines,” says Lavin, “but same-sex couples also struggle with negotiating who does the cooking, cleaning, errands, and even losing a day at work to meet the plumber. There was a lot of discussion as to whether this is fair.”
This type of discussion is exactly what Golden wants in her classroom: “My hope is to inspire students to become more astute observers of work and family as they coexist in the real world and to theorize about—not just judge—what they observe.”
Marissa Martino Golden ’83 is the author of “In Their Own Words: The Experiences of Mothers in the Federal Civil Service,” Public Voices, Vol. XIII No. 2 (2014) and What Motivates Bureaucrats? Politics and Administration during the Reagan Years, Columbia University Press, 2000. To read more about Golden’s work in this area, see “Shifting Gears” in the August 2012 archive of the online Alumnae Bulletin: bulletin.brynmawr.edu/features/hp-primary-feature/shifting-gears/.