Professional women only need to glance at the hundreds of publications targeting them to see how important work-life balance is to health, happiness and career success. Stock photos abound of a woman in an intricate yoga pose, with a zen-like facial expression as she juggles a baby, a frying pan, a cellphone and a briefcase. Some illustrators creatively add the eight arms of the Hindu goddess Durga to the mix. Presumably, to effortlessly manage the many facets of a busy working woman’s life, one needs the flexibility of a yogini and divine powers.
When this issue existed only in the domain of magazines that we skimmed through while waiting for a manicure, it was easy to dismiss. Now that it has become a mainstream, real-world cliche, this is a good time to break the association between work-life balance and women’s careers.
Although biology dictates that women bear children, research shows that men are increasingly struggling with working a second shift at home. This trend bodes well for career women who aim to even out their domestic workload with their partner. It also adds men to the work-life equation, turning this from a “women's issue” to just another element that career-minded individuals must jointly manage. Linking gender to this issue damages women’s hard-earned credibility by insinuating that employers need to go easy only on female employees. That's hardly equality, and employers must acknowledge that.
Perhaps a recent U.S. court verdict will help. A discrimination suit filed against Bloomberg LP that claimed the media company routinely demoted or reduced the pay of pregnant employees and new mothers was recently dismissed. In her ruling, Judge Loretta Preska stated that the company did not reduce the responsibilities of women returning from maternity leave any more than it did for those who took similarly lengthy leaves. She then ripped into the concept of work-life balance, saying: “The law does not mandate ‘work-life balance.’”
“A female employee is free to choose to dedicate herself to the company at any cost, and, so far as this record suggests, she will rise in this organization accordingly. The law does not require companies to ignore or stop valuing ultimate dedication, however unhealthy that may be for family life,” wrote Judge Preska.
She goes on to quote former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who once famously said: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”
Let’s remove women from the equation for a moment. Employees who took time off from work for reasons that did not include giving birth saw a similar impact on their careers.
In the blogosphere, few writers came to the defense of Judge Preska. Yet, regardless of your opinion of her, women (and men) must be realistic when weighing their personal expectations against those of their workplace.
“You can’t have two number one priorities,” insists Becky Sheetz-Runkle, co-founder and VP of client services at Q2 Marketing and author of the book “Sun Tzu for Women: The Art of War for Winning in Business.”
“If you are interviewing for a job and they tell you these are the expectations and you’re not comfortable with that, you’re setting yourself up for a problem.”
Ms. Sheetz-Runkle advises women to be strategic and focus on the skills they perform very well instead of trying to outdo co-workers in hours spent at the office. “As women, that’s how we can be smarter and try to maintain that pipe dream of work-life balance. Not necessarily work harder but be smarter.”
The suggestion that work-life balance is a women’s issue not only serves as a gross generalization that harms the image of otherwise hard-working, driven women – it’s also untrue.
A study released over the summer from the Families and Work Institute, provocatively called “The New Male Mystique” found that men experience more work-family conflict than women. “Men are experiencing what women experienced when they first entered the workforce in record numbers – the pressure to 'do it all in order to have it all',” the research showed.
The misconceived concept of work-life balance need not only apply to those men and women with families. Many have expounded on the importance of work-life balance to Millennials, the group of people born between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, who entered the workforce expecting more flexibility.
For those advocating more of a life outside of the office, I commend you. I imagine happy employees are good for businesses, too. But the language that ties women to work-life balance must be severed: We can’t have it all, but neither are we alone.
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters.