10th Feb 2011: Recent research on work-life balance

The next WISE@QMUL lunchtime seminar will be Thursday, 10th February 2011 from 12:30-1:30 pm in the Informatics Hub. Lunch will be provided, but we ask that you send an e-mail to wise@qmul.ac.uk to book a place as space is limited.

Gendered work-life conflict and the limits to learning in IT (or, why it pays employers to care)

Over the last decade, the desirability and means of successfully integrating paid work with other meaningful parts of life has received widespread attention. As the neoliberal attack on social provisioning has transferred the burden of care down to the ‘natural’ level of home where most women retain the major responsibility for the ‘messy and fleshy’ components of domestic and family life, significant gender variations in work-life stress persist. Studies have highlighted, therefore, the importance of employer provided ‘work-life balance’ (WLB) arrangements as a means for improving gender equity in market employment and household caring, and for combating the increasing work pressures that are destabilising many households and communities. Yet despite the profound moral and social significance of WLB, it is increasingly recognised that employers are unlikely to implement meaningful WLB arrangements unless they can identify ‘bottom-line’ economic advantages that arise from their implementation. However, there remains a paucity of empirical evidence to support the so-called ‘WLB business case’. At the same time, conventional WLB business case analyses often sideline social equity concerns of workers and their families, and say little about the underlying determinants of firms’ competitive performance in the New Economy.

In response, this paper presents new empirical evidence from two high tech regional economies (Dublin and Cambridge) to develop an alternative socioeconomic analysis focused on: (i) gendered experiences of work-life conflict in the IT industry; (ii) the arrangements that different groups of IT workers and their families find most useful in ameliorating those work-life conflicts; and (iii) the mechanisms through which workers’ use of those preferred WLB arrangements helps foster and support routine learning and innovation processes within knowledge-intensive firms. As such, the paper responds to earlier calls by Lewis et al. (2003) to develop a ‘dual agenda’ that moves beyond either/or thinking to consider both business and social imperatives in pursuit of optimal work-life balance outcomes. This research is also particularly timely given the challenges of the recent economic downturn and post-recession recovery: with employers keen to effect cost savings, workplace arrangements designed to assist workers in reconciling competing commitments around work, home and family will not be immune. Accordingly, the social and economic ‘business case’ for WLB becomes even more salient.

Al James is a Lecturer in Economic Geography at Queen Mary University of London, with research interests in high tech regional development; gender, work and employment; and the rise of India’s new service economy. He is keen to extend the recent work-life balance project to a focus on stay-at-home Dads, ‘male returners’, and the ways in which the recession might potentially be fostering a more progressive shift in gendered divisions of care.

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