Female Leaders and the Work-Life Myth

More women are bringing home the bacon.

As a Pew Research Center study in May showed, women are now the leading or solo breadwinners in 40 percent of United States households. That’s a gigantic leap from 1960, when that number stood at just 11 percent, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by Pew.

Yet, as has been widely published, women still struggle to advance to executive positions. Part of the blame gets put on the notion that women, wanting to have children and focus on family, end up dropping out of the labor force, as a result stopping any advancement.

This is the stance taken by Teresa Taylor, author of The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work-Life Success and a former chief operating officer of Qwest Communications International Inc., a telecommunications firm acquired by CenturyLink in 2011.

Taylor contends that work-life balance, for both women and men, is largely a myth. For more women to eventually occupy the executive ranks, they’re going to have to embrace a complete work-life blend.

Diversity Executive spoke with Taylor about how aspiring female leaders can manage both their work and personal lives en route to occupying the corner office. Edited excerpts follow:

In your book, you argue work-life balance is a myth? Why?
It’s a myth in the way that women have been set up for it. It’s a myth in that it’s all going to be equal, that everything is great. Balance implies to me an equal equation. In other words, everything is all equal, and what I’m talking about in the book is don’t search for it — it’s not there. You can still have a very successful personal life and career, but it’s not by having this perfect life and this balance that someone else has defined.

One of the things you suggest is assigning time limits, both at home and at work, for aspiring female leaders. What does that mean?
One of the issues is we say we don’t have enough time in the day — there are too many things to do. So what I do is I assign a limit. So, for example, if I’m working on a presentation at work, I say I’m going to do this for one hour — and I’m going to finish it. Whatever I get finished in that hour is the best that I can do. Rather than spending another hour changing the colors or the fonts or putting in new graphics, just say I have one hour to be very focused and you complete the task. You will give it the best that you can. The same thing goes for at home.

In the book you talk about the importance of creating “layers.” What does that mean?
“Layers” is my term for options. And so the way I think of layers is in layers of clothing. So you wake up in the morning and you say, well I don’t know what’s going to happen today. You have different layers of clothing — you have an umbrella, maybe you have boots. So we do that naturally to get through the day.

Think of your life like that too. Give yourself lots of options, because the day does not turn out the way you thought. That might be layers and options in daycare, it might be in how to get work done, how to delegate. Of all the things that you’re doing in the day, be ready for the change and then it won’t seen so horrible. So literally you wake up in the morning and you think, Well, if today doesn’t work the way that I thought, what am I going to do? That way you already have some backup plans.

You’re pretty forthcoming with the idea that to get ahead, women must work weekends. Why?
I wouldn’t advocate that every single person could do it; that was my way of getting through the week. That was my catch-up time; that was my time to get ahead a little bit. And I chose to take my children because in my office nobody else was there on the weekends. But it was my silver bullet. For me, doing it at home just didn’t work — I would get distracted, I would set the laundry and do all these other things. So I made it interesting for my children to go to the office. We’re talking two or three hours. But it was huge. It gave them a chance to see where mom goes to work. That was my secret weapon.

How would you advise diversity leaders wanting to develop both women’s and work-life programs?
I’ve generally been in support of them as long as they’re meaningful. I’ve seen a couple, including in my own companies’ that I worked for, that were just superficial. So I think again really knowing the culture of your company. If you’re a diversity officer, are you just reading best practices and trying to apply them in your company without understanding your culture?

Some things are acceptable and some things are not. I think my message to diversity leaders would be make sure you’re creating programs and support that’s right for your company, not just the latest practice from the latest conference.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor for Diversity Executive. He can be reached at fkalman@diversity-executive.com.