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Work-Life Balance: Worse in Government?

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Today we featured Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover story in the new issue of The Atlantic, "Women Still Can't Have it All," on the home page of GovExec.com, asking for your thoughts on the issue in the government context.

Slaughter served as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department at the beginning of the Obama administration, and I was struck in reading her piece how her beliefs about the issue of whether work and family life can truly be balanced were heavily influenced by her relatively brief time in government. She writes:

Before my service in government, I’d spent my career in academia: as a law professor and then as the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Both were demanding jobs, but I had the ability to set my own schedule most of the time. I could be with my kids when I needed to be, and still get the work done. I had to travel frequently, but I found I could make up for that with an extended period at home or a family vacation.

 

I knew that I was lucky in my career choice, but I had no idea how lucky until I spent two years in Washington within a rigid bureaucracy, even with bosses as understanding as Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills. My workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the writing work began—a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people’s drafts. ...  I was entitled to four hours of vacation per pay period, which came to one day of vacation a month. And I had it better than many of my peers in D.C.; Secretary Clinton deliberately came in around 8 a.m. and left around 7 p.m., to allow her close staff to have morning and evening time with their families (although of course she worked earlier and later, from home).

In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.
It seems to me that it may not be better at the lower, middle or not-quite-as-high levels of government, either. Much is made of agencies' commitment to family-friendly policies, work-life balance and telework. But at the same time, flexibility when it comes to things like work schedules and leave can be hard to come by. The stereotype of government work is that it's drudgery, but only from 9 to 5. In fact, that's less true than it used to be, while in many organizations the rule-driven nature of government employment remains the same.



 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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