This is the fourth post in a series about the barriers impacting the lack of advancement of women in business. We have discussed the background regarding women’s lack of advancement and also covered the first two barriers- Lack of Career Advocacy and Lack of Visible Role Models. This final post in the series is about the most talked about barrier regarding women’s lack of advancement- the ever illusive ” work/life balance”.
First and foremost let me share that I do not believe in the term work/life balance. Everything I have learned personally as a working mother and senior executive and have also learned from other women executives, managers and staff tells me that the phrase “work/life balance” may do us more harm then good. Balance implies the image of the old scale that had a point of perfect balance when both sides of the scale had even amounts of weight placed upon them. The work/life balance scale implies work on one side, life on the other and a very special point of perfect balance. Most of us know that the “very special point of perfect balance” very rarely or never comes. In working with women leaders I have found the term work/life integration to be much more realistic. Work is part of our life and as such is one element to be integrated in according to our personal vision of the life we want to build. Creating a personal customized vision of how we want to integrate the various elements of our lives, the roles we play, including work- is a success strategy of many women leaders I have coached. So why is work/life integration the most talked about barrier? Work/life conflict is traditionally understood and easy to see.
When organizations set out to work on the lack of advancement of women or uneven gender diversity in leadership – the assumption is often made that if the issue of “flexibility” can be dealt with the problem will be solved. Why is this? Because women have children and other roles and commitments outside of work that are still perceived ( and may actually be) more time consuming than their male counterparts. In the posts on WOB, we have talked about barriers other then work/life conflicts that interfere with the advancement of women in organizations. Lack of career/advocacy and visibility of successful female role models. These two barriers are interwoven with the issues of work/life conflict. Women need strong advocates that can conceive of different models of work /life integration other then those demonstrated by the male leaders that have come before. Women also need female role models that represent multiple and diverse models of career/life integration. Despite common misperception- not all women will choose to handle career and life integration in the same manner. Personal values, support systems, experiences, role specifics and many other elements influence the best choice for any given woman leader.
Women also tend to strengthen the myth that work/life conflicts are the primary element that cause women to derail from the leadership tracks or to leave organizations altogether. When a woman has made the decision not to pursue a path within a particular organization it is much easier for her to reference work/life conflicts then to discuss a lack of career advoacacy and mentoring or to talk about the fact that women don’t appear to succeed in this organization as often as men. At that point they are no longer vested in the organization and will tell the male leaders what they already believe to be the cause for the woman’s departure. Many women had shared full scope reasons for leaving organizations with me as a coach but intend only to tell their supervisors that they need an “easier schedule” or a different environment to work in that will support working parents. In some cases, women do not even realize how much of a difference an organization with leaders that understand how to support new models of career customization can make in retaining and ensuring women continue to advance. It is difficult for women to envision how it may be done differently in the organization if it never has been done differently. The first few women who succeed as pioneers need organizational support in paving the way.
There are many many role models and examples of women who have succeeded in building a life that integrates work with other priorities in a way that works well for them. This is a barrier that can be dealt with. It requires solid reflection by the women leader on her life and her aspirations for integrating all aspects of her life according to her personal life vision. It also requires organizations to support early pioneers, new models of success, and to make visible as many diverse models of success as possible.