I’ve lost track of panels I’ve attended with women leaders and activists – who are invited to speak about their careers, accomplishments, and lessons learned – where the conversation almost inevitably skews to questions about work life balance. And quite often, the questions are asked by other women (often younger women) who want to know how to achieve similar success, but also have a life at home.
But rarely have I attended a panel about careers where men are asked how they manage to balance their life at home with their career ambitions. And I don’t think I can recall a single instance where young men in the audience have asked questions about balance, or sought advice on managing family and work in their own lives.
Work life balance is undoubtedly important, but these are questions we should all be asking and answering. Balance, and the need to care for family members, is a problem that affects both men and women. Although it affects everyone, it is unfortunately (and inaccurately) perceived as a “women’s problem.”
In her new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that a 2013 Pew study on parenting showed that 50% of fathers, and 56% of mothers with children at home said that they find it difficult to balance the responsibilities of work with those of their family. Slaughter writes,
“…both women and men who experience the dual tug of care and career and as a result must make compromises at work pay a price. Redefining the women’s problem as a care problem thus broadens our lens and allows us to focus much more precisely on the real issue: the undervaluing of care, no matter who does it.”
She goes on to note that “it’s easy for employers to marginalize an issue if they label it a ‘women’s problem.’ A women’s problem is an individual issue, not a company-wide dilemma.” But if it is a broader, more systemic problem of valuing care, it suddenly becomes much more pressing of a challenge for businesses and workplaces. Slaughter also underscores that journalists, the media, business, and industry all choose to frame issues of care, and work life balance, as “women’s issues.”
Indeed, attending events and asking female panelists questions about how they manage to balance work and life — and failing to ask male panelists the very same questions — shows our bias as a society, and further perpetuates this myth that care and balance is “women’s work.”
So the next time you attend a panel (and particularly if you are male!), why not pose the very same questions to male panelists? Ask them how they managed to achieve career success, while also managing to balance family and care.
Only by posing these questions equally can we start eradicating the assumption that balance and care is for women alone. It may not solve the problem, but it is certainly a start.