Can Womenomics Ease the Stress of Work/Life Balance?

With First Lady Michelle Obama leading the charge to put the struggle for work/life balance front and center, the issue is finally getting top-level attention.  Although both men and women in American society are overstretched (working two weeks longer per year than their Japanese counterparts and several weeks more than Europeans), it is women who bear the greatest burden of trying to be all things to all people.  Stress is prevalent as women strive to parcel out portions of time to the spouse, children, aging parents, their communities, and lastly…themselves.

A whopping 87 percent of polled women would like more equilibrium between the competing areas of their lives.    Two professionals, at the highest echelon of achievement, have entered the conversation with their new book Womenomics.  Co-authors Katty Kay (BBC) and Claire Shipman (Good Morning America) have subtitled their insights, Write your own rules for success; How to stop juggling and struggling and finally start living and working the way you really want.

The writers posit that “womenomics” will benefit the “entire working world,” and that there is a “brewing workplace revolution.”  They point to the benefit of flexibility over promotions, the value of time as the “new currency,” and espouse a phrase redefining the old “having it all” as “The New All.”  Kay, the Washington correspondent and anchor for BBC World News America, is the mother of four.  Shipman, the senior national correspondent for ABC News’ Good Morning America, is the mother of two.  The women undertook the book in response to a confluence of factors.  It was a reaction to The Harvard Business Review article “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, “The Opt Out Revolution” by Lisa Belkin, and their own career conflicts.

The genesis of the book was explained to me when I spoke to Kay by telephone. We discussed if the book’s pointers could be relevant to women who did not have college degrees and were not climbing the “corporate ladder.”  Kay maintained that all women are looking for more control over their schedules. For her and Shipman the “New All” took on the meaning of enough professional success balanced by time and freedom.

Most of the statistics in the book reflect the demographic that Kay and Shipman set out to interview and study. Nationally, women hold 57 percent of the Bachelor’s Degrees and 58 percent of all graduate degrees. 46 percent of management is comprised of women. As for the overall workforce, women are approaching the 50 percent mark.

Women stepping up to the plate and asking for what they want, and getting employed on their terms is the ideal.  A frequently quoted authority in the book is Dr. Kathleen E. Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds studies on families and the workplace.  Christensen has given the modern women’s role in family life a new nomenclature: “The meaning maker.”  She explains, “It’s the women who basically cultivate and sustain the rituals     in the family.”  This applies to women whether they are climbing a corporate ladder or working in lower paying  service jobs.  Christensen said, “Employed women increasingly feel more entitled to say, ‘I need and I want to work in a certain way.’”  She pointed to the fact that “the one-size-fits-all workplace doesn’t work.”

Some employers are getting the picture.  The Continental Airlines reservations department in Houston has allowed 600 agents to work form home.  25 percent of the staff gets an extra day off per week, on a rotating basis.  Studies have shown that a majority of flextime workers have improved productivity and greater commitment to the job.

Regardless of a women’s level or field, the commonality lies in how to handle the stress that comes with juggling combined responsibilities. The Mayo Clinic’s article, ”Work-life balance: Ways to restore harmony and reduce stress” includes many of the same pointers outlined in Womenomics.  Following are some of the quandaries that Kay and Shipman believe are problematic, and their proposed remedies.

• The inability to say no because of the need to please.
Women should keep a list of top commitments, and let go of saying yes to avoid conflict. Buzz phrases such as, “My schedule won’t let me take that on” or invoking the “family policy” clause (which includes the sanctity of date night, child’s rehearsal, parent birthday) are simple ways to side step unwanted obligations.

• Work Smart
Recognize that time is a critical commodity. Use it to zone in on top concerns. When you compile a list, it must reflect what is most essential. Focus on the top five, and accept that you can’t get it all done. Set a big picture goal for the month, and even for the year. Make “assume control of your schedule” a mantra.

• The Tyranny of “Professional and Domestic Perfection”
Delegate, and be aware of when what you are achieving is “good enough.” Set limits. That includes tech boundaries as well. Cutting back on constant e-mail perusal and Blackberry usage can free up time for relationships.

During the election, candidate Obama frequently reflected on the strong females in his life.  As Kay said to me, “You have a President whose wife gets it.”  Since taking up residence in the White House, Michelle Obama has publically advocated for sick leave for parents, flexible work hours, and on-site childcare.

The “womenomics” theory of “writing our own rules for success” and getting past “internal obstacles” can give us a foothold on ratcheting down the pressure.  In the meantime, let’s hope the marketplace gets in step with the realization that productivity, loyalty, and retention goes up with family-friendly policies.

This article originally appeared on the women’s health site Empowher.

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