While attempting to finish a psychology graduate school final exam with her screaming two-year-old son in the background, Diane F. Halpern, PhD, decided there had to be a better way to balance work and family.
"As a society, we still have not come together to make it easy for working or single parents...the dominant family type," she says.
Halpern has worked ever since to make life easier for working women. After spending more than 15 years climbing the psychology department ranks at California State University, San Bernardino, Halpern left in 2001 to establish the Berger Institute for Work, Family, and Children at Claremont McKenna College, where she is also a psychology professor.
Among the most far-reaching examples of the institute's research is a study Halpern conducted, which found that employers with flexible work policies reported less employee anxiety and reduced costs to the organization due to fewer absences and missed deadlines.
"We found that there were fewer symptoms of stress when employees had work policies that allowed them to control their work situation," says Halpern.
As a wife and mother of two children, Halpern's dedication to working families took center stage in psychology in 2004, when, as APA president, she examined the changing world of work and its effect on families. In collaboration with a multidisciplinary group of experts on work and families issues, Halpern's initiative resulted in a report that guides employers and policy makers on the importance of supporting working families. Recommendations include cross-training employees so they can cover for one another as a way to allow flexible scheduling, and requiring employers to provide paid family leave programs.
Halpern notes that "influencing public policy with social science data is a slow and cumulative process," but as the issue gains ground and more organizations join in the fight, family-friendly policies will continue to become the norm, she says.
"A woman's success at work largely depends on how well she's able to combine it with family life," she says, observing that half of the women in top leadership positions-in government or at corporations, for example-don't have children.
That's not to say it can't be done, she says. Halpern is co-authoring a book with Fanny Cheung, PhD, examining how nearly 60 women leaders in the United States, China and Hong Kong successfully integrated work and children during their rise to the top of their profession. The book is titled "Women at the Top: How Powerful Leaders Combine Work and Family" (Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, in preparation).
But today, as Halpern's daughter struggles to make it through law school while caring for a baby-a generation after Halpern's own days as a stressed-out working mother-she's reminded of how much still needs to be done to help working parents. That's why, she says, the need for more women leaders continues to grow.
It's by coming together with others with similar interests and desires that women leaders can make small cumulative changes, says Halpern. And that, she notes, is "the way to get things done."