Exec to Young Women: Stress Less About Work-Life Balance

Last Updated May 17, 2011 5:31 AM EDT

Yesterday we outlined a report that said women grads face a significant pay gap immediately after graduation, but it's not only pay inequality that has many recent female career entrants worried. Quite a few are also stressing about building a career that allows them a reasonable work-life balance.

Expert advice on the topic varies wildly from Penelope Trunk's notion that women should emulate the new Duchess of Cambridge and focus on marriage before career to Kimberly Weisul's somewhat terrifying reporting on the wage hit highly skilled women take when they become mothers. All roads seem to be littered with pitfalls, so no wonder young women are worrying.

To get them some advice, we called up Jennifer Allyn, managing director in the office of diversity for PricewaterhouseCoopers and an expert on work-life balance issues. But when we asked her how young women should approach the dread problem of work-life balance, she gave an unexpected answer -- there isn't much of a problem at all. According to Allyn the real issue is the tone of the discussion:

The conversation about work-life has gotten too tragic. All we talk about is sacrifice, and there's a lot of work out there that says juggling multiple identities is really healthy.... Most people want to do both. We all want family life and I think most us want to have a profession, do well at work and achieve financial independence. Juggling both of those tasks can make you feel more complete. I don't think it has to be this set of drastic choices that are black and white.

I have women who are so worried about maternity leave and then you find out they don't have a boyfriend. They're a decade away from being pregnant. We have to take that anxiety down a notch.

So what does Allyn recommend as a stress killer? Stop comparing women to each other and instead to start listening to and celebrating their stories. Many working women are doing pretty well actually, according to Allyn:
Part of the problem with flexibility is we all define it differently. The question is, particularly as women, can we just sit back and not judge other people's choices, make the choices we want to make and feel good about them. I feel like there's too much comparison -- 'I took three months maternity leave. You took six months and you look down on me that I took too little.'

We don't want to make assumptions for people. Seek out other women and ask them a lot of questions about how they're juggling their lives, because people look up at senior women and make a lot of assumptions about their lives because they don't see all of them.

We don't necessarily talk enough about why leadership is so fulfilling. You work really hard, you become an executive, why is that worth it? Instead, we're very focused on the sacrifices, but if we don't also talk about how satisfying it is to be a major contributor to your family's economic well-being. For some reason women get no credit for that contribution. We think that fatherhood is somehow about bread winning and motherhood is only about attendance.

A lot of us have figured out really ingenious ways to delegate, to juggle, to get rid of things we don't like doing, to make the time when we need it and to not feel bad when we inevitably miss some things. A lot of people are juggling really well.

But just because Allyn's main point is that the work-life juggle is often more of a blessing than a curse, doesn't mean she doesn't have any words of wisdom for young women just embarking on their careers. Eliminate the advancement-limiting fear of the work-life juggle when you're starting out and you'll go further, argues Allyn:
Because time is a finite resource, all of us, no matter what we do, have to make choices about how we spend our time. So I would encourage women in particular not to lower their expectations immediately. I would disagree with choosing a career in order to get work-life. I think you have to choose a career based on your talents, your aspirations.

You don't know anything right after school really in terms of work. You're the least valuable right when you're hired in terms of a company's point of view because you just don't produce. You got this great education. You learned how to think, but then you need to be trained, so investing a lot of time in doing that early is smart. That's where you want to accelerate your development so that you're worth more to yourself and to your employer. Then, over time, if you look at a 30-year career, there's going to be peaks and valleys of productivity and what roles you have.

Do you agree with Allyn that we often lose sight of the truth that the juggle can be a blessing, adding fulfillment to women's lives?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user BotheredByBees, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.