Work-Life What? What Female vs. Male Executives (Still) Think About the Balance Issue

"Work-life balance” doesn’t exactly paint a clear picture, and never has, of what it takes to survive and thrive as professional women. What has to happen, and there seems to be some general agreement on this, is that we need to manage both worlds - with intention and purpose, and a clear sense of what success looks like.

I have always had an issue with the term “work-life balance” - not the idea of it, certainly, but the metaphor just doesn’t work. After all, balance is a single point where all parts are equally distributed and everything is still and...static. How does that work in our lives? When is everything so perfectly placed that no one side exerts more force than another?

It doesn’t. So it’s not helpful. Far more useful, to my mind, is to consider momentum, or the way in which our focused efforts can help make the most of our own forward movement, requiring, thus, less energy to keep things moving. Now that makes sense to me. And yet, the way we think about this issue, versus how men do, makes a difference.

In their post on Harvard Business Review (“Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life”), Boris Groysberg and Robin Abraham call work-life balance “at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth.” What has to happen, and there seems to be some general agreement on this, is that we need to manage both worlds - with intention and purpose, and a clear sense of what success looks like. Because “balance” doesn’t exactly paint a clear picture, and never has.


Groysberg and Abraham studied 4,000 executives worldwide for five years, and the results are intriguing. Here are some highlights.  


Some insights into their survey data:


  • 88% of the male participants are married, compared with 70% of the women.

  • 60% of the men have spouses who don’t work full-time outside the home, compared with only 10% of the women.

  • The men have an average of 2.22 children; the women, 1.67.

How women view success vs. men:

  • Women place more value than men on individual achievement and are more driven by need to find their passion and earn respect while making a difference.

  • Women are less concerned with the achievement of an organization and ongoing learning.

  • Fewer women list financial achievement as indicative of success.

  • Women tend to view their family responsibilities less as a provider and more as a role model.

  • Women consider it more important for their kids (particularly daughters) to see them as professionals too.

  • Many women said the hardest part of balancing work and family is “contending with the cultural expectations of mothering.”


How to manage tech:


  • Top executives seem to agree that deciding how accessible to be is a challenge, since there is an undisputed quality to focused attention.

  • When you cultivate dependence at work, you may feel “important,” but you’re not empowering people to make decisions without you.

  • More than a third of the surveyed execs see tech as a “home invader” while others see it as a liberator. Both camps agree, however, that tech is a good servant—but a bad master.

How to manage their social worlds:

  • When it comes to managing personal and professional networks, the men tend to prefer separate networks, while women were split evenly on it.

  • Many women keep separate networks for fear of hurting their image (some are afraid of seeming unprofessional by talking about families at work, and others don’t mention their jobs outside of work).

  • Those who like integrating these worlds together like to just be the same person, no matter who they’re with, while others worry that it leads to a narrowing of your world, so that you’re less exposed to ideas/influences outside of work.  


The article goes in-depth on a range of other areas they covered in their research, from the role of partners to the effect of travel - it’s a fascinating read.


But one part was discouraging, and I bring it up not to be a bummer, but to make sure we keep it front of mind that this issue, no matter what you call it, is hardly squared away. And that is that female and male executives both still consider the tension between work and family to be a “women’s problem.”

One study respondent said, “Given that leadership positions in corporations around the world are still dominated by men...I fear that it will take many organizations much longer than it should to make accommodations for women to…effectively manage their careers and personal lives.”

We’re far from done here, in other words. That’s why even if we dispense with the term “balance,” we cannot afford to dispense with the issue itself.

Read more on their study in Harvard Business Review.


Similar Topics