Leadership on Point

The Myth of Work/Life Balance

August 23, 2012 Richard Levin

I have come to a disappointing realization.  It is now 14 years since my colleagues and I published our much-talked-about book, Shared Purpose, whose premise was that employers, families, communities, governments, and schools must work together to address the work/family imbalance facing working parents.  At the time, we urged our readers not to view “work and family” as a women’s issue, but as a serious challenge we must collectively address as a society.

It is why I am so saddened to read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic: “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, whose conclusion is that society has reneged on its commitment to working moms and has continued to place the burden of “work/life balance” on women.  (Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, and the mother of two teenage boys. She served as the director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.)

As a husband and father, I am no more competent than any other working parent or executive coach to comment on the myth of work/life balance.  But I have additional “cred” to help my voice be heard a little more loudly: I chaired the first International Conference on Work and Family in the mid-1990’s, co-founded Boston University’s Center on Work and Family in 1988, edited a significant book on work and family (“Shared Purpose”), and continue to co-author the long-running newspaper column “As We Live and Work”.

With these and other supposed credentials, I still sadly have to ask myself: “did I accomplish anything in the long-run?”  When my book was published in 1998, featuring the work of 11 remarkable authors, we were the rage; we were interviewed on TV, on radio, in newspapers, and in magazines; we were in demand as guest speakers; we helped create bold work/life policies in the workplace.  And, yes, I know we helped some people achieve a more fulfilled life.  But I don’t think we ever helped one person achieve work/life balance.  Because, as sacrilegious as it sounds from one of the major proponents of work/family policies, I think work/life balance is impossible.

Anne-Marie Slaughter eloquently underscores the key premise of Shared Purpose:

“Millions of … working women face … difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs.  Many cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children”.

This, my friends, is the very essence of Shared Purpose – “work and family” is not just a women’s issue but a core policy issue to be addressed by all of the employers, families, communities, governments, and schools that comprise a so-called civil society.  Says Slaughter: “Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family.  If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier”.

I am not sure that women are worrying about having it all, as much as they are worrying about holding on to what they have. That worry, or more accurately “anxiety”, came through loud and clear in a class I had the privilege to “guest teach” this past spring at MIT’s Sloan School of Management Executive MBA Program.  The students – 62 leaders, average age 39, women and men from companies worldwide – expressed deep concern that “managing our lives” (aligning personal life, family life, and work life) will be the biggest challenge they will face as they move up the corporate ladder.

Most of us live our lives walking the work/life tightrope without a safety net, teetering between work and family without enough time or sleep to make any of it successful.  Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article is rich with observations and pragmatic advice.  In her own words, here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • “We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable.  But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do”.
  • “The proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them.  In my experience, that is simply not the case”.
  • “Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver.  But it may be more than that.  When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.”  She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.”
  • “The culture of ‘time macho’—a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you—remains astonishingly prevalent among professionals today.  Nothing captures the belief that more time equals more value better than the cult of billable hours afflicting large law firms across the country and providing exactly the wrong incentives for employees who hope to integrate work and family.  Yet even in industries that don’t explicitly reward sheer quantity of hours spent on the job, the pressure to arrive early, stay late, and be available, always, for in-person meetings at 11 a.m. on Saturdays can be intense.  Indeed, by some measures, the problem has gotten worse over time: a study by the Center for American Progress reports that nationwide, the share of all professionals—women and men—working more than 50 hours a week has increased since the late 1970s”.
  • “More time in the office does not always mean more “value added”— and it does not always add up to a more successful organization”.
  • “Armed with e-mail, instant messaging, phones, and videoconferencing technology, we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations more than the required locus of work”.
  • “Obstacles and inertia are usually surmountable if leaders are open to changing their assumptions about the workplace”.

To leave this post on a lighter note (often, a serious point is made in jest), I refer you to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s interview with Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

If there is ONE blogpost you choose to respond to, I hope THIS is the one.  It is not hyperbole to say our society depends on it.


Written by Dr. Richard Levin, President of Richard Levin & Associates.