Managing the Work-Life Balance as a Woman in Academic Medicine

Women in Family MedicineThis is second in a work/life balance series written by members of the STFM Group on Women in Family Medicine.  Jessica T. Servey, MD, Col(sel), USAF, MC is the author.

Despite the fact that in 2010 29.3% of active physicians in the United States were women, significant concerns regarding work-life balance among women still exist.1   The challenges faced by women physicians as a group are relatively unchanged for the last 4 decades despite the increased number. In fact, the concerns about work-life balance have been studied and written about since 1970. The main challenges include timing of having children and the guilt associated with maternity leave, lifestyle, and career choices and seeking this nirvana called “balance.”I continually am amazed how I have the same conversations with residents and students today as I did 12 years ago. More astounding to me is the persistent challenges for women in academic medicine.

There have been numerous studies, both quantitative and qualitative, completed in the past 20 years about how to reach this balance. It is agreed that organizational culture can play a role in not achieving any balance in life. Additionally, lack of effective mentoring and potentially lack of support from division leaders can be cited as reasons why women struggle in advancing careers in academic medicine. Many women make conscious decisions to reach this balance, which may include working fewer hours, declining a promotion, or limiting the number of children she has.3 It is disturbing to me that an article looking at reasons women left academic medicine completed just 2 years ago have respondent comments about “the old boys’ network.” The Association of American Medical Colleges has statistics with women associate professors still lagging behind men despite nearly 50% of medical school matriculates being female. I am not certain there is a clear answer for achieving this illusion called work-life balance. I do think there are a few tips for women to reflect on.

First, define your own priorities. This gives you control over your life. You can answer if you want that academic promotion, or if you want to do research over clinical care.  You can decide whether you choose to get married or have children. Only when I made a list of my priorities in writing so I could look at them anytime, did I feel I had some semblance of control. I can choose what I will not miss. For me, I never miss the first day of school and taking that picture. This year will be number 16 for me.

Second, if possible, choose your amount of work. It is a way to allow you to do what you need to at home and at work. Moreover, we forget about ourselves, our hobbies, our faith, and our personal growth. I cannot limit my work yet but will consider it when I can. I know many of my colleagues that work 60%–80% as a way to balance their life.

Third, lose the guilt. This is one I still struggle with. The “shoulds” of life take a toll on women in academic medicine. I should write more publications. I should get a grant. I should be home now. I should be “on call” more. I should. I should. This is an incredibly difficult task for us high-functioning women.

Fourth, find a mentor. This is being noted in multiple studies as a challenge for women in academic medicine. Sometimes, it may not be a mentor in the true sense but a colleague who can collaborate and discuss issues. The best person will tell you the truth. Surround yourself with examples of women who make all sorts of career and family choices. When you see all of the choices, everything seems possible.

My mentor, and now friend, once told me the most profound and realistic thing about balance. She told me, “Every day there may be a shift in my balance one direction or the other, but that overall the balance exists. Some days I may be at work late and others I leave for a sports event.” I think this may be the wisest comment I have ever heard from an academic woman physician.


  1. Association of American Medical Colleges. 2011 state physician workforce data book. Association of American Medical Colleges, Center for Workforce Studies, November 2011.
  2.  Mobilos S, Chan M, Brown JB. Women in medicine: the challenge of finding balance. Can Fam Physician 2008;54(9):1285-6.e5.
  3. Levine RB, Lin F, Kern DE, Wright SM, Carrese J. Stories from early-career women physicians who have left academic medicine: a qualitative study at a single institution. Acad Med 2011;86(6):752-8.

The opinions herein are those of the author. They do not represent official policy of the Uniformed Services University, the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

3 responses to “Managing the Work-Life Balance as a Woman in Academic Medicine

  1. I appreciate this post so incredibly much. I am a clinically active family therapist in a rural oncology clinic, a doctoral student at a R1 institution, and a mother of two young children. I think more people should be having these conversation about the “struggles” us high-functioning woman are having in academia. I have attempted adopting the advice a wise professor once gave me: “you need to look at balance as a verb, as something that you are doing vs a noun, as a tangible thing you are trying to achieve”, but still find myself wondering what feeling balance will be like. Thank you to the author and thank you to STFM for publishing!

    • Thank you, Steph, for sharing that great advice about looking at balance as an action. We have four more posts coming in this series, so check back next week.

  2. The guilt is hard to erase when it comes from big eyes of a child, your child who sees you only as Mom, not a working Mom. In theory, lose the guilt are nice words. In life, this item plagues many of us.

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