Universal Design for Work/Life Integration (and the Notorious RBG)

Today and tomorrow I am doing workshops at Northwestern (both campuses on subsequent days) on work/life integration for academics and people who work for institutions of higher education.

You can see the flyer here.

“In this talk, David will draw from his work in disability rights and propose a new
way to think about integrating all the many pieces of our often multiple jobs
and the other things we’d like to be or need to be able to do. Right now, we
tend to focus on predictable, discrete needs – the birth of a child, a sickness, a
transition moment in a job. That’s fine, but it tends to silo the conversations
around meeting needs, rather than building expansive, flexible, systems. The
disability rights movement offers an alternative model in which we build
systems that pre-accommodate as many needs as possible, always helping
people with problems we didn’t even know existed.”

My basic premise is that right now, to the extent our institutions have policies and cultures encouraging richly integrated work-life cultures, we work on it around accommodating specific predictable and disclosed needs. Can we, instead, think about getting beyond accommodation?

And hey, you can book me for a talk or workshop on all kinds of subjects!

It turns out that last Sunday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote about work-life issues, using one of my least favorite words: “Balance.” She wrote, for the New York Times:

Advice from my father-in-law has also served me well. He gave it during my gap years, 1954 to ‘56, when my husband, Marty, was fulfilling his obligation to the Army as an artillery officer at Fort Sill, Okla. By the end of 1954, my pregnancy was confirmed. We looked forward to becoming three in July 1955, but I worried about starting law school the next year with an infant to care for. Father’s advice: “Ruth, if you don’t want to start law school, you have a good reason to resist the undertaking. No one will think the less of you if you make that choice. But if you really want to study law, you will stop worrying and find a way to manage child and school.” And so Marty and I did, by engaging a nanny on school days from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Work-life balance was a term not yet coined in the years my children were young; it is aptly descriptive of the time distribution I experienced. My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane. I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her. After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.

1) Where was Marty Ginsburg in all this! I know, I know, it was a different era, still, today I hope that the father would be more involved in childcare. [Update: Irin Carmon directed me to this post, in which it’s clear that Marty was an involved father, but also that of course parental roles are shaped by the era].

2) More importantly, this kind of rigid separation between work and the rest of one’s life is precisely the kind of organization of reality that doesn’t work for most people. [Update: It’s fairly clear it also didn’t work for her, long-term]

We need a better way.


For many, work interferes with their home life. To mitigate this encroachment, many welfare states have legislated shorter workweeks. Yet, the effectiveness of this policy on work-to-family interference is mixed, thus requiring additional investigation. We address this gap by applying multilevel data pairing the 2005 International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) for individuals in 32 nations (N = 20,937) with country-level measures of legislated weekly work hours, mean reported weekly work hours (aggregated and differentiated by gender), and individualistic/collectivist orientations. We find that legislated work hours have no impact on individuals’ reports of work-to-family interference. By contrast, shorter normative weekly work hours, aggregated and by gender, are associated with greater individual work-to-family interference. We find an equivalent pattern in individualistic countries. While we document individual-level gender and parental differences, we find no differential effects of long workweeks for these groups. We explain these associations through the heightened expectations perspective, arguing that increased resources heighten expectations of work–life balance and sensitivity to work-to-family interference.

It’s like the headline writer (almost certainly not the author) doesn’t even understand what the word “balance” means! Either things are balanced … or they are not.
And there’s no such thing as a truly balanced life, nor, I argue, should we aspire to perfect equilibrium.

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