Posts Tagged ‘work-life balance’

This ever-elusive work-life balance thing we’re all so fond of talking about? Well, what if the cold, hard truth is that there’s just no such thing?

I know, I know. Telling a woman who works and also has a life that there’s no such thing as work/life balance is pretty much on par with telling a little kid who’s foregone all manner of enjoyable mischief in the hopes of quality returns come Christmas morning that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Yet that’s just what author Fawn Germer suggests in a recent Huffington Post piece. And she might be onto something.

In “Work-Life Balance? The Mantra That Balances What Matters,” she tells us of her own experience:

Years ago, when I was still married and working as a newspaper reporter, I was drowning in an investigative project that stretched for ten brutal months. It was the most challenging and important work I’d ever done, but as that series became more consuming, I kept moving the mail and my junk to the guest bedroom where it amassed itself into a giant pile of unresolved clutter. One evening, friends gathered at our home before we all went out to dinner. Imagine my horror when my then-husband opened the door to the guest bedroom and said, “Look at this!” before exposing my secret mess.

Been there? Yeah, me too. Gerner continues:

In the midst of some of my greatest accomplishments as a journalist, I was exposed for the one failing that trumped everything. I’d failed in my traditional role as wife. I don’t think it was his intent to land that kind of blow on me, but I felt that, if I wasn’t a good housekeeper, I was not worthy. I was humiliated and I was crushed.

That, though, that one hits pretty close to home. The guilt she alludes to, the being judged, the need for approval, but even more: that “failure” on one scale can trump all our other successes. It’s a familiar feeling. And it makes me think. Is it a uniquely woman kind of a thing? How many men do you know who consider their successes at work irrelevant, or even slightly diminished, because they don’t vacuum as much as they should? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, back to Germer. She suggests that, ultimately, in our search for balance, what we find instead are choices.

Of course, if you come by my house today, you will see that my office doesn’t look much better than the guest room did on that particular occasion. I’ve grown into my identity and balanced myself out by making decisions that let me define success and failure, rather than tradition or guilt. That is how you achieve life balance. You do it consciously and on your own terms.

Though it seems so much easier said than done, I can see what she’s saying. And I think perhaps there’s a gem in her logic, a gem that should, in theory, help make our decisions easier: Do what you like; skip what you don’t. (For me, that means read, write, run, cook; as for making the bed and blow-drying my hair? Never, ever again.) All we need is to take an honest look at our lives, what we enjoy spending our time on and what we don’t; from that, we should be able to glean a little wisdom as to what really is most important to us. And then, we can use that to help us prioritize, to make our choices a little easier.

It’s a sweet idea in theory. But, it seems that, for women, often it just is not that simple. Suddenly opting to drop the balls that don’t matter as much to us as the others? That’s contrary to all the messaging we’ve heard for years: have it all, do it all. Be all things to all people. Friend, employee, wife, mother, daughter, office mom, domestic goddess, sexual superhero, kitchen queen, triathlete who can speak intelligently on any number of important subjects and tackle the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle in pen. On some level, we want to, we feel like we should be able to be superwoman, even while we call out that unholy icon as bullshit.

And so we keep those balls in the air. And we watch our sisters, with all their balls in the air, and think to ourselves: Well, if she can do it, I should be able to do it, too. What’s the matter with me? Rather than: I bet she’s as overwhelmed as I am. Why are we doing this to ourselves again?

(Not to mention the sad, not insignificant fact that if we were to blow off all the stuff we’re not so fond of doing, there is no bed-making, laundry-folding, hair-drying fairy waiting to swoop in and pick up our slack.)

But maybe, if we could decide to throw caution to the wind and let a few of those balls drop, maybe we’d find ourselves a little happier, our sisters a little less stressed out by the juggling act they’re trying to pull off, our lives perhaps a little less balanced, but tilted more in our favor?

Is such an idea way too good to be true?

I don’t know. But I’m going to mull it over in a minute. Just as soon as I make the bed.

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The fix is in, at least according to a piece in the Guardian entitled “If you only do one thing this week, stop talking about work at home.” So simple. And yet.

From the piece:

Sharing your working life with your partner can give you perspective, reassurance and a chance to offload, but banging on and on and on about the minutiae long after the working day is over can be counter productive.

When Cancer Research UK looked into modern relationships last year it found that 28% of us spent less than three hours with our partners each day, and that one in eight of us spent less than 10% of our time together conversing. So do you really want those precious conversations to be about the knackered photocopier?

Knackered. Doesn’t it make you wish you were a Brit? But apart from the envious slang, such a good point. Why do we bring work home? Either literally, watching a UCLA game with a stack of work in your lap to do in between plays (oops, did I type that out loud?) or figuratively, letting yammering about work suck the air out of the room, until you’re the only one left in it.

We’re acting like the boys.

Maybe we need the validation. Generationally new to this power world of work, do we need to prove that we’re one of the boys?  To identify ourselves with what we do — and bring it all home? Our male counterparts have done this for years. And the outcome? Not so great.

But back to the Guardian piece:

The trick is in accepting that we need to talk about work while learning to restrict the time we spend doing so. Switching off after hours is an important part of dealing with the stresses, strains and everyday irritations the workplace imposes on us. If the spectre of your annoying boss looms over your kitchen table just as he or she does your office desk then what’s the point in going home?

See, I think this is how we women can get it right. Embrace our differences, as Shannon pointed out yesterday. Realize that we are more than what we do. Smugly smile and note, as we stretch out after work, that kicking our pumps to the floor is one more sign that we as a gender have the capacity to get it right. Call it evolved.

Years back, I did a long magazine piece on the 60s hippie icon, Wavy Gravy. (The piece is so old, I can’t find a link.) You may remember him — apart from the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor — as the Clown Prince and Head of Security at Woodstock, famous for the line: “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” I profiled him in the late 80s, when he was living in a commune in Berkeley and up to his ears running a number of charities and non-profits, which took up all his waking hours.

At one point, I interviewed his wife, Jahanara, who said, somewhat ruefully, “Sometimes, you just want to play cards.”

Sometimes, you should.

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Yesterday I came across a post by Cindy Krischer Goodman on the Miami Herald‘s Web site, about a speech given by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Commonwealth Institute South Florida. The appearance featured tales from Albright’s recently published book, “Read My Pins,” as well as a little personal history: she was a journalist, researcher, full time (single) mom to three daughters, and later a professor… all before ever stepping foot on Capitol Hill.

Pretty amazing. So amazing you might think you’ve nothing in common with the Artist Formerly Known as Madame Secretary. But believe me, you do.

In regard to work/life balance, Albright said: ‘There are no easy choices. Every woman’s middle name is guilt.’

Told you.

Guilt. It’s truly a woman’s problem, isn’t it? Much like the need for approval, it’s almost a birthright.

And what is it good for, anyway? I mean, I’m sure Jiminy Cricket would insist it serves a certain purpose, helping that know-it-all goody two-shoes on our shoulder ensure we don’t actually beat up the idiot driver who cut us off or steal the shoes we can’t afford or get busy with the guy in the mailroom, no matter how tempted we might be. But it’s not the same as a conscience–and I think we’re quick to confuse the two.

Nor do I think there’s any doubt that guilt weighs heavily on our choices. To a certain extent, it drives them. And keeps us looking over our shoulders. And stresses us out. That wicked emotion can be downright paralyzing. We don’t want to hurt anyone, put anyone out, do the wrong thing. It hits us from both sides, too: Sometimes we make choices we don’t really want, strictly because we’d rather not deal with the guilt. And other times, we choose to go the other way–and then are left feeling guilty over it. It complicates things, loading each choice down with some additional–and not necessarily relevant–worry. In the same way that factoring others’ feelings and our own fear of being judged out of our decisions requires conscious work, so does eliminating the guilt factor. How often do we do things we don’t want to do? Say yes when we don’t mean it? And women, with our oversized To-Do lists and our underdeveloped sense of balance–well, I don’t think it’s too wild a stretch to suggest the two are related.

So, how do we get rid of it? Hell if I know. But perhaps a good place to start would be to take back our middle names and cut that Guilt Monster down to size. Are you with me?


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The other day, one of our Twitter followers sent me a link, with a “What do you think?”-type note. (Using 140 characters or less, natch.) A click landed me on Harvard Business’ blog, and a post entitled “Why Are Women So Unhappy At Work?” The piece (written by a man–just for the record) quotes the findings from an earlier post by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. In that post, entitled “Are Your Best Female Employees a Flight Risk?” Hewlett writes:

We found that in the wake of last year’s financial crash, high-powered women were more than twice as likely as men–84% compared with 40%–to be seriously thinking jumping ship. And when the head and the heart are out the door, the rest of the body is sure to follow.

Hewlett goes on to cite examples of what various companies are doing in order to keep their ladies on board. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the subject of passion came up:

Intel created workshops aimed squarely at retaining one of its most at-risk populations: mid-level female engineers. Exit interviews revealed that many of these talented technologists were leaving not to spend time with their family but because they no longer felt challenged by or passionate about their work. In the 21st century, talented people of both sexes often feel stymied by a traditional vertical career path that follows a straight line up a narrow ladder. Rather, they’re interested in and open to lateral moves and a variety of “work style” options, such as flex schedules and telecommuting, as long as these options are intellectually and professionally challenging and/or satisfy personal obligations.

That’s surely a part of it. Now, consider this, from Russell Bishop, via the Huffington Post, still rumbling with riffs on the Paradox of Declining Women’s Happiness study:

The implication seems to be that if you were to gain more in terms of physical world success you would naturally become happier… My theory is that over the past 40 years, as American society exited the “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” mentality of the 50s and 60s, we seem to have increasingly equated success and fulfillment with jobs, career advancement, position title, bank accounts, and other symbols of success. If you were one of those statistical women who took on job, career, or economic goals as your “symbols” of success, you just might have wound up sacrificing what mattered most in hopes of greener pastures at the eother end of job, career or economic goals. What if you won the race to the top: a better job, increased paycheck, more “toys” than the boys? Did you bargain for all that comes with it? Did you anticipate the sacrifices you would have to make to get there? How are those trades looking now?

An interesting take. Going back to the original post, the one our Twitter friend sent, author Sean Silverthorne writes:

Unfortunately, Hewlett doesn’t answer my burning question: Why are women more likely than men to consider jumping ship? Certainly there are career opportunity questions. If women believe they don’t have as good a chance as their male colleagues of advancing, of course they should be considering options. But a 2x factor suggests something much more deep seeded. Something about the nature of work in the modern company.

His post earned a slew of responses, citing reasons for our wandering eyes ranging from discrimination from the good old boys’ clubbers, to a need for more corporate support for work/life balance, to female “dogs in power that insist on running a place like a sorority.” No woman wants to take part in the proverbial workplace pissing contests–and even if she did, she’s not properly equipped. But this comment really made me think:

I also think there’s a fundamentally different paradigm that can exist in female-oriented workplaces and it takes us away from the whole aggressive, money and progress-oriented approach to work–it is collaborative, nurturing, fun approach which while achieving goals and earning a living isn’t centered or structured the same way–it’s like a circle not a hierarchy and goes to the heart of our culture.

Lest you think that sounds a little too kumbaya to actually work, consider these points, enumerated by Hewlett:

  • Research demonstrates that companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment
  • A study has shown that when work teams are split 50-50 between men and women, productivity goes up. Gender balance, the research posits, counters ‘groupthink’–the tendency of homogenous groups to staunchly defend wrong-headed ideas because everyone in the group thinks the same way
  • Another study–out of France–showed that firms in the CAC 40 (the French euivalent of the Dow Jones) with a high ration of women in top management showed better resistance to the financial crisis. The fewer female managers a company has, the greater drop in its share price since January 2008.

So, clearly it behooves everyone to keep women engaged, in the game. But if a whopping 84% of us are thinking exit strategy, what’s the answer?

I kind of think they all touched on a part of it: Hewlett pointed out the need for passion and challenge at work; Bishop noted the inevitable let-down that comes from chasing–and then catching–material things; and Silverthorne offered a tease, earning comments that allude to something deeper, something about the very way in which workplace structures are organized, a la Elizabeth Lesser’s suggestion I first wrote about here:

The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

But in order to change them, we’ve got to stick around.

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Sure, men stress about career choices, too. But for women, relatively new to this world of work, there are some additional layers that may explain why so many of us are, well, undecided.

One of those layers has to do with time. An interactive chart – good for at least 15 minutes of playtime at your desk — from Sunday’s New York Times Business Section shows, graphically, what various groups of Americans are doing at any given time during the day. For example: at 6:00 p.m., 9 percent of women are at work, 16 percent are home doing chores, and 4 percent are taking care of family.

The chart is fun to play with, but what’s really interesting is the data behind it: the “American Time Use Survey” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What you find there is that working women still work a second shift after work — which may help explain why “what should I do with my life” can become such a loaded question: we’re welcome in the workforce, but we’re still expected to get it done at home.

For example, on an average day, 20 percent of men did housework — compared with 50 percent of women. As for cooking and cleaning up afterward: 38 percent of men versus 65 percent of women.

Meanwhile, in families with kids under 6, women spent 1.2 hours directly taking care of them — bathing, feeding, etc. Men spent 25 minutes.

Which brings up another layer of angst: many women are in a place where they have young children or have begun to think about starting a family. Suddenly, career choice becomes a matter of careful and excruciating calculation: Women raised to be masters of the universe –but still seeking the flexibility to raise their kids – are pulled in opposite directions: Meaningful career? Meaningful family life? Choices become crucial: how will we find that niche that will allow us to find satisfaction on both ends? What if we don’t? Maybe we came up expecting to achieve the male model of success; now we realize it’s impossible. Or we’re agonized and guilty because, with all this grand, amorphous opportunity, we find we don’t want that model of success anymore.

Or, maybe, the scrutiny. As Shannon pointed out, women in the workplace are often judged in ways that men are not.

Sunday’s New York Times raised this question on its opinion blog: Do Women Make Better Bosses? (Accompanied, of course, by a headshot of Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly. But let’s not go there.) The question was posed in response to an interview with Carol Smith, the senior vice president and chief brand officer for the Elle Group, published last week, in which Smith said she thought women tended to be “better managers, better advisers, mentors and rational thinkers” as opposed to male bosses who “love to hear themselves talk.”

Several smart people chimed in, pro or con, some citing credible research. Well and good. But really, I couldn’t help wondering: Exactly why are we still having this conversation?

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Really, women’s work is never done.

At a time when we’re told that work-life balance is the great mirage; at a time when women are still punching the clock on the “second shift”; at a time when kickass young women are still stuck trying to decide how and where they fit into the world of work …

At a time when there is so much unfinished business for feminists to attend to? We get this?

This, according to NPR, Reuters and others, being Hollywood’s new vision of “Do me” feminism: A 30 minute HBO comedy, starring Diane Keaton as “a feminist icon who decides to reignite the movement by starting a sexually explicit magazine for women.”

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Good for the goose, good for the gander. (Although it does kind of smack of the way Hollywood frames First Amendment fights in terms of Larry Flynt. Oops. Did I bring that up again?) We all love Diane Keaton. The show should be gloriously funny, especially on HBO. And I’m sure I’ll watch it.

But please don’t call it feminism. Or use it to imply we’ve come a long way, baby.

Jezebel.com was among the many who reported on the upcoming show as the greatest thing for women since the Equal Rights Amendment (Oh wait. Still haven’t passed it.) But, like NPR, Reuters and Salon.com’s Broadsheet, Jezebel used a money quote that revives a couple of 1970’s stereotypes that, in the long run, may have stalled the momentum — even though the generalizations only applied to a handful of women:

Perhaps HBO is trying to do penance for or regain female viewers lost after Sex And The City went off the air? In any case, Marti Noxon [the show's producer] says she’s wanted to do a show that touches on feminism for a while; she was 12 when her mom came out as a radical feminist lesbian and had to juggle her mom’s beliefs with her own interests: “I wanted to be a gal, I was very interested in men, and I wanted to shave my legs,” Noxon says. The concept of the Diane Keaton project — an older lady working at a porn mag — sounds awesome. As long as they don’t call it Hot Flash.

Stereotype number one, in case you didn’t notice: Back in the day, only lesbians had street cred as feminists. Stereotype number two: you can’t fight for women’s rights if you happen to wear a skirt — or like boys, for that matter. Didn’t we get over that, long ago? Feministing.com, in fact, just referenced a new study that exploded the myth that feminists are man-haters. The study found that “contrary to popular belief, feminists reported lower levels of hostility toward men than did nonfeminists.”

Salon.com’s Broadsheet was a bit more circumspect in its report, pondering whether “the series will amount to f*ck-me feminism or lightweight “lifestyle” activism. But maybe, just maybe, the show will bravely explore those competing influences of feminism and mainstream sexual culture.”

But still. Aren’t we leaving something out?

A few years back, I did a story on a houseful of edgy, independent young women about to graduate from college who refused to call themselves feminists. I asked them why:

It’s a spectrum issue, they said first. They’d be more likely to call themselves feminists if they could explain where on the scale they fell. What they don’t want is to stick to the label, all or nothing. “I don’t want to be – I’m a feminist, but… ” said Tessa. “I think a lot of people perceive feminists as being so hard-core – men-haters, almost masculine.”

They said they’ve never experienced gender discrimination. They’ve never been in a class where they were dismissed because of gender, never been told they couldn’t do something – or had to do something – because of their sex. Never – yet – faced discrimination on the job. Battles fought, battles won, they said. Old news.

“I’ve grown up and had every opportunity,” said Kate, who conceded that without the benefit of privilege this might have been a different conversation.

“Therefore, it’s hard to identify with the word feminist because, for me, it’s the norm. Now it seems radical to say feminist. It’s hard to get passionate about a cause when you haven’t faced the consequences of what you’re fighting for.”

Later, we talked about patriarchy and the need to change institutions. One woman wondered if such change wouldn’t require some sort of movement. But, another one said, “you have to be oppressed to have a movement. And we’re slowly working forward.”

Really? With all the work still left to do? Instead we’ve got Hollywood portraying feminism’s last frontier as owning our own porn. And we’re supposed to cheer.

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So. How’s this for ridiculous? One of the most life-changing, loaded, and deeply personal choices a woman can face is that over whether or not to have children. Rather than listing them, let’s just acknowledge that the pros and cons could go on forever. Let’s also acknowledge that one of the most significant cons of having children might be the impact on a woman’s career; moms with young children are often passed over for promotions, while childless women of childbearing age are often passed over as well, on the grounds that they’ll likely have children soon. Despite the fact that fathers’ roles have begun to change as they’ve become more involved in child-rearing, work-life balance is still considered a women’s issue. And yet. A recent study by Lancaster University prof Dr. Caroline Gatrell found that some employers see their female employees who don’t want children as wanting in some “essential humanity,” and view them as

“cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way that leads to them being excluded from promotions that would place them in charge of others.”

Wow. It’s enough to make me think conspiracy.

It also makes me think of Barbara’s post from yesterday, about the obnoxious way in which Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was condescended to, and the equally obnoxious critiques Surgeon General nom Regina Benjamin has had to endure regarding her weight. But this is not a rant, I promise. Because the thing that strikes me about all of it has to do with choices, and why women in particular find them so difficult. I think often, when deep in the throes of a which-way-should-I-go, part of the angst is the knowledge that, no matter which way we go, we will be judged. In all sorts of ways. We’re judged in ways that men aren’t, and in ways that are often contradictory. And, the damnedest truth of all, we often do it to each other. But we can’t just take our ball (or lack of same) and go home — nor should we. So the question becomes, what do we do?

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Interesting conversations started on Undecided — and on our Facebook page (and our fans’ FB pages) — this week. To continue the chitchat or read the whole comments, click the links. We’re just getting started:

Several comments revolved around Jack Welch and his comments on the impossibility of work-life balance:

The only way this will ever change is when the definitions “mother” and “father” and the traditional roles at home change. Of course women leave the work force when they are expected to work as hard, if not harder, than men in the workplace AND do all the traditional “mother” roles, cooking, cleaning, staying home with the sick child, driving kids to practices, taking kids shopping etc. etc. But, maybe that goes to the differences between men and women. I, for one, cannot imagine missing out on that stuff (well maybe the cleaning) for a long night at the office. – Colleen

As I’m reading this blog at work (hey, it’s break time), I can hear the President and owner of the financial services company that I work for making a personal call – which happens during the 3:30 coffee/debriefing hour and generally happens with the door open. Annoying, you might think? Nah. It’s been back-to-back conference calls and meetings all day. In fact, the check-ins reinforce the culture of this office and demonstrate our owner’s belief that success outside of the office is equally as important as success in the office; in fact perhaps one begets the other. … Sounds like my boss will be enjoying grilled salmon for dinner tonight and they DID remember (phew) to pick up the dry-cleaning this afternoon. Oh, and HER daughter finished the SAT prep homework already and HER husband picked up the birthday gift they’d discussed…. — Page

Nothing infuriates me more than the fact that men are never told that they can’t have it all, but women are almost always the ones who are expected to choose at the fork in the road. — Lorraine

I think that in general, everyone has the choice. Men also can’t be a great dad and a great powerful CEO any more than women can. It is just more societally acceptable for men to pick work over family…. Also, it is based on what you expect from a mom or dad. ..And honestly, I feel kind of lucky to be a woman to know that when the time comes, I’ll (hopefully) be able to do both, work, but not be chained to a desk fulltime, and be at home. Not too many men can do that… — Kelley

Another chat revolved around the inverse relationship between choice and creativity — and the curse of the plaid skirt:

I think limitation/less choice absolutely leads to more creativity. Which is why great art is usually made by people who come from lesser means. I, too, did time in Catholic school, and actually had this very observation in highschool. Not that I enjoyed the itchy, ill-fitting plaid skirt—but it was sort of a game/challenge to find a way to allow one’s personality to shine through—hair color, shoe color, nail polish color. It just goes to show choice or “lack of” can be a blessing and a curse. I think it really comes down to an individual’s ingenuity and courage to be themselves. — Tamara

I wore a plaid skirt everyday for 12 years. I loved free dress days and would literally plan out my outfit for weeks. Flash forward 15 years, I am a lawyer, and some days, I am excited when I have to go to court, not because I am pumped for whatever hearing, but because I can just grab a suit (kinda like a uniform) and not think about what I’m going to wear that day…. — Colleen

Since I can’t really relate to ensconcing myself in much other than my daily uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, I’ll go with what I know (artmaking).At my best, I know enough to have a self-imposed limited palette of one type or another. The art is almost always more interesting. I think this works for people like me who have a tendency to want to sum everything up, because there are truly SO many choices….The more I try to stay true to the chaotic everythingness of everything, the more immobilizing it is for me. Sometimes the smallest thing (which I often discover is much more expansive than I expected) can be a testament to that larger rule... — Warren

On whether to stay put or move on:

Dude, I’m doing what I wanted to do out of college and now I’m OVER IT. Sometimes what we originally think is glamorous turns out to be the opposite. After 10 years in this industry I’m ready for a BIG change….. ideally owning my own business and not ever having to worry about a director not enjoying his sandwich. — Samantha

“If I stay there will be trouble; if I leave there will be double.” I think that what is important is making some kind of choice…doing nothing is the worst choice of all. Newton was right about a body at rest staying at rest and a body in motion staying in motion. Physics — governs everything we do, feel, believe, spiritually, emotionally, physically. Inertia…make a choice and keep moving, you can always make another choice. But staying at rest, not growing, not changing…ahh…that would be awful. Leap, knowing you can choose again and keep moving forward. — Leslie

Finally, from Shannon’s brilliant take on what happens when your life unfolds just the way you had it planned — and why we get the heebie-jeebies when it does:

I don’t think second guessing yourself and having that “grass is greener” feeling happens for women only. I’m speaking for myself (as a man) but I have those second guess feelings as well.Maybe men don’t speak of it because we feel more of a responsibility to be the main source of income and create a stable environment for our family. The dream option is often not practical. -and who is to say you won’t still have those feelings about what you left if you do leave. — Pablo

I wonder if choices are so difficult for women because we are led to believe THEY MEAN TOO MUCH. And so we avoid choosing? Or regret the choices we make? Forgetting … that most of our career choices are destined to change, anyhow.So maybe the question is why women think their choices are so important — and irrevocable? — Yours Truly.

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… the more they remain the same?

A woman can be a good mommy. Or she can be a good CEO. But never both.

That was the message from Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, in a recent speech that rightly ignited a firestorm in the press and the blogosphere. It wasn’t just that he said that for women, life itself is one big choice. That’s kind of what we’ve been saying here. But he defined that choice in mid-century terms:

Women can have a family. Or a successful career. But gee whiz, they can’t have both. Work-life balance? All a pipe-dream, girls.

(Funny. No one ever says men can’t have both. But that’s another story.)

Still. As offputting as Welch’s comments were, could they hint at one source of the angst felt by young women who DO want it all — but are still being told it can never work? Is it any wonder that analysis paralysis steps in when women believe that they must decide between career and family?

And is this either/or business a false choice?

Back in the day, of course, women didn’t even have the choice. It was often made for them by well-meaning males in bad suits who were allowed to ask rude questions – and make hiring decisions based on the answers.

Case in point: A few years out of college, I took a test for a management training program for a large corporation. Never mind the name. I scored high, made it through the first round of interviews, and then ran up against a smug middle-manager who asked:

What did my husband do? (Strike one)

Isn’t it likely that I might be moving if he got a better job somewhere else? (Strike two)

And, once his career took off, wouldn’t I be eager to start a family? (Strike three)

And out. On my way to the door, this guy said something to the effect that management training was a costly process, so surely I could understand why they would be reluctant to risk all that money on someone: Who. Might. Leave.

All of which is to show how far we’ve come. But, as Welch’s comments clearly show, we’ve got a ways to go.

Making the case in the Washington Post that American companies need more senior women, Womenomics authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote:

Professional women have been leaving the workplace in droves, and we need to stop the brain drain. Recent studies show that almost a third of professional women opt out at some point in their careers and, strikingly, that MBAs are more likely than lawyers or doctors to choose to stay home with their children.

Beyond a certain point, many women find that the costs to family of a high-octane career are just too great. We need to recognize that the glass ceiling is in part a self-imposed, defensive perimeter. But we can’t afford to have women take themselves out of the running for top slots. And the only way to prevent that is changing the workplace to allow us the freedom to fit in our personal lives.

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