Career and Family: A Difficult Balance

A former colleague of mine recently shared a link to a very interesting article in The Atlantic, titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, and as a young professional women it caught my eye. This article, written by Anne-Marie Slaughter a State Department Director in the US, states that it is exceptionally hard to be a full-time employee at an executive level, and a parent. It suggests that women are often blamed for lack of professional success, when traditional work and career models make it difficult to achieve at an executive level.

In order to open up opportunities in the employment market, committing to tertiary education is a requirement for many occupations. Professional women tend to start off on their career paths quite favourably; in fact, participation rates at New Zealand universities suggest women may be more committed to higher education than men (13.4% and 10.7% respectively1).  However, following completion of university study women have lower employment rates than men and hold only 6.5% of Directorships in New Zealand (Najib & Roya 2008). Rather than looking to career structures, Slaughter believes that women are often blamed for “selling-out” and committing to their family rather than their career. New Zealand research suggests a similar perception is present here, with many Directors believing women don’t reach executive levels for reasons such as; family commitments, lack of aspiration for power, career choices, risk adversity and women’s unsuitability for director roles (Najib & Roya 2008).

Women that do hold professional positions are often encouraged to balance work and home life, and many people attest that younger professional women don’t need to choose between having a family and a career, they can have it all. However, Slaughter cites examples of such a “balance”:

 “Elizabeth Warren, who is now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, has a similar story. When she had two young children and a part-time law practice, she struggled to find enough time to write the papers and articles that would help get her an academic position. In her words:  “I needed a plan. I figured out that writing time was when my child was asleep. So the minute I put him down for a nap or he fell asleep in the baby swing, I went to my desk and started working on something—footnotes, reading, outlining, writing … I learned to do everything else with a baby on my hip”.

Slaughter herself also commuted to Washington to work for the whole week, “balancing” this with spending Saturday and Sunday doing chores and spending time with her two sons. Is this really considered work-life balance?

Many young professional women (and men) are disengaged by this concept of balancing work and home in such a way, often without fully reaching their career goals. Given global career shortages and lack of women in leadership, organisations need to find ways to keep talented young professionals in the workforce. Rather than blaming women for lack of career achievement Slaughter suggests a number of simple changes to job design that can help women (in fact anyone) achieve success and balance at work and home:

Change the culture of quantity vs. quality:

Many professional workplaces operate with a “fast-paced” culture of work more, travel more, stay late, work weekends. This is not conducive to working mothers, or in fact anyone who has out of work commitments that are not career-related! Rather than considering number of hours sitting in the office, organisations should view work quality as more important for professionals. Many professional roles don’t require someone to sit in one particular office from 8-6 every day of the week. Allowing parents the flexibility to work around childcare commitments (because for some reason school schedules don’t align with typical work hours!), while still ensuring they get their work done is key to engaging women professionals.

Reduce job related travel:

Given current technology capability (and the fact many professionals don’t enjoy work travel!) why are many jobs structured with travel as a key requirement? Many professional roles could be structured without work travel, or with limited work travel which is likely to appeal to anyone with ongoing commitments, especially those with children. Even considering school and public holiday clashes when scheduling work travel could make a role much more appealing for some parents.

Bring family values into the workplace:

To have a successful career, Slaughter believes many women have had to purposefully block their personal life from their professional life. Organisations need to change perceptions of family time within organisations, viewing family as important and beneficial rather than hindrances to a parents’s performance. Many studies have found that family friendly policies can improve not only perceived organisational performance but also share price. Other research has concluded that good family policies attract better talent, which in turn raises productivity.

While I wrote this blog to highlight ways for young professional women to achieve career and personal success these initiatives can benefit all employees. In fact they should; developing policies that only apply to one group of employees can backfire, particularly if an organisation does not change it’s underlying culture to become more considerate of employees personal lives. By changing the way organisations structure work, rather than blaming employees for lack of career success organisations can hold onto valuable professional female employees.

What does your organisation do to create flexibility for working parents?

What initiatives have worked and what haven’t?

Najib and Roya (2008): http://http://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/bitstream/10092/877/1/thesis_fulltext.pdf

1 statistics from http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz

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