Friday, July 17, 2009

why we're unbalanced

Jack Welch's words hit a nerve for me, and for you, too, judging by the number and thoughtfulness of the comments. I've been mulling them over ever since hitting "publish." Hope you'll indulge me in an addendum.

Work-life balance is something no one expected to achieve years ago. Mad Men didn't ponder the problem when they put on their fedoras and left for the train. Nor did most housewives waving goodbye to them angst about combining cake-baking with a career. I assume they, like most humans, yearned for greater fulfillment. But they never expected to have it all. No one had suggested that such a thing would be possible.

Enter the 60s. (Which, FYI younger readers, technically didn't hit until 1968.) The Age of Aquarius. Era of first generation Mood-Enhancers. Rock n Roll. The Pill. Suddenly, caveats long in place disappeared. You could engage in sex without getting pregnant. Guzzle soda pop without adding calories. Wear your hair long no matter what sex you were. We came to expect that anything was made possible by a combination of modern technology and old fashioned ingenuity.

Now, fast forward to the era of niche-marketing and customization. When everything from carry-out coffee to the new car you're ordering to heck, even your kid's education, can be customized to suit, retrofitted to your particular needs and individual desires. When we get what we want, we're used to getting it exactly, or at least asking for it. So it's a rude shock to encounter a situation where that just isn't viable, one in which the tough choices Welch talked about need to be made.

"At our company, we do everything we can to be correct," said a partner at a management consulting firm I was seated next to at a dinner party. "We put in 10 years training women just like we do men. Then, just when they hit their peak professionally, around 40, they drop out. They have to. They're pregnant or they have small children and can't keep up the pace. No one can put in the hours, time, travel it takes in this business and also raise small children."

Like Welch, he was forgetting that while women are the only employees who get pregnant, they're not the only ones who have children. Fathers have to make tough choices, too.

But what about the choices companies have to make?

For over a century, American corporate culture has chosen to reward most handsomely one type of employee: the workaholic with a stay at home spouse. If we are to reap the benefits of contributions by other workers, we must somehow change this model to accommodate them.

Of course, we've come a long way since the days of Don Draper. Family leaves (not just maternity leaves) are in place in most companies. Flex times and home-based offices are often allowed for. A bill signed into law recently in Colorado allows parents who work for big companies time off to attend school conferences.

But if real change is to be effected, shifts in policies and laws must be accompanied by shifts in attitudes on the part of top management. They must reshape orthodox notions of work to include alternative workstyles and schedules. And condone these alternatives by reassuring employees that temporarily taking advantage of them won't permanently relegate them to the B team.

Not long ago, a man felt obliged to confess to me that he went back to work before his paternity leave was up. He admitted that he was anxious to get back to work because staying home with a newborn wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Besides, he pointed out, his absence was hard on his co-workers and he felt a sense of responsibility to return. But what about his co-worker at home?

If we are to solve the work-life dilemma, we can't continue to subordinate the job of childcare. Raising the next generation of employees has to begin to be seen as important work. Study after study documents the connection between parental involvement and a child's success. Let's groom top management to see that connection. Let's stop referring to women and men home taking care of kids as people "who don't work." Let's expect managers, male and female, to recognize that parenting is not a spectator sport.


thatgirlblogs said...

still a long time coming, I'm afraid. people need to come around but with the economy the way it is I think companies are still too tied into the bottom line to change right now.

Aisha said...

Hi,you have nice blog and post!

Unknown said...

Amen sister!

California Girl said...

Thoughtful piece. Ten to fifteen years ago, when I thought attitudes were finally beginning to soften towards parental responsibilities and such, we probably had a chance to fight and change the rules. But subsequent mergers and acquisitions of so many categories of business seems to have dehumanized the process and we're back to treating employees as numbers and chattel. Flexibility, in many companies, is out the window. I feel we've taken backward steps.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@thatgirlblogs @California Girl You make good points about current trained visions on bottom line. On the other hand, the downturn could work in our favor, forcing downsizing companies to encourage more offsite work, flex arrangements. You can eliminate a lot of overhead by allowing execs to work from home. Perhaps recessionary budgets will encourage more CEOs to realize that evolving technology enables team productivity no matter where team members are doing their jobs.

@Just Me @Aisha @Linda Thanks!

Gallery pictures said...

Oh I loved that picture - I can relate...

KellyMellyBoBellyBananaFanna said...

As someone who had a stay-at-home mother and workaholic father, I'm so glad to read something about work/life balance from the perspective of PARENTAL involvement. Cosmo or Glamour (believe it or not) had a fantastic article not too long ago about a woman who worked for mostly females -- so she bought into the idea that balancing her pregnancy would be easy. It went on to basically discuss how the other women pushed her out of the office. Anyway, you brought up some great points. Interesting post!

Wiktor said...


Unknown said...

"For over a century, American corporate culture has chosen to reward most handsomely one type of employee: the workaholic with a stay at home spouse."

Exactly. And what passes for progress these days is when the genders are reversed: when the workaholic is female and the stay at home spouse (or spouse with a flexible, not-exactly-full-time schedule) is male.

We have yet to invent a paradigm for two parents with real careers. And I agree that we very much need to.

Neel N said...

came across your blog through bloggers of note if find it informative

Teenie said...

Amen, Amen. We forget that the kids of today will be the doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, bank tellers, and so on of tomorrow. Which means the more we invest in them today, the better the services we'll receive when we need people most. A kind, well-adjusted worker benefits everyone--whereas a parent-deprived, angry, value-less worker can make life a living hell.

I also think people work better in an environment without fear. That is my CD's motto, and it works. Our agency is a place to create without fear, to be a mother or father without fear, to go to the doctor's without fear, to have a life outside the office without fear. Which means we're calm, and calmness breeds creativity, and creativity is the foundation of our work.

If we're always stressed and nervous and afraid to stay home with the kids and guilted into working late and so on, then we create out of an unbalanced place and our work reeks of our fear. Create a fearless agency and, like a loving home, your people will give back what you instill tenfold.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@Gallery Pictures Glad you like the pic :)

@Kelly Interesting point, that female managers aren't necessarily supporters of work-life balance. Attitude is sometimes "I did it the hard way, why should i make it easy for you?" Unfortunate.

@Wiktor @prophet666 Thanks :)

@Alan Ironic, isn't it, that "progress" is seen as same scenario, only sex of players reversed. How to change paradigm, is the question. Perhaps I'm an optimist, but have a feeling we're headed in that direction, as more and more managers raised by employed mothers take the helm. According to polls (before the downturn) one of the most important criteria for job-seeking millenials is "family friendly" policy.

Mak said...

Pretty interesting point of view.

Companies need to learn a simple idea: people work for them to suppor their family not the company.

Sure lots of people are workaholics because they love their work, but the bottom line is everyone working is trying to get money.

The company therefore represents money. Family always comes first, above and beyond money no matter what. Money is only a means to help support your family's needs. However, there is one resource that is more important to supporting your family than money: TIME. Time spent raising your children is much more important for the family than money.

There are two examples in my life recently where the company has allowed workers to tend to their families: Our marketing lady just had a baby and wasn't ready to come back to work yet, so my boss let her, even though we BADLY need marketing. My sister is an importan person in a corporation. Our grandpa was sick and her boss let her come stay with him for 2 weeks while they BADLY needed her. This time was invaluable.

So keep pumping this idea out there, it's very important to remember: FAMILY over MONEY.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@Teenie--sorry I missed your comment before. (This dang moderation feature screws up timing) Interesting theory about agencies w/o fear factor providing grounds for better work, that "calmness breeds creativity, the foundation of our work." Have to agree. Take that, crazy, bipolar CD's with tempers!

@Makolyte It's such a simple idea: family over work. But hard to keep sight of in the midst of deadlines, revises, gang bang pitches, isn't it? Thanks for reminding us.

Anna Bartlett said...

I'm at home with kids right now, and would love my husband to come around to the idea that we could both work part time. He's so supportive and involved in so many ways, but my paid work (art) is always relegated to a very low priority. It's an everyday dilemma.