Friday, February 22, 2013

The Balancing Act

The second question I'm almost always asked by other moms about my relatively new job after "How's your job going" is, "Do you have flexibility"?  There are many aspects to one's career -- how challenging and interesting the work is, what your future potential/plans may be, how you handle managing others/being managed, etc -- yet a primary concern for working moms is figuring out how others are balancing full-time careers, young children, and otherwise full lives.  It's that elusive, mythical, "work-life balance" we are all after.  I think the balance looks different to every parent, but one common thread in attempting to achieve it is the need for workplace flexibility.  This sounds like a dreaded term to an employer, doesn't it?  It sounds like it may require an employer to lower expectations, or make exceptions for an employee.  The need for it can come across as a sign of weakness, of not being able to handle the job.  So as common as it is to talk about it among other working women, and as necessary as it is for most to getting closer to that balance, many feel hesitant and anxious to talk to their employer about it.  Should women have to wait to be perceived as indispensable before they can bring such issues up?   Should they feel less valuable as an employee or like their future potential with the employer is diminished for needing such an accommodation? 

As I expressed in my lament about the misdirection of Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" comment, I don't think that women will have equal pay/status in this country until we get better about workplace flexibility and address a host of other working women's issues (paid maternity leave, child care benefits etc).  Flexibility might mean different things, and not all jobs allow for the same types of flexibility.  It does not, however, mean decreased expectations or requirements.  It means being creative.  For example, you can't work from home in your regular duties as a physician, but maybe there are administrative tasks that can be done remotely or an earlier or nighttime shift that would work better with your kid's schedule.  If you frequently have evening client events, possibly a later morning start time or a longer break midday would help.  Maybe you'd prefer to work more on the weekend and have shorter weekdays.  You're not "entitled" to these things, of course, but thinking through the possibilities may prevent valuable women from being forced to leave their full-time professional careers or the workforce generally. 

Of course, the choice to have a child is a personal one.  So I understand the argument that if you make that choice, you have to be prepared for consequences, including some to your career.  This is a fair point, but stopping there ignores the impact on women, families, employers and society as a whole.  The truth is, the majority of Americans make the choice to have kids.  Women make up about 47% of the labor force and the vast majority of them are or will become mothers (over 80% of women aged 35-44 have at least one child).  And 77% of moms choose to be in the labor force.  Working moms, therefore, are a powerful group and keeping them in the labor force full-time and allowing them to advance is advantageous to the economy as a whole.  For employers, happier employees likely make for more productive, enthusiastic and long-term employees.  And think about the recruitment and retention benefits if an employer is forward-thinking on these issues.  Plus, parents being able to spend more time with their kids while also being successful in their careers has societal benefits we should all be interested in.  It will never be perfect, but it's something we can improve.  At a minimum, we should stop being afraid to ask for it.  (And, by the way, I'm all for dads and those who take care of aging/sick parents or other loved ones having options, as well.) 

I'm curious to hear from others what kind of flexibility you have, what you would like, what has worked best for you, etc, either offline or on the blog.   


  1. Here's the thing: thanks to the capitalist model, making a profit and allowing companies to operate independently of all but the laxest of safety regulations are valued more in the US than creating an environment that supports the wellness of its citizens. Government enforcement of paid maternity leave, child card benefits, etc. will never be the norm in the US, just like a widespread gun ban will never happen. Lack of government regulation (relatively speaking in comparison to, say, the EU) and gun rights are an intrinsic part of our culture.

    That sounds cynical as hell, but it's the unfortunate truth. Children are seen as a choice, and that belief is in most Americans, not just men, thanks to a paternalistic culture that sees raising children as women's work. Ladies, if we just quit having kids, we could all make partner! But we just had to have those kids, right?

    All hope is not lost, though.

    First of all, there are companies and managers that support work/life balances. In my very anecdotal experience, most of these companies are ones where women make up the majority of the workforce, and have been with the organization for a long time. In an effort to keep that talents, change has been made and work/life balance has been achieved. As an added benefit, men are also allowed the same flexibility, thereby allowing them to spend more time with their families as well. With any luck, and as women continue to expand their roles in corporate settings, this will continue to be the trend.

    Second, as evidenced by this excellent NY Times piece --> <-- our cultural norms are ever changing. The feminist revolution, and the civil rights movement, are less than 50 years old. Fifty years isn't a long time, certainly not long enough to completely revert hundreds of years of systems designed to benefit a specific class (white, male, educated, land-owning). With any luck, by the time our kids are in the workforce, corporate policies that encourage a work-life balance will be the norm.

    1. Definitely agree w/ all of the above. I'm in position where I have influence on employment practices at a male-dominated company, so I'm interested in expanding my voice on some of these issues. Hoping to talk to other women and get ideas on how to help evolve some of the cultural norms you mention. I think children will always be more "women's work", we can't ignore biology or natural instincts, so needing to find a way to make success in the workplace more accessible is an important women's issue (though like you said, I think men get a lot of added benefit from it as well -- especially at home...happy wife, happy life! :))

    2. To that end, I'm curious to see what changes you've seen be made? I've never worked in a female-dominated setting, so sometimes it's hard for me to picture.

    3. This was from the outside looking in, and at a major PR firm, but essentially, women could work from home 1-2 days a week, adjust their day-to-day hours as needed, and in general treat their families and work as equally important. Again this was a LARGE global multinational firm, with lots of people in single departments who could balance the work amongst a team.

      On a smaller scale, I've worked with a women-owned graphic design business where the owners brought their kids to work and worked from home as needed, while growing their business, adding clients and staff along the way, etc.

      I'm in a female dominated workplace now, and the work/life balance varies from department to department.