Work, Family, Private Life: Why Not All Three?

Mention work-family balance and you think of a trade-off: something gained for something lost. What are some more positive ways both men and women can handle the balancing act? In a Möbius Leadership Forum, three experts—a professor, a rabbi, and a practioner—weighed in.
by Martha Lagace

How should men and women strike a balance between work and personal life in order to feel as happy and fulfilled as possible? In a packed auditorium, three speakers at the Möbius Leadership forum session titled "Walking the Tight Wire: Family and Career, Finding the Balance" shared their own experiences and offered expertise as well as personal reflection on this all-too-common dilemma.

Myra Hart a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert on gender in organizations, described her research and the outreach she's done with female graduates of HBS. About 40 percent of HBS female grads take time out from the workforce at some point in their careers, she said. Her program, Charting Your Course, was designed to assist many alumnae who have taken time off to either raise families or pursue other options more in tune with their personal interests, such as working at nonprofit organizations.

Hart, who is also co-head of the entrepreneurship and service management faculty unit at HBS, said that reflection on a balance between work and personal goals can never start too soon. In terms of role models, she said, one can see boys and girls defining themselves in very different ways by the time they get into junior high school. For girls, it's especially important to emphasize the importance of team skills, mathematics, science—"which are often not viewed as feminine pursuits and somehow get off the agenda, not because [girls] somehow lack the capabilities"—and to keep those doors open. For both sexes, it's important to keep the range of choices open in educational opportunities and other activities.

We have lost the capacity to fall in love,for many reasons, but above all else because we take ourselves so incredibly seriously.
— Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

As adults, she said, individuals can size up career choices on many levels.

"I think you have to look at how you value your choices on multiple dimensions," she said. People shouldn't just choose work based on prestige or salary. "If you're satisfied with the kind of work you're doing and the place where you're doing it, you will be successful. I truly believe that. And so you will open up doors you can't even imagine. But if you let others define what success is…then it's easy to lose sight of yourself."

Equality A Step Back?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a popular speaker and author, adopted a jovial yet gently confrontational stance during his remarks. Boteach suggested that men and women, but especially women, take a cue from the differing examples of classical and Biblical as well as more contemporary heroes and heroines. In ancient times, women were lauded for their power and sexual prowess. Between then and now, he asserted, women have fought for equality and in so doing have lost their souls. They have responded to the model of the classical hero—the man who battled his enemies and reaped the worldly rewards—rather than the model of kinder leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose strength was spiritual.

"Equality for women was a step back for women," said Boteach, adding, "real greatness is where you don't have to prove yourself constantly."

He also called for the "feminization" of men rather than the "masculinization" of women. Society won't change until we change ourselves, Boteach said, referring to both sexes. When a woman student in the audience queried him about whether it would not be better for a woman to develop her own interests and goals—to "self-actualize"—before she enters into a love relationship, Boteach was emphatic in his response.

"The last time I checked, the most common expression for love was 'falling in love,' he said. "Timing was not something one planned. Your question is absolutely on target for a modern generation that has made love a cerebral rather than an emotional pursuit. Falling in love presupposes that there is some sensitivity, that there is some innocence that each of us possesses such that…we cannot help but fall [in love]. But in world where, when you fall, you break a leg, in a world where there is so much pain and so much hurt and not a great deal of trust between people in general—and certainly not between the sexes—we now make a love a cerebral pursuit.

"I call it aristocratic love. We have lost the capacity to fall in love, for many reasons, but above all else because we take ourselves so incredibly seriously. If you fear intimacy and you fear that if you commit someone better will come along, and if you fear that you'll get bored because the only thing that really engages you is work, then how can you fall in love?"

There is a higher way to live, he said, "a higher honor." In the ancient world, the acquisition of celebrity was all about acquiring dignity. Today the acquisition of celebrity or wealth is at the expense of our dignity, Boteach said.

Boteach agreed that both men and women should work outside the home, however. All of us have an external side and an internal side, he said, and both of those are necessary for happiness.

Platinum Standards And Sticking To Them

As the third speaker, Scott W. Ventrella offered his own story to encourage members of the audience to look inside for answers. Ventrella, a Connecticut-based management consultant and president of Positive Dynamics, as well as an adjunct professor at Fordham University's Graduate School of Business, said he made a deliberate decision to spend more time with his family and less time on the road. It was not an easy choice, he said. He enjoyed the work and travel, but he realized that he was losing out with his family, particularly after his father became seriously ill.

Discussions about work-life balance need to be addressed as a matter of course in business schools, and even at the kindergarten-though-twelfth-grade levels. Ventrella suggested that people choose their paths based on what he called a "platinum standard"—values and goals that endure.

"Some values change," he said. "The things I valued at twenty are not what I value at forty. [But] there are some things that are not negotiable. We ought to know what they are, and be willing not to compromise."

Wrapping up the session, moderator Robin Ely, a professor of organizational behavior at HBS, suggested that people focus in their lives on what it is that they want to create, and not necessarily on what it is that they want to acquire. Work-family balance issues are often viewed as tradeoffs implying deprivation or loss. Women struggle just as men do, she said, in figuring out what they want to create and what their platinum standards are.

"We have as much of a struggle, in fact, as men do. We are really in this together, even though the manifestations of these issues may be quite different. On a fundamental level, we really share quite a bit."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.