Tracy Everbach, Ph.D., is an associate professor of journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Her research focuses on gender in journalism and in newsrooms. This paper was presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Convention in Chicago, Ill., August 2008.
Family friendly? A study of the work-family balance in journalism
Journalism has long been labeled as a profession unfriendly to families. Journalists often work irregular schedules, long hours and holidays. They must be prepared to change plans at a moment’s notice to cover a story. Since women usually assume primary responsibility for children and/or elderly and ill relatives, women journalists face challenges juggling families and work. Some female journalists eventually decide to leave the profession because of family responsibilities.
Male journalists also are concerned about balancing work and family. More women have entered the workforce during the past three decades, making men less likely to have a stay-at-home spouse. The traditional role of women staying home with children has become a relic of the past. While in 1950, 20.7 percent of women worked outside the home, by 2006, 59 percent of women participated in the workforce (Goldin, 2003; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). More women are in the workforce in part because the feminist movement of the 1970s helped open women’s role in the society’s public sphere. More women desire careers than in the past, but many women have no choice but to work for economic reasons (Fels, 2004). Women often work a “second shift” when they arrive home from their jobs because they tend to take primary responsibility for childcare and domestic duties. Women more often than men find themselves in the position of having to choose between work and family (Fels, p. 238).
This study of female and male journalists asks the research question: How do journalists balance their work with their family lives?
It focuses primarily on women and men who have child-care responsibilities and work in the print and broadcast journalism fields.
Much media attention has been devoted in recent years to women’s “opting out” of the workforce for family reasons. Lisa Belkin coined the opt-out term in a 2003 New York Times Magazine story about well-educated women who chose to leave their high-paying careers to care for children (Belkin, 2003). Some feminists, notably E.J. Graff in a Columbia Journalism Review article, call the opting-out phenomenon a myth (Graff, 2007). Graff argued that this so-called movement is nothing new; that news media have for many decades reported “trends” of women quitting careers to stay home. Graff noted that in more than 70 percent of American families with children, all adults work outside the home. Women are pressured culturally to choose between work and family and some choose family because most workplaces do not support mothers. However, those who opt out make up only 8 percent of working women and consist mainly of “white, highly educated, in well-paying professional/managerial jobs” (Graff, 2007). Other women cannot afford to choose between work and family.
Some mothers who leave their jobs feel they are forced out—without a choice—because of workplace inflexibility, according to “Opt Out” or Pushed Out?, a 2006 study by the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California (Williams, Manvell, and Bornstein, 2006). The study outlined an ideal worker stereotype embraced by many industries: “Someone who starts to work in early adulthood and works, full time and full force, for forty years straight” (p. 8). That formula, the study noted, is incompatible with the lives of women and men who want to be involved in family life. The authors concluded that women leave the workforce because of an outdated, inflexible workplace structure and because of bias against mothers. Many women who try to return to the workforce after taking time off for family find they have lost career status (Williams, et al., p. 15).
Graff identified “today’s feminist frontier” as “the bias against mothers that remains embedded on the job, in the culture and at home” (Graff, 2007). In addition, fathers who want to devote time to caring for children and family also face opposition and bias. Graff argued the so-called opt-out revolution actually is a factor of the economy, which has stalled since 2000. All women, not only those with children, have seen workforce participation stall because an economic slowdown. Men’s economic household contributions also have leveled off with the economy (Williams, et al., pp. 20-21). In the meantime, women still assume the majority of household work, although men have begun to take on more chores and childcare duties (Williams, et al., p. 23).
Other studies have shown younger people focus their lives less on work than older generations do. Generation & Gender, a 2004 study by the Families and Work Institute, noted that “most American workers today are rejecting the work-centric style of their father’s workplace” (Families and Work Institute, 2004, p. 6). In the study, 80 percent of college-educated employees reported they would like to work fewer hours. The study also found workers have become more family-focused, particularly fathers. Men of Generation X and Generation Y (also known as millennials) have changed attitudes on women’s and men’s work and traditional gender roles. The study defined Generation Y as those born 1980 and after, Generation X as those born 1965-1979 and Baby Boomers born 1945-1964. Rather than opting out of work to care for children, Generations X and Y are more likely to have a “downtrend in career ambitions” (p. 5). “Very sizeable numbers of women and men are working hard, but not willing to make the trade-offs required by advancing into jobs with more responsibility,” the Generation & Gender study found (p. 19). This does not mean that these generations eschew hard work—in fact, they work more hours than employees three decades ago—but they desire more balance in their lives (p. 29).
Differences among the generations were clear:
·Younger people (Generations X and Y) are more focused on family priorities than the Baby Boomers.
·Generation X fathers spend more time daily with their children than Baby Boomer dads.
·Women tended change their focus from work to family as they aged, while men did not. This follows the traditional family model, in which women take on the majority of family and home responsibilities.
·In families with working women, men take on more work in the home than in past decades (pp. 8-14).
Newsrooms have reputations for not accommodating families. A 2005 survey of 700 journalists by the Poynter Institute found that while journalists reported high levels of work satisfaction, they felt their family lives suffered because of job demands (Geisler, 2005). Sixty-five percent of the journalists said they worked more than 40 hours per week and 47.2 percent said they seriously considered leaving the field. Most likely to consider leaving were young people, women and people of color. The survey also showed women and minorities who had asked for accommodations to balance work and personal life were less likely than others to see the request granted. Journalists also reported that immediate supervisors had a large effect on job satisfaction, depending on how flexible the supervisor was about work-life balance. Slightly more than half said their supervisors were unsupportive concerning work-life balance (Geisler, 2005).
The journalism industry has suffered in recent years from an economic downturn, forcing media organizations to lay off employees and offer buyouts. The result is fewer journalists working longer hours to report news on the 24-hour schedule the market demands. Newspapers have fewer readers, new technology has caused an emphasis on online journalism, and advertising revenues have dropped. Journalism scholars Pamela J. Creedon and Judith Cramer note that in twenty-first century’s first decade, the journalism profession has become a less attractive option for both women and men (Creedon & Cramer, 2007). They cite “rapid changes in technology, increased demands to work longer for the same pay, coupled with eroding family-friendly practices” as factors driving both sexes away from the profession (p. 278). A 2007 study found women leave journalism mainly because of schedule inflexibility, low pay, a disregard for women’s news interests and a lack of mentoring or encouragement (Everbach & Flournoy, 2007). The study suggested journalism organizations do not understand employees’ needs, particularly women’s.
Since the feminist movement of the 1970s, women have entered American society’s public sphere in greater numbers than ever. But they find themselves still primarily responsible for private sphere tasks. While working full-time jobs, they continue to also work as children’s primary caregivers and main household caretakers. The feminist movement opened doors in the workplace but continued to keep them closed at home. This study examines how female and male journalists balance their public and private lives in the journalism industry’s current climate of change.
Twenty-six female and male journalists were interviewed in January, February and March 2008. The interview subjects were promised anonymity and their employers’ identities were kept confidential, allowing them speak freely without retaliation concerns.
All interview subjects were asked the same questions developed from the literature review. The interviewers asked mainly open-ended questions so the subjects could expound on points, the interviewers could listen to the answers and could ask follow-up questions. The interview subjects consisted of sixteen women and ten men who at some point in their careers had balanced work and caring for children or other relatives. The women’s ages ranged from 27 to 57 and they had worked in journalism between four and thirty-seven years. The men’s ages ranged from 29 to 51 and they worked in journalism between three and twenty-three years. The majority was Caucasian, but two of the women and two of the men were African American and one woman and one man were Hispanic. They worked for newspapers, magazines, wire services and in radio. The interview subjects were recruited through postings on e-mail listservs for professional journalism organizations asking for volunteers. Some subjects were recruited through a snowball method from members of the listservs, meaning the members asked others they knew to volunteer. All in-depth interviews were by telephone and lasted from 30 to 60 minutes. The researchers transcribed all answers. The subjects lived and worked in various areas of the United States, including the East Coast, Midwest, South, Southwest and West Coast.
The interview transcripts were examined for overall themes and for patterns that led to interpretation and meaning of subjects’ answers. The interview method also provided rich detail of the subjects’ answers. The results were intended to better understand journalists and their experiences balancing work and family.
The interview responses indicated that women journalists continue to assume most responsibility for childcare, even while working high-pressure, time-consuming journalism jobs. After having children, some female journalists accepted jobs on the night shift, others switched to positions they didn’t necessarily want but offered more regular hours, and some took part-time or freelancing positions with less pay and prestige. Several female journalists described a juggling act that left them with little time between work and childcare to handle household chores, participate in outside activities or spend time with spouses. (All ages mentioned in the text represent the age of the subject when interviewed.)
Female Journalist No. 1, whose husband also is a journalist, said after they had two children, she watched his career take off while hers stagnated. At age 50 with two teenagers, she works as a newspaper reporter.
The decision was made that I would primarily take care of the children. He was able to continually advance and has worked his way up to deputy managing editor. I have molded my schedule to fit my children’s for their entire lives. Instead of going after an editing position, I went back to reporting. I’m the one who drives them to appointments, that kind of thing. I’ve always taken jobs like general assignments. I knew I couldn’t do other jobs and take care of the kids (personal communication, February 18, 2008).
Several female journalists echoed her sentiments. They said they watched male colleagues pursue careers without having to assume childcare duties. They noted a double standard in newsrooms that assumes women are caregivers. Female Journalist No. 2 noted, “Guys can leave for their kids’ soccer game and they’re great dads. Women leave and it’s like, there she goes again” (personal communication, February 15, 2008). Female journalists said they had to adopt strict time-management techniques if they wanted to work and have children. Female Journalist No. 3, a 54-year-old wire service editor who covered Capitol Hill when her three children were young, said she volunteered at her child’s kindergarten in the morning then worked into the night covering Congress.
I think it’s just a matter of being really flexible. When I found it didn’t work it was because I had an expectation that couldn’t be met. I had to fix that and just accept what is. I let go of expectations to have a marvelously clean house right away…it takes a lot of calendar management. Every year when they put out the school calendar I go through and write down everything I need to participate in. I write all the doctor’s appointments, all the field trips. I can participate in a workshop in pre-K because they do that at 8:30 in the morning (personal communication, February 29, 2008).
Female Journalist No. 4, a 40-year-old newspaper reporter with a baby, said she has learned to accomplish more work in the office so she can spend more time at home with her son.
I have become a lot more effective when I get in here. I have to work out what I am going to do, how I can make my calls. I just try to get it done so I feel comfortable leaving by 6. I don’t take lunch anymore. I think I am still a good employee, but I am not going to be here still working at night. I am not as available on call for a spur-of-the-moment assignment. It may affect my career because I might be seen as someone not to promote to a higher profile gig, if I wanted to cover city hall or a presidential campaign…The job doesn’t come first anymore (personal communication, February 4, 2008).
About half the female journalists credited their spouses with assuming equal childcare duties. The other half of female journalists said they took most of the responsibility. In contrast, all of the male journalists said their female partners served as the children’s primary caregivers. Most male journalists said their jobs rather than their home life consumed most of their time and energy.
Male Journalist No. 1, a newspaper editor and father of three, described his wife, a stay-at-home mother, as the “CEO” of the household and himself as the “old style breadwinner” (personal communication, March 3, 2008). The 46-year-old journalist said work is a main priority, but his focus has changed over the years. He once quit a job at a national newspaper after only three weeks because his bosses did not value his desire to spend time with his family. Male Journalist No. 2, a 49-year-old newspaper editor, said bluntly he has not spent as much time with his three children or his wife as he should have (personal communication, February 11, 2008). His job has required him to work during the afternoon and early-evening hours his children have activities. He said he regrets missing family dinners.
When my kids got into school, a lot of stuff happens after school and in the evening and I missed 95 percent of them. The only thing I managed was to take the other time I had, weekends, to spend time with them…My kids have been successful despite my lack of being there at dinner. That has helped me be more confident and accepted by peers. On the other hand, there has been a lot of (family) resentment over the years that I was in a profession that demanded I be away from home from 5-8 p.m. most days. It’s made my kids say the last job they ever would take is journalism (personal communication, February 11, 2008).
Male Journalist No. 3, who left newspaper reporting for magazine editing noted, “Part of the frustration is that with the job of a reporter, the schedules are different. You weren’t getting out until 7 o’clock. For a dad, 7 o’clock doesn’t work. Raising kids is very inconsistent with a reporter’s life and lifestyle” (personal communication, February 1, 2008). The journalist, 42, who has three children, added that most newsrooms are unfriendly to parents. “There’s no place that’s colder,” he said.
Female journalists reported innovative methods of balancing the demands of childcare with their jobs. Female Journalist No. 5, a 32-year-old wire service reporter, 32, described having to FedEx breast milk to her baby daughter when she traveled for work. “I stayed at different hotels on different nights and I had to ask the concierge to put the milk in the freezer until Fed Ex showed up” (personal communication, February 24, 2008). Female Journalist No. 6, a 51-year-old national news correspondent, said she left the Middle East on March 19, 2003, the day the United States invaded Iraq, because she promised her teenage son she would take him on a college tour. “Later I was on a trip with Condi Rice, and I ran into a male reporter I had met over there. He said, ‘I remember you. You left on March 19. You were so brave; you put your family first’” (personal communication, January 30, 2008).
Four of the journalists interviewed were single caregivers to children at some point in their careers. They recounted creative methods of handling work and childcare as single parents. Female Journalist No. 7, a 26-year-old newspaper reporter who became pregnant in college, said she sometimes took her toddler daughter on assignments, including a homicide. Her daughter has spent many shifts in the newsroom. “I have learned to do five million things and have a kid crawling on my back. I have learned not to take on more than I can handle. I have a lot more confidence now” (personal communication, February 11, 2008). Female Journalist No. 8, a single mother, 50, said her newsroom colleagues have helped raise her daughter, as have members of her church. She changed her focus from local reporting to business reporting because the hours are more regular. But she still feels pressure from her bosses not to put her job before her child. She said she has to frame carefully her requests to take time off. “My attitude is, this newspaper has been around for many years and has a lot of people working for it. I have one child and she will be a child for 20 years and I am the only person she has. You don’t want to constantly be saying (to bosses), I have to do this, I have to do that, because you risk being a problem child” (personal communication, March 8, 2008).
Not many news organizations offered formal policies designed to help families, the interview subjects reported. The journalists worked for an array of organizations: large and small newspapers, magazines, radio networks, in various areas of the country. But only a small number said company polices accommodated their family needs. Since the passage of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, journalists may advantage of provisions that allow 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents, employees with ill relatives or employees with serious health conditions (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008). But few media organizations provided benefits beyond that.
The majority of journalists interviewed said individual supervisors, not organizations, controlled how much flexibility their jobs offered. Some supervisors easily accommodated journalists’ needs while others resisted any kind of job adaptability. On one hand, the 26-year-old newspaper reporter with a young daughter said her managers had no problem with employees bringing children to the newsroom. They allowed employees to set up the conference room as a playroom. “We all have our stash of Play Dough and dolls and toys. My editor bought a DVD player for us. It’s kind of like a day care without a day care provider” (personal communication, February 11, 2008.) On the other hand, Female Journalist No. 10, a 41-year-old newspaper editor with two children, said that when her children were small, “I was made to feel very guilty and disloyal for taking time off for my kids. I was working up until I went into labor. I was covering a meeting when I went into labor. I finished my story, turned it in, went to my house and then went to the hospital” (personal communication, February 25, 2008). She said she returned to work within a week of the birth.
Several journalists, both female and male, said they did not believe much had changed in newsrooms to help families since the 1970s, when more women began entering journalism. While society is more accepting of working mothers, the journalism world for several of the interview subjects appeared to stagnate. Said Female Journalist No. 8, a single mother and newspaper reporter: “It is a traditionally male-dominated business with male-favoring policies. For as long as it is dominated by men it is going to be very, very slow to change” (personal communication, February 8, 2008). However, Male Journalist No. 4, age 51 with two children, said that with more women in the workplace, news organizations must consider families. “We have a lot more women in management, and they are going to be more aware and accommodating. The increase of women in management has forced newspapers to be more sensitive to the needs of female employees” (personal communication, January 29, 2008.)
Some journalists said changes in technology, such as laptop computers and personal hand-held devices like Blackberries, seem to offer journalists flexibility. But they noted the current downturn in the news media industry’s financial climate has required journalists to work longer hours with smaller staffs. Said Female Journalist No. 1: “I don’t see that there is very much being done in the profession, and particularly now as the financial situation is grim…I think it’s going to get worse for working parents” (personal communication, February 18, 2008). Some journalists said media organizations have become less accommodating of families in the first decade of the twenty-first century after attempts to achieve better work-family balance in the 1990s. Male Journalist No. 7, a 40-year-old newspaper editor with two children said:
I think there is less flexibility than there used to be because organizations are smaller and trying to do more with less. Technology has changed things—people can do stuff from home—so there might be more pressure to do more work. There’s more pressure for everyone to perform than there was five to ten years ago…We are smaller. We are not what we used to be (personal communication, March 2, 2008).
Most of the interview subjects confirmed generational differences in approaches to the work-family balance. Younger male journalists said they were more involved with family than their older counterparts. Several younger men described themselves in “co-parenting” situations, even when their spouses were the primary caregivers. Generation X-age men said they understood a societal expectation that they also contribute to childcare and household chores. Male Journalist No. 10, a 33-year-old newspaper reporter with a toddler, said: “As I look at it, I find people in my generation are into dual parenting, dual household, dual chores. It’s not fair that my wife cook, do the laundry, empty the dishwasher. It’s more egalitarian than my parents’ generation. I have no problem with it all. I get mad at my dad a lot” (personal communication, March 3, 2008). Male Journalist No. 9, a 33-year-old newspaper editor with one child and another on the way, said he has asked his newspaper editors to change his hours so he can be at home at night with his wife after their second child is born. “I have this vision of (his wife) at home at night with a 3-year-old and a baby. I need to be at home to take care of the 3-year-old while she is tending to the newborn” (personal communication, March 10, 2008). Male Journalist No. 5, a 39-year-old newspaper reporter with three children, said younger male journalists seem to be more focused on family than their older counterparts. “I think the reporters who have been here a longer time are more defined by this job than younger reporters. There are people who have spent 25-30 years in the business and because they have given all for this business, they expect you to give all” (personal communication, January 29, 2008).
Younger women and men are more likely to ask for family accommodations than older ones, forcing more newsrooms to concede some kind of balance, the interview subjects reported. Younger women also are more likely to leave journalism if employers don’t accommodate their needs. Women born in the 1960s and beyond expect to have both careers and families. They also must work because of family expenses, the interview subjects said. Female Journalist No. 10, age 41, noted, “Women get satisfaction from having their own careers and being more independent. It’s so expensive to live and raised a family, so it’s a necessity that both parents work. There is a shift for both of those reasons” (personal communication, February, 25, 2008). Noted Female Journalist No. 2, age 50: “Older women had to hide what they were doing. If they had to bring in kids to work, no one knew about it. We are more open now” (personal communication, February 15, 2008). Some younger female journalists credited women involved in the 1970s feminist movement for breaking ground. Female Journalist No. 9, a magazine editor who co-parents her young brothers with her mother pointed out: “We are reaping the benefits because we are willing to say, ‘I am going to get this balance rather than turning over my job to a man’” (personal communication, March 10, 2008).
Still, several male and female journalists said the media industry has not progressed enough, especially compared with other businesses. Some companies provide more progressive family policies, such as on-site day care, time off children with guarantees employees’ jobs will remain, and offers of part-time work. Female Journalist No. 15, a 48-year-old radio reporter with three children, maintained:
I am surprised we think of ourselves as such a civilized society and we do such a poor job of taking care of our families. It’s not valued the same way as other things are valued. The main thing it does is that it stresses out the family when there aren’t good (work) accommodations. It’s just building up a psychology of stress within the whole family and it’s really unnecessary (personal communication, February 25, 2008).
Conclusion and recommendations
Interviews with these working journalists revealed that female journalists are under pressure to juggle work, childcare and household responsibilities. Male journalists, particularly younger men, participate in childcare and home care, but rarely assume primary responsibilities for them. Female journalists are more likely to face a “second shift” of work when they arrive home from their jobs. Also, female journalists tend to sacrifice career moves for family reasons more often than male journalists. Yet this research offered no evidence that many female journalists are leaving the profession to care for children. Instead, they are asking employers to make accommodations for family.
Individual supervisors rather than company policies greatly influence how much flexibility journalists receive balancing work and family, similar to the results of the Poynter study. Some supervisors go out of their way to accommodate employees, such as the newsroom in which the conference room became a playroom. Other supervisors do not tolerate family demands on work. An individual supervisor may control job satisfaction, the journalists in this study reported. Many of the journalists in this study were concerned about the effects of the current media climate, with leaner staff and more pressing time demands, on the work-family balance. Employer flexibility is not likely to improve during tough economic times.
Generational differences regarding work and family were evident in this study, with younger journalists more focused on family than older journalists. This paralleled the Generation & Gender research. Younger women are more likely than older women to expect employers to accommodate families. They also are more likely to ask for work arrangements that allow them more time to care for children. In general, Generation X men in journalism were more involved with family than Baby Boomer male journalists. Younger men also were more likely to participate in childcare and housework than older men. Several young male journalists said they adopted a co-parenting philosophy with their spouses.
However, employers do not seem to be keeping pace with their employees’ requests for balance, according to the journalists in this study. Both male and female journalists said they found most media companies unlikely and unwilling to adopt more family-friendly policies. Some organizations made changes in the 1980s and 1990s, but backtracked with the less-prosperous media business climate of the 2000s. The results of this study indicate that if media companies eliminate family accommodations or fail to offer flexibility, they may drive younger male and female journalists from the profession, particularly those with families or who plan to have families. Balancing work and family clearly is a priority for the newest generation of journalists.
This study was designed to gather detailed, in-depth information on journalists’ experiences balancing work and family. Follow-up studies could include surveys to reach a wider sample of journalists or case studies of individual media organizations.
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