Assistant Professor of Management Alyssa Westring focuses her research on work-life conflicts and women’s careers, two issues that have been at the center of a robust public debate over the past year since the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

Westring shares her findings on these subjects with a wide range of audiences through her scholarly work published in the Harvard Business Review,​​ Academic Medicine and Journal of Vocational Behavior, and the op-eds she pens for the Huffington Post and Inside Higher Ed. Last year she was named a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, a nonprofit social venture that seeks to increase the number of women thought-leaders who voice their views through published commentaries.

Westring, who joined the Driehaus College of Business in 2007, teaches management courses to both undergraduate and graduate students. In December she will lead a study abroad trip to Spain, which will allow students to explore work-life issues from a cross-cultural perspective. She earned her doctoral and master’s degrees in industrial/organizational psychology from Michigan State University and a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

In this Q &A, Westring discusses her research, including a recent study that provides surprising insights on the impact of workplace culture on work-life balance:

Q: You recently wrote a blog for the Harvard Business Review about making a “remarkable discovery” through your research into work-life balance among women doctors and medical researchers. What were the findings and what surprised you about them?

Westring: When we set out to understand the work-family conflict experienced by women physicians in academic medicine, we assumed that long work hours would be the primary culprit in their high levels of conflict. Not surprisingly, longer work hours were related to work-family conflict. But, when we looked closer, we discovered that this relationship hinged largely on the culture of the work environment.

When the department had a supportive culture, women were protected from the negative effects of long work hours. When the departments were less supportive, work-family conflict was high almost across the board, regardless of work hours. Surprisingly, women working 60 hours a week in the most supportive departments fared significantly better than those working 45 hours a week in work units viewed as less supportive.

Q: What other myths and truths have you uncovered about work-life balance, based on your research?

I think that the biggest myths surrounding the work-life topic stem from two main misconceptions. Some people tend to think that the problem is all about policies and regulations. They assume that if organizations or the government had more supportive policies, it would solve most of the work-life problems that people are facing.

On the other hand, some people tend to focus entirely on the individual, and assume that if people just learned the right strategies for managing their own lives, then they could solve their own work-life problems.

I think that both of these perspectives have elements of truth, but placing all of the responsibility on either the individual or the organization isn't a holistic or realistic perspective. Understanding that work-life issues are a complex interplay of individual, organizational, and societal challenges and opportunities is an underlying truth that I think should be more widely acknowledged.

Q: What attracted you to researching work-life balance and women’s careers?

I started thinking about these issues when I was an undergraduate student at The University of Pennsylvania. I was surrounded by many of the brightest young women in the country and I observed the dedication with which we all pursued academic success en route to our chosen professions. Although most of us expressed a desire to become mothers one day, no one was talking about work-life balance or how we could have a meaningful career and family life. The path to career success was straight-forward (e.g., study hard, get an internship) and we had all become experts on following that path. Yet, I wondered how we were supposed to become experts on other things that we wanted and valued—like building meaningful relationships and starting a family.

Searching for answers to these questions led me to graduate school in industrial/organizational psychology with a focus on exploring these issues. In fact, my master’s degree and doctoral dissertation both focused on how young professional students made decisions about future work and family. These questions were drawn directly from my own concerns about work-family balance.

Q: How do you find work-life balance in your own life?

Obviously, this balance is something that is extremely important to me—and I am constantly working on it. I have a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter, so there are times when it definitely gets tricky.

I think that there are really two things that have worked particularly well for me. First, my colleague, Stew Friedman, leads an organization called “Total Leadership” which helps individuals learn to be successful leaders in all areas of their lives. One thing that he always talks about is the importance of "experimentation." This is the idea that you can conduct mini work-life experiments for a few weeks to test out whether they work. If they do, great. If not, move on to something else. I’m constantly trying little experiments in my own life (like switching up the time of day that I exercise, or working from home one day per week).

The other thing that seems to work well from me is the mantra: “do less stuff better.” In other words, rather than trying to do everything, I try focus on what’s most important and do those few things well. I try to limit the responsibilities that I take on and am therefore able to be more fully engaged in the things that I do choose to do. Those two strategies are my “go to” techniques but, of course, I'm still working on this and learning on a daily basis.

Q: How do you incorporate your expertise into your courses?

In my management classes, I teach content related to how managers and organizations can address employee work-life balance and well-being. We talk about these issues from an academic perspective and I try to include some of my own research.

On a more personal level, I ask my students to start thinking about these issues in their own lives. What strategies can they use to manage the demands of school, work, family and friends? Many are beginning to question how they will manage their career and personal lives once they graduate. I try to think about the questions that I had as an undergraduate and support them as they think through some of these issues. Helping students identify their values and goals (both professionally and personally) is an important first step in initiating a successful transition from college to career.

Q: What made you decide to teach at the Driehaus College of Business?

Coming from a psychology background, I wasn't sure how well I would fit in at a business school. I was concerned that there would only be a focus on the bottom-line and that my research would be seen as too “touchy-feely.” However, when I interviewed at DePaul and learned more about the school, it became clear that this would be a great fit for me. I think a big factor is how deeply the Vincentian values are integrated into the Driehaus College of Business. Caring about the health and well-being of employees and their families is an important and valued research focus here. Plus, the location in downtown Chicago didn't hurt either!

Interested in studying management at DePaul? Visit the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business for information on DePaul’s MBA and MS programs in business.

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