More Options for Today’s Working Women: Leaning “Homeward” vs Leaning “In”

Work life balance

Many women would opt for time away from the traditional “9 to 5” work life to remain home with children — and a growing body of research supports this.  I reached this inflection point a short time after finishing my degree. Happily entrenched in a growing HR consulting firm (with a fair amount of career momentum on my side), it became obvious that my best laid plans for melding home and work life weren’t going to materialize. At the time, my decision to “lean out” may have appeared ill-advised — but as time would pass, it became clear that it was truly for the best.

Our young son didn’t sleep nights. He couldn’t tolerate formula. He seemed particularly distressed when we left him with a sitter for even a few hours. When I compared stories with other working mothers, things just weren’t adding up to a “lean in” scenario. The guilt and compounding stress were overpowering. I was torn between two disparate worlds that just weren’t meshing. My instincts told me to stay at home if at all possible. Luckily, after weighing both emotional and financial concerns, the option to complete some project work at home came into play. I happily chose this option — too exhausted in the moment to even begin to evaluate the long-term ramifications of that decision.

Knowing what I know today about work life integration, I would have sought a more permanent part-time solution (with an option to return when home life became more predictable). A recent article in The Atlantic, Moms Who Cut Back at Work Are Happier, explores the often difficult quest for women to find balance with their ever-evolving roles. The piece discusses research which reveals that many married moms would indeed, rather work part-time at specific points or “seasons” in their career — “leaning homeward” instead of “leaning in”. Furthermore, many who have the opportunity to embark on such a career “sacrifice” are happier overall. A recent CBS/New York Times survey echoes this sentiment, where it was found that nearly one-half of working women with children under the age of 18, would prefer an option to work part-time.

The fact remains, that it is challenging for many women to carry on their careers after children, as if nothing has changed. Dialing down the pressure should be a viable option — but keeping meaningful work in plain sight should also be part of that equation. With women making a significant investment in both their education and career, this has become a growing necessity — as we should have the opportunity to continue to contribute in a manner that remains fulfilling.

We are indeed making progress in this area. However, widespread acceptance of part-time options will likely not materialize until we acknowledge the need for a pervasive change in mindset. If you have had the opportunity to read, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, by Anne-Marie Slaughter — you’d know exactly where I am going with this. We have to step up and vocalize what we really need to remain both happy and productive. With a healthy dose of transparency, these changes may come sooner than later. We  should discuss the realities of melding work and career life, openly and often — because the essence of being truly happy at work, might lie just as much in being honest about what we cannot do — as much as what we can.

Suffice it to say, that my instinct to remain at home was on target. I needed to be there for a variety of reasons. Years later, it is apparent that I’ve had a fair amount of explaining to do in reference to the gap in my career. However of late, I no longer feel the need to either hide the reason — or the fact that I did so without hesitation.

I would like to think that in the future — working women won’t have to make these decisions bleary-eyed and exhausted.

Have you shared a similar experience? Were you able to adjust and work part-time? Share your story.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist.  Read more of her posts at LinkedIn.

Career Transparency and Women at Work

As women, we all have a personal story concerning the road we have taken to achieve work life balance. I have a career saga to tell – as you have your own unique story. All of the challenges and frustrations that we have experienced, are certainly ours to own and share. Of late, I am optimistic that we are moving to a new stage in the evolution of work for women, supported by the changing tide of culture and transparency. As organizations become increasingly open about who they really are and what they have to offer us, we might finally become more comfortable expressing who we really are and what we can realistically offer them.

Transparency, a force which has swept the workplace off its proverbial feet, is on course to set the stage for real communication in the employee-organization realm – and I am glad for it. Hopefully, this developing transparency will have a positive impact upon the unique set of challenges and stereotypes women face in the workplace. It remains, that many women would like to spend time at home at key points in their work lives. They should be able to freely to admit this, and have this need met without fear of reprisal or career suicide.

If you have had the opportunity to read the Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, you’d know exactly where I am going with this. With a healthy dose of  work life transparency, there is an opportunity for women to know what they are really up against when entering the world of work. We all should discuss the realities openly – because the essence of being happy at work, might lie just as much in being honest about what we cannot do –  as much as what we can do.

In the early days of my career, I saw manifestations of the “super woman” myth on a regular basis. As a research manager at a large telecom company, I recall the story of one of our vendors placing  business related calls from her hospital bed, shortly after giving birth. Everyone seemed impressed and remotely amused by the story – but I found the behavior perplexing. I thought to myself; Why did she feel the need to do such a thing? But, the answer was really quite obvious – she had to prove to everyone that she was committed to her career, even though she chose to have a family. I am hoping that we won’t hear such stories in the future – and that there are less heroic displays of career loyalty required.

As Slaughter goes on to discuss, young women today are becoming more open about what their role will look like, in comparison to their spouse or male co-workers. I believe that subtle, yet real differences will remain, and it is wise to validate that difference. Offering women accurate information about combining work and family won’t necessarily predispose them to take on a less challenging career – it simply offers them the option to realistically plan for it.

In today’s world, young men and women have similar expectations concerning holding roles with increased responsibility, and opinions concerning the division of labor within the home are also evolving. Men appear to be developing a stronger  role within the home – a trend which will certainly augment honest work life planning  going forward. But, other issues need to fall into place as well. This includes the help of organizations to wipe out stereotypes in the workplace – a much-needed, deep-seeded cultural shift. Slaughter describes that problem perfectly, and open discussions concerning gender parity are in order. (In this regard, I am anxious to see how the career of Melissa Meyer develops as she embarks upon her journey.)

In the past it seems that the question posed to women as they embarked upon a career was, “what are you willing to give up to be a great success”. Going forward, I am hoping this becomes a thoughtful and honest discussion, with advantages to be reaped by both organizations and employees alike. Possibly a dose of transparency concerning the roles ahead, provided by those of us who speak from experience, can lead to more effective outcomes.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist and coach. Connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.