Make the 'Balance' Question an Equal Opportunity Teachable Moment

ELLE's 21st Annual Women In Hollywood Awards - Arrivals
Jordan Strauss/Invision/APActress Jennifer Garner at the ELLE Women in Hollywood event in Los Angeles

Highly successful women are asked often in public forums how they balance work and family, as if their answers could provide us all with a magic formula for happiness.

The truth is they don't have balance - a perfect 50-50 split between work and family - and framing the question that way creates embarrassment and a sense of failure. Too often, in the discussion of work and family, we're asking the wrong question and ignoring a group that might have valuable thoughts: men.
Actress Jennifer Garner pointed that out beautifully in a forceful speechat ELLE's "Women in Hollywood" gala. The actress and mother of three compared the different questions posed to her and husband, Ben Affleck, during their recent respective press junkets.

"We got home at night and we compared notes. And I told him every single person who interviewed me, I mean every single one, and this is true of the red carpet here tonight, asked me, 'How do you balance work and family?' "

None of the dutiful press asked Affleck anything about his Daddy-career balance, but dove deep into racier topics. Garner saw the example as a bigger issue.

"As a matter of fact, no one had ever asked him about it," she said. "And we do share the same family. Isn't it time to kinda change that conversation?"


A few years ago, I had a chance to see and hear one of my business heroes, Anne Mulcahy, the former CEO of Xerox. She was smart, insightful and funny as she shared what it was like to lead the turnaround of a huge Fortune 500 company. Not surprising, however, the first question from the audience was, "How do you balance work and life?"

I waited in anticipation for Mulcahy's honest and thought-provoking answer. Instead, I watched this powerful, compelling CEO stammer as she tried to get through the question as quickly as possible, "Oh boy, don't ask me about 'balance,' um, because I am not an expert that is for sure," she said.

A learning opportunity was lost.

The same thing happened more recently at a conference with Arianna Huffington, when she asked a panel of high-achieving women: "How do you find work-life balance?" As each panelist waited for the others to answer, what had been a vibrant, interactive dialog came to a complete stop. Huffington tried again, and this time the panelists offered quick, non-answers. Again, a teachable moment was missed.

The question is part of the problem. We have to change it. At both events, I wanted to jump up and shout, "No, don't ask about work-life balance! Ask them how they fit work and life together throughout their careers, given their unique, changing circumstances and goals?"

When we ask each other how we fit work and life together, there is no "right" answer.

Your work+life fit is what works for your job, your family, and your personal life at a particular time. Had Anne Mulcahy and the women on the panel been asked, "How do you fit work and life together, based on your unique goals and realities?" they could have offered valuable wisdom like:
  • How to decide when to say "yes"and when to say "no" to job demands.
  • Where to compromise on family and work and where to hold firm.
  • What causes regrets and what leads to celebrations.
  • How to redefine success and feel good about our choices
  • Where to find support and help in making a work+life fit possible.

It would also be helpful if, as Garner suggested, we seek the same answers from men.

Her comments at the ELLE event followed another highly-publicized exchange that revealed the stereotypes hindering the discussion.

In July, NBC Today Show host Matt Lauer asked Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, about the challenge of being a mother and a CEO. "Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?" Lauer asked.

Think of the insights Lauer and others would uncover if we posed the same questions to men?
If we really do want to learn (and not just shame) how high-profile individuals manage it all, then it has to be an equal opportunity inquiry.

How do you manage your unique work+life fit? Whether you are a man or a woman, please tell me...the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have a lot to learn from high profile men and women, and each other.

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