Women at Work

Women have fought their way out of the house and into the top tiers of the workforce. How have successful women accomplished that work/life balance? Panelists discuss the decisions they made and how comfortable they are with their choices.
by Wendy Guild
photo of Lynda Clarizio
Lynda Clarizio

Every woman who works and has a life confronts unique challenges, from finding reliable and caring childcare to making time to nurture the relationship with their spouse or partner to fighting their own guilt and stereotypes of "working women." The women on the panel "Work/Life Balance: Are We Comfortable with the Choices We Make?" moderated by HBS professor Robin Ely, discussed their work/life decisions and the repercussions of those decisions at the 12th Annual Dynamic Women in Business Conference held at Harvard Business School, January 25th.

The Right Choices

Lynda Clarizio, senior vice president, M&A/Corporate Development at America Online, has children ages eight and eleven and works full time. "I've been able to make this work," she said. "It's been quite challenging; it's all about making choices."

Don't feel guilty. It's not always going to work out.
—Lynda Clarizio, America Online

You can work full time and be a good mom, she insists—it just depends on whose rules you choose to play by. "Women in the workforce are still being asked to play by men's rules," she said. That's neither practical nor desirable for employee or employer. If women are forced to choose between, say, putting their child to bed or making that 7:30 pm meeting, both entities suffer. Flexibility on both parts will lead to a more harmonious and profitable relationship.

"You are an investment," Clarizio said. "Your employers make an investment in you," and it behooves them to be accommodating so they can realize the value on that investment.

She attributes her success to having excellent support. "I'm lucky enough to be able to afford a nanny. I have supportive coworkers and a great husband." A caring partner is key to making things work. "But I've had to train my spouse," she joked.

You have to manage your career for the long-term.
—Kara Gruver, Bain Consulting

Her advice? You can't be perfect and on top of everything at all times. "Don't feel guilty. It's not always going to work out," Clarizio said. "Kids get sick; you can't control everything." One thing she learned was not to make her life more stressful than it needed to be. "Travel less and be flexible about working at home," she said.

Manage For The Long Haul

Kara Gruver's career as a working mother had an unusual start. Gruver, a vice president at Bain Consulting, found out she was pregnant just when her husband was being relocated to Chicago from Boston. She didn't want to stop working, so flew back and forth for a few months before asking her Bain supervisors if she could focus on Chicago-based clients. They agreed. She did not tell them she was pregnant, however, until it was fairly obvious.

By then she had built up quite a large client base in Chicago so she was asked to open a Bain office there. What luck, right? Well, a few years later, her husband was relocated back to Boston—and she found out she was pregnant again. By now the Chicago office was thriving, but she was going to quit Bain to stay home and take care of her growing family. But Bain did an unusual thing. Realizing the value she brought to the company, they didn't want to lose her, so they offered her a part-time, off-career job in HR for one year. Then, if and when things were under control, she could come back and see clients again.

Kara Gruver
Kara Gruver

Though it seemed like a step back career-wise, she took the offer. Why? "You have to manage your career for the long-term," she said. "Understand what your job requires and what you can give and find the right balance."

Learn From Mistakes

In a candid admission, Carol Fishman Cohen said that she looks back on how she managed her career and family—and has some regrets.

As fate would have it, her company went under just when she found out she was pregnant with her first child. "It was a natural break," she said. She stayed home for eleven years and did part-time work, had three more children, did some freelance, then took one-and-a-half years off work completely. She then looked for full-time work.

photo of Carol Fishman Cohen
Carol Fishman Cohen

It was quite an adjustment. "I had to update my skills and relearn about business," Fishman Cohen said. She found a job at Bain and devoted herself utterly and full-time to her career while her husband worked three-quarters time and picked up the slack at home. "It was a shock for my kids to have me away so much," she said. "There are certain jobs that you just can't do part time." Now she's home again and taking time to consider what sort of job she would like and how much energy she can devote to working.

If she could go back, she would do things differently, she said. "I would have worked part-time right from the beginning." Her advice for women contemplating supporting a family and a having a fulfilling career? "Don't spend too much time away from work."

There are certain jobs that you just can't do part time.
—Carol Fishman Cohen, former Bain associate

Persistency Pays

Kelly Cook had wanted to work at Continental Airlines for as long as she could remember. As a young, recently divorced mother of one, she began temping in the Houston area while applying for every permanent job she could at Continental. Finally, her contact at the temp agency advised her to take a temporary job at Continental, just to get her foot in the door. She began as a temporary secretary. Having studied finance, this was not her ideal position, but she was at the company she loved.

One day, a temporary financial analyst job opened in the company. "There's no way they're going to hire a temp secretary to fill a financial analyst position," everybody told her. But Cook was determined. She campaigned for the job tirelessly, and got it. "I wanted to do such a great job that they had no choice but to hire me permanently," she said. "I worked my butt off." And it paid off. Continental hired her as a permanent, full-time financial analyst.

She was thrilled; doing a job she found rewarding at the company she had always dreamed of working for. She met a nice guy and remarried. Life was great! Eight months in to her dream job, she found out she was pregnant again—with triplets.

Kelly Cook
Kelly Cook

That changed her career path, to say the least. "I thought my career was over," she said. But she spoke to her managers about her situation. She didn't want to quit and couldn't afford not to work, but would need to scale back on travel and her hectic work schedule after coming back from parental leave. They responded by changing her job to one that did not require travel.

"It was the worst job of my career," she said. "I hated that job." Six months into that job, she found out she was pregnant—with just one baby this time. She wanted to quit, but her supervisor told her to stick it out for a year. A year and a day after she took that position, she moved into her current position. "My manager said she had to promote me because I kept getting pregnant at my current level," Cook said.

With five children and no extra money for childcare, her husband took a night job—which he still has today—and she works days. "Partnerships at home are so important," Cook said. "I would not be able to manage if it weren't for the support of my husband."

Words To Live By

Even with such diverse stories, the panelists had surprisingly similar advice for balancing their lives:

Outsource. Outsource as much as you can afford. Time together with your family is more important than doing errands. "Think about what you don't want anyone else doing and budget for the rest," Gruver said. Start prioritizing now.

Allow for personal change. You're bound to change over time. "Think about who you are now and base your decisions on that, rather than who you were fresh out of school," advised Fishman Cohen.

Do your homework. Research the culture of companies where you may want to work. What is the maternity policy? Does the company provide for childcare and family support? If you like a company, get yourself in there. You can effect change from within.

Parental leave. How long should you take off? The longer you've been with a company the more likely they will be to accommodate you. If you want to take six months off, say so. Be bold and set the expectation up front. They may say no—but they may say yes, too. Research the company precedent for parental leave.

"Before you have a child, you don't know what you're going to want to do," said Gruver. Build in flexibility so you have time to decide what you'd like to do. You may want to take six months off, or you may be ready to come back to work after two months. Allow yourself options.

More than kids and work. Work/life balance is not just about kids. It's about finding things outside the job that you like. "Find one thing apart from your work or family that you can do so you don't lose sight of your individuality," said Cook. She decided to take drumming lessons and is now playing gigs with a local band.

Realize your limitations. "It's hard to work late in pregnancy," Clarizio said. When she was nine months pregnant, she was finalizing a deal she had been working on for months. On the day she was supposed to close, the client called and said there was a glitch in the deal, could she stay at the office for a very late meeting? "I just cried," she said. "People still remember that and bring it up."

Moderator Robin Levy closed the panel with advice of her own: Get support.

"Everyone tells you what you should do and how you should feel, but you don't know what you'll want until [you give birth]. As far as parental leave is concerned, "go for the maximum you might want and then ratchet back from there," she said. "Let yourself decide what will work for you."