How would women strike the balance between a career and a family?
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has set the cat amongst the pigeons, and probably been the cause of many a heated debate due to her new rule that does not allow employees to work from home. Is Meyer implying that employees working from home are less productive than their counterparts who make the trek to the office every day?
Perhaps more importantly, how does this decision, made by a female CEO impact the philosophy of working from home? Whilst working from home is not the sole domain of women, it has become one of the ways that women worldwide have, and continue to attempt to balance the responsibilities of a career and motherhood.
Whilst researching this article, I became rather annoyed at the rhetoric that was often used when talking about Mayer. Words like superwoman abounded in their description of this highly successful lady. Please don’t get me wrong. I applaud and relish her success, and I am proud that a woman of her intelligence and calibre leads one of the worlds’ top companies.
Here is my problem with the use of these superlative adjectives. As it is, women worldwide feel a great deal of pressure to perform. Let us look at the most common patterns of behaviour that exist, and bear in mind that these seem to cut through geographical boundaries, cultures and religions.
Part of growing up for most girls involved listening to fairy tales of princesses and knights in shining armour. Girls are largely led to believe that they are to be taken care of, and thus that dependency is the road to a successful marriage. The reality of life can be somewhat different. Indeed, there has been a move towards embracing professional women in the corporate world, although they are expected to engage in the delicate and sometimes impossible dance between work and family.
Men, on the other hand are not expected to achieve such a fine balance. As a result, men are left free to focus on their careers, whilst women must embrace a superhuman effort to succeed in both worlds. Whilst we admire women who have achieved success on both fronts, I am of the opinion that something has to “give”.
The Yahoo! CEO took a meagre two weeks maternity leave. That is most certainly not a balanced approach to motherhood. If her career was this important, or at such a critical juncture – why choose to have a baby? Why this incessant need to excel in two different worlds simultaneously?
As opposed to the traditional fairy tales of almost helpless dependency, our new role models are women that are even more unrealistic! God help those thousands of employees, if Mayer is planning a work ethic based on her own formidable standards. This is a woman who obtained a computer science degree, specialised in artificial intelligence, and who developed Google’s famous uncluttered homepage.
She is a millionaire many times over, and features in the Fortune list of top 20 tech people in the world. Does this mean that she will not understand or appreciate that not all women are as gifted or driven as she is? We are not all imbued with the staggering talent of a Leo Tolstoy who wrote while fighting as a soldier during the Crimean War.
I’m talking about the regular qualified employee with specific tasks and deadlines. Will she understand some women’s need for more flexibility in their work lives? Many women (and indeed men) are not like her and may not be able to effortlessly raise children whilst managing one of the largest companies in the world. She was once quoted as saying: “I don’t need much sleep”. Perhaps with the assistance of many maids, she is able to get the rest that most normal mothers lack whilst attending to teething problems and colic.
The uncomfortable truth is that I believe that she is correct. It is my opinion and experience that maintaining this superhuman balance is not sustainable. I too, was a working and single mother for most of my child’s upbringing. There were times when my career took precedence, and other times when I had to put my child first. There were days when I had no other choice but to take a sick baby to the bank, and hope that I could appeal to my fellow colleagues to all pitch in and get through the day.
There were times when I had to make compromises and set my son up in the office during evenings which stretched into late nights, as deadlines loomed and threatened not to be met. There was also a decision to relocate that I turned down, as I could not uproot my child and change his routine. What I did manage, was to have a deep and honest relationship with my child. He always knew and understood that he was my priority, and that all the work, was for us to have a better life. I managed to have an extremely successful career, and have raised a wonderful son. What “gave”? I was not able to find a man who was comfortable with my level of success.
I guess what I am trying to say is that it is almost impossible for women to strike a balance between a successful career, motherhood, and somehow being able to let her man feel like he is still the provider. We tend to work harder and feel like we have to exceed expectations in the workplace to achieve the same recognition as our male counterparts. It is not enough for us to be simply great at a job – we have to be outstanding. And then we have to compensate and be supermum and of course – superwife.
You may think that I am unsupportive of women in business. Or motherhood as a tough occupation because it certainly is. In fact, I support the right of women to choose. I really think that it is time that women stopped placing themselves under all these ridiculous pressures to be fabulous in every sphere of life. Men do not do this. They strike what they believe to be a balance. They do the best that they can. Why do we have to strive to reach stratospheric heights to prove something?
If we choose motherhood, is that not an important career? Raising, nurturing, and teaching the children of our future? One of the issues faced by many societies where both parents have had to join the work force is the breakdown of the family nucleus, which led to various socio-economic problems. However, many women do want to achieve something more than being a mum, and this is where working from home enabled women to re-enter the realms of economic activity.
This is still a growing phenomenon, and is reserved for what are deemed as progressive companies who offer flexible working arrangements. As a society, we have not been able to address the needs of the working family. Should this not be how we look at this problem, rather than the one-sided view of the working mother? And now Mayer had decided that working from home is just not the way it will be done. When a company that is a leader in the field of business and technology sets a precedent, surely others will follow.
There is an argument that posits that technology makes it possible to work just as efficiently from anywhere. The counter punch is that whilst this may be true, work is not solely about efficiency. The sense of belonging, the striving towards a common goal that is a consequence of being in the same space, contributes to a company’s sustainability and success.
Skype is not quite the same thing. Perhaps as technology progresses, we will be able to have a type of permanent Skype or simulation that creates a virtual office, but until then, we are faced with the dilemma of isolation versus the creativity that comes from socialising. We are also left with the inflexibilities that place strain on the working family. So we will waste petrol to commute to an office to perform a task that we could have done from home, but in the process might spark a debate that saves or earns the company millions.
I believe that all obstacles can be overcome. Indeed, I have climbed many a mountain as a mother, corporate banker, MD and director of large companies, only to find another Everest waiting for me. It is not the size of the challenge that we face that matters, but the depth of our conviction and commitment to overcome and persevere. To find solutions for a society that has changing needs is surely the challenge that our leaders must address in order to achieve success for themselves, their companies and indeed for our country at large.
I have learned that life is about balance, that we need to make time for those things and people that matter. More importantly, life is about choices and consequences, and we need to learn how to make decisions, and then learn to love the consequences. Perhaps we need not be all things to all men, but the whole world to a few.