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  • Debbie Dougherty

Are Your Role Models Heroic or Horrific? A Work/Life Perspective

By Michael Kramer and Debbie Dougherty

When I first started working at the University of Missouri, I had a work mentor and role

A person with brown skin and red hair has hands pulling them in all directions.
Work/Life Balance? Everything all at once. By Freya Clark, age 12

model.  Dr. Michael Kramer was a critical resource for me as I made my way in a space that had historically been hostile to women. He provided feedback on research papers, insight into the university and the field, and provided opportunities for me that I would not otherwise have had. Maybe most important, he was an excellent role model. He rarely if ever worked on the weekends or evenings. Why? Because he wanted a robust work life, he wanted a robust family life, and he wanted a robust 3rd space life where he could be involved in his communities. That meant he needed to work efficiently while at work, do family while with family, and do community while with his communities.

Of course, my life is not nearly as ordered as Michael was able to make his, but modeling his behavior, I try to rarely work on the weekends, and I try to have a robust life outside of the workplace. I asked Michael to coauthor a blog on mentoring, role modeling, and work/life balance.

Mentors and Role Models

Research is clear that mentors, role models, and organizational advocates are critical to success. Increasingly, researchers are exploring the ways in which mentoring marginalized people can lead to more robust outcomes. This literature makes it clear that marginalized people need different kinds of workplace role models. Which makes us wonder, wouldn’t we all benefit from a more robust and life friendly form of role modeling?

It’s common to ask someone if they have or had a role model that influenced their work attitudes and habits in their careers.   These role models are almost uniformly considered positively. By inference, they are heroic roles models.

Sometimes, our work attitudes and habits were influenced by negative examples as well. Perhaps there was someone who was a very ineffective teacher or unproductive scholar and we vowed not to be like that person. The worst of these individuals are by inference horrific role models. To state the obvious, most individuals fall somewhere between those extremes, as neither heroic nor horrific role models. Similar heroic and horrific role models from more senior employees exist in all walks of life, not just in academics. Many people point to positive or negative role models that influenced them whether they work in blue, pink, or white occupations, play sports, or volunteer.

Role Models in Work-Life Balance

Over the years, we have begun to wonder if some of our heroic role models may actually be horrific ones. The classification of a career role model as heroic or horrific rarely takes into account work-life balance as a factor. Let’s start with a couple of stories that are often told about senior scholars examining them once using work only as the lens for evaluation. Then we will examine them a second time using a work-life balance lens.

Heroic Role Model: Working While Giving Birth

There are a number of versions of this first story told about a number of different faculty women by some of their students. In the story, the faculty member was in the hospital giving birth to a child (perhaps the first, but perhaps a later one) and through grit and determination, she read a draft of a dissertation from one of her students so that the student could progress toward graduation in a timely manner.  Sometimes the faculty member was “only” grading papers or tests.  One of us heard a version of this story in a tribute to a retiring senior faculty member. The other has heard people say that she is the person in the story, an attribution which she strongly denies. It would be interesting to trace back the heroes in the story to have the person confirm or deny its accuracy.

Using the work lens, this certainly is an example of a heroic role model.  Here is a faculty member putting her students above herself. She sacrificed her own personal life and comfort to help one of her students succeed. There certainly is something admirable about that level of commitment to her students.

Heroic Role Models: Working on the Weekends

There are a variety of versions of this second story told about different faculty members. In the story, the (usually male) role model arrives at work every Saturday morning and puts in a long day of working on research to increase his productivity as a scholar. He may do this for a number of reasons. Maybe he has a spouse at home who will take care of the children. Maybe he does not enjoy the labor of being at home. Maybe he has not developed good work habits and simply is not productive during the work week. Or maybe he can be very productive in the office without being interrupted by children or colleagues.  Maybe he considers a six-day workweek normative based on role models he tries to emulate. Or maybe, just maybe, he really enjoys spending his leisure hours working.

We both know of faculty members who lived this story. In one case, junior faculty members felt pressure to emulate his pattern and come to the office on Saturdays as well. They showed up every Saturday, even though they did not want to or need to, because that is the behavior that they observed in their role model. Given how convenient it is to work at home today, it seems unlikely that this story will continue to be told about current faculty, but “working long hours at home” on the weekend demonstrates the same behavior in a more secretive manner.  

Using the work lens, this also is an example of a heroic role model. The faculty member sacrifices his personal time and family time due to his commitment to his career goals. In a more complimentary interpretation, he is also contributing to the reputation of his department and university. There certainly is something admirable about that level of commitment to his career.

Horrific Work/Life Balance

Now let’s look at these two stories taking into account work-life balance. From a work-life balance perspective, both stories seem far from heroic. There seems to be agreement that a mother’s time with her newborn is an important emotional and development time period for Mother and child. Yet a mother who also wants to be a successful worker faces the daunting expectations that come with the paradox of the professional women. Specifically, they need to be both mother and worker at all times if they are to have a spitting chance at success. That these women felt pressure to work while giving birth suggests misplaced societal priorities where work colonizes the family.  By such a standard, grading papers or reading a dissertation in the hospital is horrific because the person involved lacks social permission to form appropriate boundaries between work and life.

Similarly, there seems to be agreement that fathers need to spend more time with their growing children than was perhaps the norm in previous generations. By such a standard, spending Saturday in the office is horrific because the person also has misplaced priorities. Yet fathers often experience the daunting pressure to embody the ideal worker norm, a person (usually male) who is constantly working and sacrificing for work. While he may want to spend time with his children, his constant appearance at the office suggests misplaced societal priorities where work is privileged over family.

It is important to realize that standards for appropriate work-life balance are not objective and have changed over time. We should not judge someone’s behaviors that were normative at the time by the norms of today. There may have been a time when it was necessary for women in male-dominated careers to commit long hours and sacrifice family time in order to overcome negative stereotypes of women in the workplace. There may be times and careers that demand work beyond a regular workweek. For example, it is nearly impossible to imagine a successful realtor who works 9-5 on weekdays only. However, we can recognize that behaviors that were once considered heroic and necessary may no longer be.

The problem of what are heroic or horrific role models is not unique to the academy.  Joanne Martin  wrote of an organization, Ozco (pseudonym), in which the founder bragged about the extraordinary efforts the company was willing to go to help employees succeed in their careers.  He told about how the company arranged for close-circuit TV from a hospital room so that an important Vice President, who arranged for a Caesarian birth, would be available to participate in the launch of a new product. At the time, the CEO considered this exemplary commitment by his company to its employees and exemplary commitment by the employee to her career. Few people today would consider this appropriate, and many would be outraged. However, it’s not the 1970s and our acceptance of new technologies, like Zoom, might influence our future evaluations of heroic, normal, and horrific behaviors in many situations. 

Lest you think this essay comes from a holier than thou perspective, in retrospect, I (Michael) regret that I only missed one day of work for my son’s birth (he was born on a weekday) and none for my daughter’s birth (she was born on a Sunday).  I was at work while my wife had gallbladder surgery and missed my grandmother’s funeral due to work as well. My priorities favored work over family/life matters at those times. Well before I retired, my priorities were different. And I (Debbie) took only one week after the birth of my first child, and three weeks after the birth of my second child before returning to work. The good news is that when my third child was born, not only were there family leave policies in place, but I felt empowered to take a semester long parental leave.

A final story based on personal experience illustrates the points made here quite well. A colleague of ours told the story of how his wife, also a faculty member, missed only one day for the birth of their daughter. He told this story to a group of young female faculty members of child-bearing age, including one who had just announced she was pregnant. There is no doubt that the faculty member was proud of his wife and considered her heroic.  The young faculty members were aghast and horrified. Were they expected to do the same? However, it is important to remember that there was no family leave act when the faculty member returned to work immediately. There is now. Policies  have changed, although just because the policies have changed doesn't mean that expectations have changed.

Action Steps

As you consider the role models of your life regardless of your occupation, we suggest that you consider more than just a work perspective in your evaluation of heroic behavior and instead consider a work-life perspective based on the norms of the day. Perhaps, you will help change what is considered normative in such situations. Doing so may change what you consider heroic and horrific.

Michael Kramer is a professor emeritus, playwright, volunteer, and engaged community member.

Freya Clark is a gifted child artist who raises rabbits and plays sports.

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