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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.  

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.

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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.

 

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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.