Female Leadership and Work/Life Balance Collide

Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network Speakers in New Delhi in 2012

I read the title of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and immediately went on the defensive. Another full blown feminist whining about a gender gap (that most data shows no longer exists), I thought.

What I ended up reading was one of the more balanced, nuanced and thoughtful articles I’ve read on female leadership and work/life balance.

Below I’ll explore her insights and add my own commentary in which I welcome your critique. I’d like for this post to conclude with an open discussion in the comments where I can learn from all of you, particularly strong-minded career women who I have a lot of respect for: Amber Naslund, Akhila Kolisetty, Nisha Chittal, Rebecca Thorman. Slaughter’s words are in quotes throughout.

“But almost all (women) assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.”

I might challenge that men would love to spend more time at home with their kids too, but societal pressure still dictates that the man should be the primary provider for his family. Furthermore, the vast majority of women want their boyfriends and spouses to earn more than them.

“And although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades, the economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have shown that women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men.

This likely stems from women feeling like they HAD to work long hours to not be discriminated against by their male counterparts despite research that shows women place a higher premium on shorter work weeks, proximity to home, fulfillment, autonomy, and safety. Also, I suspect more families rely on dual-incomes these days, which forces many women to work full-time, even if they’d rather not.

What frustrates me, from my vantage point, is women who have overcome the glass ceiling or who have climbed the corporate ladder and then insist that the old boy network is holding other women back – when in truth a large amount of women do not WANT to make the sacrifices (what a loaded word) necessary to get to the top after they’ve had kids. And THAT should be okay.

I’m all for rewarding productivity and accomplishments over hours worked, but at most big corporate companies you can’t get the perfect work-life balance to spend time with your kids AND successfully navigate to the top of the ladder.

It also begs the question: Should EITHER GENDER have to make these sacrifices to achieve that level of success and/or obtain high-level leadership positions? Slaughter’s article explores these cultural norms and even offers some viable solutions.

And let’s not forget that according to research conducted by Olin Business School professor Michelle Duguid that women are often the culprit in not hiring or promoting other women.

Slaughter discusses three half truths we hold dear:

      1.) It’s possible if you are just committed enough.
      2.) It’s possible if you marry the right person.
      3.) It’s possible if you sequence it right.

And #2 and #3 in more detail:

“Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them.”

I think this is primarily genetics at work. Men and women are wired differently and that invariably accounts for some differences in the workplace. In my (albeit limited experience) men are significantly better at forgiving misunderstandings and mistakes and more likely to confront co-workers face-to-face. But women are more likely to be sympathetic when dealing with an illness, needing to leave early for an appointment, childcare, etc.

What policies can we create to help both sexes navigate each others’ genetic differences in an effort to highlight the best of both worlds?

“People tend to marry later now, and anyway, if you have children earlier, you may have difficulty getting a graduate degree, a good first job, and opportunities for advancement in the crucial early years of your career. Making matters worse, you will also have less income while raising your children, and hence less ability to hire the help that can be indispensable to your juggling act.”

This is true of both sexes and why I consistently dole out the unpopular advice to forget the dream job, take the money and run. It’s also why my generation (Millennials/GenY) is more likely to hop earlier in their careers, knowing full well that acquiring a breadth of experience while advancing pay grades is critical to earning more later in their careers. Potentially providing them with increased flexibility to be better parents?

“The culture of “time macho”—a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you—remains astonishingly prevalent among professionals today.”

Until the people who play the game and fool the boss stop getting treated like martyrs and start being called out for their lack of added value, I fear that this is a phenomenon that will continue to prevail.

“Slowing down the rate of promotions, taking time out periodically, pursuing an alternative path during crucial parenting or parent-care years—all have to become more visible and more noticeably accepted as a pause rather than an opt-out.”

Agree, whole heartily – for both sexes.

“But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.”

I love and admire this. To some extent, I genuinely believe men want this to, but are less likely to vocalize it. Again, this is a complex narrative and genetically women are more maternal. I think MORE of them want to spend more time with their kids and a result that is responsible for at least some portion of the current gender gap.

Being a parent is often the toughest job a person will ever have.

These last three are the perfect synopsis, ones in which I can find no flaws:

Seeking out a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all. Bronnie Ware, an Australian blogger who worked for years in palliative care and is the author of the 2011 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, writes that the regret she heard most often was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” The second-most-common regret was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” She writes: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

“Giving workers the ability to integrate their non-work lives with their work—whether they spend that time mothering or marathoning—will open the door to a much wider range of influences and ideas.”

Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.”

Your turn. What steps can we take to make this a reality? What do you disagree with Slaughter on? Where am I completely off base?


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