Interview with Professor Gretta Pecl on Work-Life Balance

By: Laura Thompson
Professor Gretta Pecl is a member of the aKIDemic Life Advisory Board. She is Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology in Hobart, Tasmania. She is a specialist in climate change ecology and founded the citizen science project ‘Redmap’, where members of the public can submit information on fish and other marine animals and plants. Professor Pecl is a champion of women in science and equity in academia.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your career and family.

I have two kids who are 12 and 13, and a husband who runs a busy business. I had the kids in the 2nd and 3rd years of my postdoc, and I did take the two maternity leaves but chose to work part-time through both. Overall, I went part-time for six years from the birth of my first child. In terms of juggling my time, I have always had my children’s health and well-being as the barometer to guide how much I have worked and over time I have chopped and changed the percentage of time worked as needed.

Professor Gretta Pecl with two kids who are 12 and 13

I am Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. As a result I have a fairly high research load. I currently have 8 PhD students, and I do a lot of travel. I work mainly on fisheries and climate change.

Q2. How do you work towards balancing work and family?

I always have the family as my focus, and although I really do enjoy my work, I adjust my work to fit my family, not the other way around. I do have periods when work is intense and then my husband jumps in to take up the slack. I am very fortunate to have a husband that does a proper 50 or even 60% of the children and the house – he doesn’t call it helping, he just does his job! I don’t see how I could have had a career without that kind of help. Also, we are extremely fortunate to have grandparents that live nearby and help us, this was particularly the case when the kids were younger. I try and make sure that I don’t work most of the weekend and for at least a couple of nights during the week, so I can spend quality time with the kids. I also make sure I do something with each kid each week.

Q3. Do you think we have it all – a successful academic career and a family?

I do think it is possible to have it all, but I don’t think you can necessarily have everything all at once! There are several things that facilitate being able to have a career and a family. A central one is having a partner that is 110% involved. I don’t see how mothers can have an academic career in a traditional family construct, where the woman does all the house work and looks after the kids. There is also a lot to be said for lowering your standards – trying not to be perfect and relaxing about having a messy house. I don’t go to all the children’s sports games etc, I ask my kids which events are important to them and those are the ones I go to. Outsourcing whatever we can afford has also been a big help – with each career stage I have outsourced more and more; as soon as I could afford it I got a cleaner. I make sure my kids understand what I do. I have involved them in a lot of things: they have come to conferences, they have gone to work events, and they have even helped set up stands for public events. My 12-year-old helps with my citizen science project, and knows it inside out. I have asked my kids if they wish I was a stay-at-home mum, and they say ‘No! What you do is important!’ They understand what I do and see value in it and I think that really helps us all be more comfortable with the situation.

Q4. Is it possible to achieve work-life balance or is it more about juggling competing demands?

In some respects, the concept of work-life balance is a bit of a misconception. I remember going to the doctor for my 6 week check-up after my first child was born. The doctor asked me how everything was going, and I said that I was good but I that hadn’t worked out how to balance everything yet. Her response was that there is no such thing as ‘the balance’, it constantly changes because the demands of your family and your job change regularly. As a result, it is more about juggling competing demands and making sure that you have your eye on the prize in terms of your family and your job.

Q5. What are the personal skills that help support a balance between work and life?

It is important to have a clear idea of what needs to happen when – I like to write lists and prioritise things. I think I am a reasonable communicator and I will try and talk to the people working with me about what is going on or coming up. I also communicate a lot with my husband: he does 50-60% of work at home and with the kids and I do 50-60%, so you actually lose efficiency because there is a transaction cost whereby you have to do a certain degree of cross-over and discussion about who is doing what. It is important to work out good systems for knowing who is responsible for a specific job. We have tried to find some apps to help with this, for example for finances and shopping lists so we don’t double up and we try and keep it somewhat flexible. I am a pretty flexible person; I can see if you didn’t like change that could be a bit more challenging. I am happy for my day to spin on a dial and go in a new direction. I think a degree of adaptability is a good thing and it is important not to put pressure on yourself to have everything perfect.

Q6. Do you have any other tips or guidance for academics on working towards a balance between work and caring responsibilities?

Dump the guilt! Everyone’s children and family situations are different, but in my case I think my kids have gained an enormous amount from being placed in a variety of settings. They liked hanging out with their grandparents or being looked after by other mums in my mothers’ group. They like going to childcare – we made childcare a fun adventure, rather than me expressing guilt about them going there. There is research that shows that children are happy at childcare, it is good for their social development and it gives them activities to do. So, dump the guilt!

Q7. What are the organisational structures or policies that you think help support work-life balance?

Flexibility is critical, and I think organisations could do more to highlight how parents can be flexible. For example, when I was part-time, I was trying to decide exactly which days I was going to work but then the director of HR rang me up and told me I could choose a ‘flexible fraction’ which could be done at a time of my choice to fit in with my family commitments. Making employees aware of the existence of such policies is extremely important.

Having said that, although it is good for organisations to have structures that support flexibility, I think it is more important to have a culture that supports work-life balance. If you have the right culture you can work within a lot of organisational constraints, but if you don’t have the right culture, then well intended structures and policies are not necessarily effective anyway.

It is also important to remember there is no single, right way to achieve work-life balance. For example, a policy stating we shouldn’t have meetings before this time or after that time doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Sometimes starting early in the morning would be helpful as I could then knock off early and pick up my kids from school. I think having a culture where it is acceptable and even expected to discuss all these things in your team and with your manager is so helpful. When we have events in the Centre for Marine Socioecology, I ask people who I know have babies, if there is something we can do to facilitate their participation. A manager asking the simple question ‘What do you need?’ is very valuable. Although, it may not always be possible to meet that need, often there will be an easy (and inexpensive) solution.