Work/Life “Balance”– Changing the Conversation

Fri, December 11, 2009

Changing the World, Economy

200445110-001Recently, I had the pleasure of moderating an online chat with the fabulous women who created the Fem 2.0 Conference and a variety of bloggers about how we can change the conversation about families and their work/life obligations.

Doesn’t it feel like we all talk in circles sometimes on this?  We need balance, whatever that is, but are afraid to ask for it in this economy?  Most thinking people can agree that everyone benefits when employers allow employees flexibility — understanding that many jobs can be done from home as well as the office and cutting people slack when they’ve worked 12 hours one day, but need to leave early the next for pick up a sick child at school.

But the words we have for talking about the issues of work and life and all it’s complex messiness don’t seem to be getting us anywhere in terms of convincing employers and lawmakers that something has to change.

I hate to invoke Venus and Mars two times in one week, but I wonder whether part of the problem is that we need better vocabulary to communicate with each other?  We all want the same thing — we know employers are focused on the bottom line and employees need something to give before the next nervous breakdown caused by conflicting obligations.  So many policies and mindsets companies have about working life still stem from the days of Ward Cleaver, and I’m afraid not too many working families have an existence that looks like this anymore.

So what do we do?  If we keep talking about something in the same way with the same words, will anything ever chage?

From Katherine Lewis who writes the About.com Working Moms column:  Employers are losing some of their most creative, talented workers because there’s no real flexibility in corporate America. If we truly want to be internationally competitive we must overhaul the structure of the workforce to allow everyone to participate – not just diddle around the edges.

From Stefanie Gans of the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation: I also think mutual respect – respect that employers give their employees predictable schedules and that employers can also respect their employees to know that sometimes life outside of work needs to be a priority.

And from Working DadThe word I think is needed is rhythm. I have said work-life balance is a crock, and what I aspire to is a sense of rhythm, there will be crazy busy times and quieter times, but having the tools and flexibility to gain a rhythm to balancing work and family.

Working Dad also suggested that more efforts need to be made to reach out to working fathers “where they are” — they’re not going to be here at PunditMom (mostly) to talk about this as an issue.  But where do they hang out and how can we involve them in a conversation that at least, for the most part, is driven by working women?

You can read the whole chat here — there were so many people who wanted to weigh in on this discussion, we had to split into two chat rooms!

So what do you think?  Is it possible to change the way we talk about work and family obligations?  How do we get employers to acknowledge that life doesn’t look like 1956 anymore and that being flexible and providing things like paid leave are actually in their financial best interests?

Or is this another topic that we’ll still be chatting about when PunditGirl is my age?

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16 Responses to “Work/Life “Balance”– Changing the Conversation”

  1. Melany Says:

    I’m a new mom on maternity leave right now. Living in Canada, I have the option to take 12 months of leave to be with my daughter. My husband and I also have the option to split that leave so that if he wanted, he could stay home with our daughter during this very important first year. He’s opted to not take advantage of that leave but it’s nice that it’s an option for him.

    I remember a few years back, working for a different employer than I’m with now, that one of my colleagues (a Dad) decided to take 2 months parental leave to be with his newborn. Whether he was aware of it or not, people “talked” that he was taking leave at a very busy time for the company. It made me a little disappointed since it was his legal right to take the time off and there were plenty of people to fill in while he was gone.

    People just didn’t seem to understand that in those two months (which isn’t a long time) he got to spend time with his newborn that he otherwise would not have had a chance to do. That is time that can never be replaced.

    I’m using the word “time” a lot but I think that’s what it comes down to. How can we as parents best divide our time in a way that allows us to pay the bills while also providing nurture/care to our children? It will be interesting to see how the workplace changes in the years ahead to meet this demand (especially since men have a more involved role in child care now than back in the Ward Cleaver days of yore).

    I like Working Dad’s use of the word rhythm to describe work/life balance. With my husband, I have the challenge of striving to create that rhythm when I go back to work next year. :)

  2. annie Says:

    The root of the issue is still the idea that society has about women and motherhood and women don’t help themselves here because we are as bad about perpetuating the notion that motherhood “fulfills” on some level that nothing else comes close to. Which is not true. Motherhood is wonderful, but does it really fill up holes in our souls in a way that meaningful work, friendships and committed partnerships doesn’t as well?

    And we shoot our toes off one by one when we help perpetuate the mommy myths about being absent-minded (news flash – sleep deprivation does that regardless of the cause), being angst ridden to the point of a mental break-dwon about leaving our babies in daycare, that our children’s every little whim overrides all, that nothing else can come close to making us as happy as worshipping our kids. Sometimes I wonder how women with kids manage to get employed at all given this baggage.

    Employers have no incentive to flex as long as cultural views about parenting remain the same and this includes the idea that men don’t actively parent. There are myths about dads (although some have a lot of evidence to back them up) that are keeping women down in the workplace too.

    Or maybe we just need to except that motherhood breaks up the career cycle for women in a way it doesn’t for men?

  3. Cali Williams Yost Says:

    You are absolutely correct, Pundit Mom! Language does have to change and “balance” is not the answer. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of innovative organization creating and implementing work+life flexibility strategies. About 10 years ago, after valiantly trying to redefine “balance” without success, I started using the term “work+Life fit” and wow, what I difference! I even wrote a book about it, Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Penquin Group, 2005) and started a blog to get the word out about the power of “fit” four years ago. And, in October, two of the top academic researchers in the work+life field officially started using the term “fit” in their research to describe the management of our unique work and personal realities. Here is a link to the post I wrote in October thanking these researchers. In it I describe why, unlike balance which is a deficit-model or the “thing I don’t have” for most people, work+life fit is a model of possibility and solutions.

    http://worklifefit.com/blog/2009/10/worklife-fit-tipping-point/

    We all have a unique fit that we need to manage everyday, and at different transition points in our career and life. There is no right way to do it, only the way that works for you and your job. What we do need to do, is see the possibilities and access the skills that help us flexibility manage our work+life fit day-to-day and throughout our careers. One last point, other terms like rhythm, integration, blend, etc. all of indicative of what that individual want’s their work+life fit to look like. But others like a fit that’s as structured, predictable and separate as possible. Again, it’s about the fit that works for you and your job.

    Great post and thank you again for continuing this important conversation.

  4. Mitch Says:

    When I was still working as a director, it was something I tried to do with my employees while fighting the corporate structure, as it was. Most other directors thought I was babying my employees; I thought I was treating them as adults and parents with kids. It’s not always about the job, even if the job is your ultimate responsibility, but that’s a message that’s going to take a long time to get across because it’s so firmly entrenched.

  5. Tracee Sioux Says:

    I frankly suspect most fathers don’t want it.

    I know lots of good guys who derive at least part of their identity, and certainly more of their identity than the women I know, from their work. They are willing to sacrifice more for the job because they frankly don’t derive their identity from child-rearing.

    They don’t feel guilty about working during the evenings. They don’t feel upset that the kid isn’t taking dance. They don’t feel obligated to volunteer at the elementary school craft fair. It’s just not something they value for themselves. They LIKE that we do it.

    They see no “for the greater social and family good” reason to sacrifice the work part of their identity.

    My suspicion is that if working fathers wanted it – then obviously we would have it already.

  6. Jeanne Male Says:

    Joanne, thanks for moderating and for making the chat available. As a professional woman competing for promotion in the pharmaceutical arena not much has changed since 1989 when I started to climb the corporate ladder. Yes, the introduction of flex-time, summer hours, and paternity leave served as a visible band-aid but cannot heal the gaping hole beneath. Not only are they insufficient fixes, those that take advantage of flex and summer hours may find themselves passively punished for doing so; the unwritten rule is that flex and summer hours are for “the little people” not management-minded folks – even men that take paternity leave can be branded. What’s of far greater concern is the psychology behind the backlash and what it means to women of all ages and in all walks of life. I consider the classic book, “Backlash” by Susan Faludi, a “must read” for understanding why we have not achieved progress and continue to revisit the same issues. If we cannot change it today we must decide whether to stay in the game or opt-out. Further, to Cali’s points – it’s about finding the right fit for you. I left in 1997 (to start a corporate raining company http://www.emphigher.com) and never looked back but that choice was the right choice for me.

    The issues have come to a head in the pharmaceutical industry where many are losing jobs and those with jobs are working harder to keep them at the risk of losing themselves. The challenges that you spoke of came up so frequently in my leadership training business that I started a LinkedIn group but requests for more led to a free personal development website and blog (www.JobLifeArchitect.com) to help people define and design the job and life that fits their values and goals. Joanne, we may be revisiting the same issues but those issues are becoming more pressing. A recent indicator is that only 3 weeks ago, I volunteered to lead a JobLife Architect workshop at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Leadership Conference where 35–50 were expected to attend each of the parallel workshops. I was surprised to see 85 senior-level women wedged inside the space, flowing in the hallway, and eager to take a step back to examine what they want to build on their lot in life.

    Joanne, thank you for your service and time in this important work!

    Gratefully,
    Jeanne
    http://joblifearchitect.com/about/jeannemale/

  7. Amy Tiemann Says:

    Hi PunditMom, what an important conversation! I hope we keep it going. In all my years of blogging as Mojo Mom, the piece that has stirred up the strongest response in mothers I have talked to is this one, Work-Life Balance, Our Ladder is up the Wrong Tree.

    The concept of balance unintentionally gets us off on the wrong foot and keeps steering us in the wrong direction. “Balance” is what keeps us juggling like tightrope walkers. I argue that our guiding metaphor should be “support.” If we start from a supportive base and build fro there we’ll be much better off–unfortunately, I don’t see us doing that yet in American society.

  8. Katherine Lewis Says:

    Joanne, thanks for highlighting my comment and for hosting the chat. I do think that we’re in the midst of a revolution that has to happen at home as well as in the workplace. Until men are equal partners in the household it will be impossible for women to be equal in the workplace. It’s not just an issue for parents – hetero couples without kids still default to traditional gender roles when it comes to chores. And part of that change is the workplace changing; part of it is we women giving up some of our authority over the hearth and accepting that men can have their own valid approaches to household and parenting duties. (Even when they do them differently than we do.)

  9. Amber Says:

    I think that the only way to make change happen is to advocate for it. Sadly, many employees are afraid to do so, because they are worried that asking for flexibility will place a big target on their back the next time that layoffs come around. And those fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Because unfortunately, working less or taking leave so that you can spend more time with your family is still often viewed as a betrayal.

    What I believe will save us, though, is the change in the way that men view work-life balance. I believe that more and more men want and expect to be able to spend time with their kids and be actively involved in family life. If both women and men want change, I think that it is more likely to happen. There is strength in numbers, and in unity.

  10. Daisy Says:

    I’m in education rather than corporate America. People tell me I’m lucky to have summers with my children (and I am), but they forget that it’s not paid time off: it’s involuntary layoff. As for flexibility? None. The bell rings, I’m there. The final bell rings, I go home – with a bag full of work to do at my kitchen table.

  11. Debbie Owensby Moore Says:

    More women than men are now college-educated. And the percentage of women in the workforce continues to climb. I believe that it is only a matter of time before a shift occurs that provides women more opportunities to ask for and receive the kind of lifestyle that they desire. Because of the sheer numbers, we will become important to the ever present bottom line of profit.

    I believe that women will lead this change. As previously stated, a lot of men don’t want the opportunity to take a stronger role at home.

  12. Chrysula Winegar Says:

    I think we can mess around with the semantics of the word “balance” all we want, but the real issue is that the work force is aligned to reflect traditional roles. This is fine as long as traditional roles work for the majority of society, but “news flash”, more than a third of women are primary bread winners and more than two thirds of mothers work.

    There are seasons and cycles for households in all of this. For example, I have in the past been the primary bread winner for our family with my husband on childcare. Right now I am the second income – self-employed working from home – and primary carer of our children.

    Like Debbie Owensby Moore’s comment above, I believe men are hungering for more and figuring out how to speak up. I wrote about this recently http://chrysula.blogspot.com/2009/11/is-it-complicated-hell-yeah.html.

    Now the real crux, as you rightly point out, is getting the conversation to these guys because they’re mostly not hanging out on my blog either! Great piece. Delighted to find you.

  13. Nieke L. Garnia@Career Mom's Share Says:

    A very interesting post. I’d really like to be able to join the chat or the conference in the future.

    Frankly, as a working mom, one of the reason why I stay with my current employer is because they offered a flexibility at the workplace. I am not required to be in the office from 9-5 for the whole 5 days. I could come to my daughter’s school to do story-telling, and doing my work at night. We’ve been given workshop and online resources on Work/Life Management. And from my observation, married women are not the sole population who are using these flexibilities. Men, women, married, single. Everybody enjoys these facilities.

    About the term Work/Life Balance itself, starting 2 years ago my employers had changed it to Work/Life Integration, where the company integrate as much flexibility as possible into the workplace. The reason was because they acknowledged that right now the family structure had changed and the working requirement also changed due to the globalization where a lot of people are required to work in a strage hour to serve global clients from different timezone.

    So I would say that flexibility in the workplace is not a luxury anymore. It is a necessity, even a business requirements.

  14. Jon Prial Says:

    Semantics are just that, but perhaps a change of words can drive a change in understanding. But it is equally important that we target two audiences in increasing work-life sensitivity.

    Each individual must find the right answer for work and life and it has to happen at the daily level and at the big picture level. But it is more important to recognize that the individual’s manager (and company) needs to be sensitive to the needs. And whether it is childcare, eldercare, work-at-home, work schedules, the manager had to provide the environment for an appropriate dialog.

    One of the best examples of an employee-manager partnership dealt with an employee wanting part-time work. She wanted to go to a three-day work week (for 60% of her salary). After talking about her work ethic and how she approached work, both agreed to a three-day work week at 10 hours/day. Both knew that she was this dedicated and would work these hours anyway. So – she still worked three days per week (her typical days) and she took home 75% of her pay. A good partnership.


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