The work life seesaw, 2013 style

The publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s , now best-selling, book, “Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead” has kicked off yet another flurry of articles and TV shows debating our favourite topics including:

Can we have it all?
Do women work in the same way as men?
Can women succeed in business, with or without the family dimension?
What is feminism?
Does work-life balance exist?
Who is Superwoman?

The debates on these topics are very well-aired but there is nothing like a new book, and a controversial one at that, to give us all food for thought once more. I enjoy reading, and listening to, the opinions of other commentators and am a working mother myself. The discussions also apply to men although interestingly the term “working father” is never used. Here is my collection of thoughts.

  1. Do not judge: whether you are a ladder-climbing singleton, a working Mum, a non-working Mum, an alpha Dad or someone who doesn’t have kids, do not judge others. Let’s not judge Sheryl Sandberg or the Mum at the school gates. Do not spend your valuable time and energy having meaningless opinions about people you do not really know or whose lives do not affect you. Spend your time on doing the things that you decide to do, as well as possible. Avoid, and discourage, backstabbing.
  2. Be your productive best: whichever path you have decided to follow, do your best at all times. Focus on productivity and not face time. If you are a part-time working Mum, be the best you can be at work and at home. It will be tough as there are only 24 hours in a day, and so no, I don’t think you can have it all. However, you can do what you do as well as possible. Give 100% to your clients, and then give home your full attention when you are there. Don’t lose time or use your divided life as an excuse for mediocrity. Apply flair and passion to what you do. If you work full-time, be your productive best. Lead by example. It is fruitless to be annoyed that the person next to you has a flexi-working arrangement.
  3. Set your career compass: decide what you want to achieve in your career over the next one, three and five years and work out how you are going to get there. As well as the skills and experience you need, there will be a way in which you need to work. In your 20s, you will most likely have to work very hard to climb the ladder and will probably not have any issue with doing so. Working late and going for drinks afterwards will be a key part of your social life. Without generalizing, for many in their 40s, this is a time to try and have more balance in life, whether you have children or not. But this doesn’t come without cost. If you do not want to work as many hours, you most certainly have to keep up your productivity unless you are deciding to wind things down. For many, this seesawing comes with a lot of anguish.
  4. Cultural consistency: it is very hard to balance the seesaw if you are working counter to your firm’s culture. If you want to have a flexible working arrangement but your firm does not support them, you will most likely cause yourself a lot of pain, and stymy your career progress by trying to implement one. If your firm does have a flexible working culture, then great but Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo has recently ended work-at-home arrangements. Follow the lead of your Bosses and the culture and if you don’t like it, consider if it is really the right firm for you. You can try and change a culture from within. Sheryl Sandberg secured priority parking for pregnant employees but she was seasoned and respected, and a tough cookie at that. For most, it is not a realistic goal.
  5. Ditch the guilt: once you have decided how you want to manage your career and live your life, get on with it without guilt. If you are full-time working mother, you cannot be in two places at once. If you are a stay-at-home mother, you will not be able to contribute to the household bills. If you are young, free and single, you maybe don’t have much guilt. Enjoy it!

Over the past 20 years, the debate hasn’t really moved on significantly. Ultimately, everyone whether male or female, with children or without, is trying to balance on a work-life seesaw and it is very tricky indeed.

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