What Balance? Tips for managing work-family challenges by Caroline Simard, Director of Research

Ask a woman working in technology (most likely in a dual-career couple), if she has found “work-life balance” yet and she will laugh at you. As I look around for practical solutions to this issue and see that some “tips” to achieve balance recommend “leaving your job/career,” it is clear to me that progress has been slow on this one.

 

One of the biggest problems with work-family issues is this notion of “balance.” As a culture, we frame work and family as opposite ideals. This pressure hits women at the mid level especially. The conflict happens when demands of family life are incompatible with the demands of work life, often forcing women to leave the workforce entirely in an “all or nothing” proposition. Mid-level is also where work-life issues more likely leads to more difficulty in career growth. There, there is a double push on career women as their time compete betweens two competing ideal-types of “ideal mother and family caregiver” and “devoted worker/career woman” (see the book “Competing Devotions” for more on those conflicting demands). What does this lead to? Feeling guilty for not being at home when you are at work, and feeling guilty for not working when you are at home. A no-win situation.

 

It’s time to reframe the discussion. “Balance” is a misnomer – it implies that there is a perfect equilibrium somewhere in there to be attained – an equilibrium that is static and set in stone, with women themselves being at fault for not finding this elusive “balance.” There is nothing to be won in framing the issue in those terms. Also, the term “work-life balance” has been squarely framed as a woman’s issue, yet men in dual-career couples face similar challenges. This dual-earning situation represents the majority of the population: the US Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that 71% of US mothers are employed, 51% of US families are in dual-earning couples, and that the proportion of married-couple families in which only the husband works is at 19.8% (there is a dearth of data on unmarried partners and same-sex couples in the workforce).

 

  • The first tip, then, is to stop seeing “work” and “life” as separate things. This distinction is artificial. Family and work are both life and are both important. As high-tech work has globalized itself, the boundaries between work and family have eroded (blackberries in bed anyone?), making it outdated to see them as separate spheres.
  • Let go of the guilt. This one can be tough for some, due to the unrealistic societal expectations outlined above. That means that we can acknowledge what we accomplished at the end of the day and let go of the rest.
  • Develop a NOT to do list. Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching and an expert on leadership development and advancement for women, argues that the myth of the “superwoman” leads to burn out. Miller says that: “‘Shoulds’ are goals we set ourselves that in actuality don't add much value to our lives. So we resist doing them, but with a level of guilt. For example: ‘I should be more active in the PTA. I should invite neighbors to dinner. I should clean out the garage.’ The antidote to Shoulds is the not-to-do list, a declaration that you have permission to not do those tasks.” In her workshops, Miller leads women in developing that “NOT to do list,” deciding on the things they will let go so they can focus on their most important work and family priorities. (for example: I will NOT clean, bake, take phone meetings before 8am, etc.). For a great example on how that discipline can significantly help, read this Fast Company article about Sophie Vandebroek, CTO of Xerox and single-mom of three children, where she details the strict discipline and boundaries she has set on what she will and will not do, both at work and at home.
  • Develop a support network. Most dual-career couples live away from their extended families and cannot rely on a mother or other family member to step in for emergencies. Developing alternative support networks is critical. One of my friends and working mother of three recently simultaneously broke her ankle (no more driving for 8 weeks) and also had to fly out urgently to be with her mother who was dying. Within days a group of about 7 of us men and women friends created a spreadsheet to schedule playdates for her children outside school hours and pooled resources to have meals delivered at her home. It took very little of our time since we each took a very small part, and the group is ready to respond to the next crisis. Extend your support network both at work and in your community.
  • Move away from viewing the problem as a woman’s problem - this is a problem facing partners in a family. In their book, “Getting to 50/50,” Joanna Strober and Sharon Meers argue for reframing the discussion from “I” to “we”, where work and family matters are an issue facing both men and women in partnerships.
  • Keep in mind that the best companies and managers are those who acknowledge that family responsibilities are a part of life, as are work responsibilities, and that those responsibilities pertain to both men and women.

 

Perhaps instead of balance, we can acknowledge that the issue is the socio-demographic reality of dual-career couples – representing the largest proportion of the workforce.

 

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