Career Guide Diversity

Work-Life Balance: A Perspective on Career and Gender Roles

The metaphors used to describe work-life balance imply skill, ability and effort. It takes years of training to become a juggler and a plate spinner. It has taken my grandmother 30 years to perfect the correct way to slice a pie into equitable pieces. The metaphors are grounded in the belief that life is static and stable. Life priorities are the same for everyone, and you have a set number of priorities to fulfill. In real life, you don’t get formal lessons on how to be perfect, how to keep life humming along without too many bumps or errors, how to say no to what is expected of you.

I have a confession to make: I don’t believe in work-life balance.

At least, I don’t believe in the pitches and metaphors for work-life balance.

The work-life balance metaphors are abundant. Take a second and think of some.

Here are the ones that came to mind:

  • The lady of justice with her scales has evened out the time constraints and responsibilities so that everything is tantamount. 
  •  The pie of your life is evenly divided slices. (If my life is a pie, I desire for it to be my mother’s sweet potato pie.)
  • The plate spinner manipulating and twirling 15 plates on 15 poles without any falling off.
  • The juggler handles multiple balls, effortlessly throwing and catching obligations, responsibilities with rhythm and ease.

The metaphors used to describe work-life balance imply skill, ability and effort. It takes years of training to become a juggler and a plate spinner. It has taken my grandmother 30 years to perfect the correct way to slice a pie into equitable pieces. The metaphors are grounded in the belief that life is static and stable. Life priorities are the same for everyone, and you have a set number of priorities to fulfill.

In real life, you don’t get formal lessons on how to be perfect, how to keep life humming along without too many bumps or errors, how to say no to what is expected of you.

As I became overextended trying to do the expected for women of my generation, and as I accumulated too many obligations and responsibilities, tired of juggling and spinning plates and trying to cram my real life into the shapes and time parameters of my imaginary work-life balance pie, I realized that you can’t have it all … at the same time.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a great parent, an employee, an entrepreneur, a writer, a volunteer, but trying to be excellent and superior in those categories at the same time and in the same moment is an exercise in futility.

Some things take precedence at certain periods of your life. Some things recede into the backstage of your life as other things take the center stage. Obligations to Junior League and Little League are not equal to the obligations you have in the office and clients. The time you spent beholden to your BlackBerry are not the same as the time you spent mentoring, working on your garden, or playing with your kids.

You give up trying to be perfect in all things and the CEO of the universe, and instead you work on being yourself and being good in the few things that really matter to you.

Work-life balance is not about juggling anymore. Work-life balance isn’t only a female or woman thing.

Many professionals, myself included, have started thinking about what is important to us right now and how all the elements of our lives integrate into what we consider important.

Things and time change, and the metaphors we use to define work-life balance need to adapt to reflect what people are going through and how people are adapting to life. That is one of the reasons why I accepted the invitation to join the PRSA Work, Life & Gender Committee. WLG is the committee charged with looking at these issues in the public relations industry and with giving a realistic illustration of how public relations professionals perceive the facets of their lives. And it’s time that PRSA, the research and professionals create new ways to engage this discussion.

Natalie Tindall, assistant professor, Department of Communication, Georgia State University, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in public relations and journalism. The intersections of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation influence her primary research areas of diversity in the public relations profession and diversity among organizational publics. Her additional research interests include health, public relations, university and college fund raising, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, and black fraternal organizations. She received her doctorate in Communication from the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow Natalie on Twitter @ntindall.

If you are interested in more information on the PRSA Work, Life & Gender Committee, please contact Bey-Ling Sha, Ph.D., APR, at bsha@mail.sdsu.edu.

4 Comments

  • I agree completely Natalie. Work-life balance is a total joke, and we’re all kidding ourselves if we think we can do it all (men and women). I’m 23, I just graduated from college and I have my first full-time job. I focus on what’s important to me now rather than stressing about the other stuff. Right now, I just want to build my career as a communications specialist and save enough money to get a nice place of my own. Maybe later I’ll want to get married and have children, go back to school for a master’s degree or write a book. But I can’t worry about that now. It’s all about what you can do and accomplish at that moment of your life with the time and resources given to you. Focus on what matters to you now, and deal with the rest later.

  • When I hear someone say “work-life balance” I think it’s code for “I’m a slacker.” So don’t say it in an interview if your speaking to somone who is a Type A like me.

  • Natalie,

    Thanks for the interesting perspective. Thank you, also, for acknowledging that work life balance isn’t just a woman’s issue.

    You are probably aware, but the number of men who report work – life balance issues is skyrocketing, while the statistics for women remain largely unchanged. My two-cents is that since women entered the workforce en masse a few generations ago, they have been expected to do it all. I’m sure husbands in the 50s and 60s still expected dinner on the table, the laundry to be folded and the kids to be put in bed—the so called “second shift” put in by women after a full day of work.

    Times have changed however. Not only are men (rightly) expected to be partners when it comes to domestic chores, they want to spend more time with their kids than previous generations of dads. However, society still glorifies the bread winning, powerful, work-a-day dad. Men are still made to feel that their primary role within the family is to make money. Wage inequality between the genders also reinforces this antiquated notion. In short, men are torn: they want to spend more time with the kids but we are meant to believe we are best serving them by being at the office and not at the little league game.

    I run a company called Bettermen Solutions (www.bettermensolutions.com). I go into the corporate workspace and give keynotes and workshops on how to teach men better work life balance skills. I’m sure you are aware that men who report a higher satisfaction with work-life balance are more productive in their jobs and more loyal to their employers. Smart bosses are recognizing that better WLB makes them more money in higher productivity and employee retention.

    In the debate over semantics, let us not lose sight of what is most important—how are employees and employers working together to maximize both workplace productivity and home front responsibilities?

    Cameron Phillips
    President-Bettermen Solutions
    Vancouver, BC

  • One of my students Tweeted this interesting article on how some CEOs find work-life balance: http://www.inc.com/guides/2010/03/improving-work-life-balance.html

    I think the suggestions here start to answer Cameron’s great question: “How are employees and employers working together to maximize both workplace productivity and home front responsibilities?”

    I would love to hear from other employers and employees about how they and their organizations are answering Cameron’s question.