Reunion Weekend Alumnae/i Panel Tackles the High-Wire Act of Work-Life Balance 3

If the reunion weekend panel discussion of new challenges facing today’s workforce was any indication, the Concord Academy community is as thoughtful and engaged as ever in considering from many perspectives how we live today, and how we might do so better. In the high-wire act of balancing career and family, we still have a lot to figure out.

Panelist Mike Rodman '91When Mike Rodman ’91, assistant dean for communications and marketing at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and also father to two young girls, became dismayed by how little he saw dads represented caring for their kids, he conducted a private experiment. Strolling the aisles of Babies R Us with his smartphone, he took snapshots of every product whose packaging featured a caregiver. Distressingly, the results confirmed his initial impression: Only three out of hundreds showed a man taking care of a child. “We’ve defined motherhood as caring for children, but not fatherhood,” Rodman said during the discussion on June 4.

Parental expectations still fall squarely on women who work, and that’s one reason why so few men take paternity leave; those who do may feel they’re putting their careers at risk. “I feel strongly that if we want equal partnership in parenting, parental leave should be equal,” said Sarah Green Carmichael ’00, senior editor at Harvard Business Review, who moderated the panel. “It would break that stigma — and the expectation of an ideal worker supported by someone who manages everything else.”

Diana Erdmann-Sager Lovett ’96, founder of Cissé Cocoa Company, a small business that combines her dedication to social responsibility with her love of chocolate, voiced a note of caution. She admitted that, as the head of a three-woman operation, she was sorely challenged when one of her employees took a 12-week maternity leave. She wasn’t able to give herself the same benefit when she started her company around the time she had her own children. Despite how supportive individuals may want to be — and Lovett was — the pressure parental leave puts on small businesses is a major obstacle.

Even in government, there’s no official parental leave policy, added Claudia Burke ’91, assistant director at the Department of Justice. Unofficially, many women take up to six months off, and it’s a sector in which women are disproportionately waiting until their mid-30s to start families. “If men got parental leave too, it would remove the stigma” that attaches to women, Burke said, “but it wouldn’t alleviate the work problem.”

With a suggestion that a policy prescription — a government model providing compensation — could ensure that the burden falls neither on individuals nor on businesses, the conversation turned to other systemic issues. Norms have shifted in many respects. The average American takes one week less of vacation than previously. At the same time, expectations at home, for both sexes, have only increased. Technology has driven assumptions of round-the-clock availability. And worsening college debt, wage stagnation, and trends toward fewer friendships have all contributed to fewer resources for help. It’s leaving many families and even mid-career professionals feeling strapped.

Reunion Weekend Alumnae/i Panel Tackles the High-Wire Act of Work-Life Balance 2

When the first wave of women swept through universities to take on careers, is this where they expected us to end up? Elizabeth Ballantine ’66, president of the consulting firm EBA Associates and a director on several corporate boards, was in the inaugural class at Yale that admitted women. “I had an aha moment,” she said. “I was used to working hard, but I learned to back off, to do things OK, to be good enough. Women can be their harshest self-critics.” She and the professional women of her generation had to reinvent themselves any number of times, to find and to be mentors, and to be open to different types of jobs at different points in their lives. “Slowly women are working into board roles, serving on Fortune 500 companies, where there’s a big push to attract them now,” she said. “We can’t get there through quotas, though. There’s a wonderful time in a career when children are launched, when one can reinvent oneself. I want to encourage women to be aware of that opportunity.”

Elizabeth Ballantine '66 with moderator Sarah Green Carmichael '00Of course, women delaying children to first establish careers will find themselves at that stage much later in life. But careers are long, and unpredictable, as panelists and audience members alike considered. Perhaps we could take more seriously a variety of different trajectories. Alumnae/i in the audience eagerly added their perspectives. One living abroad suggested that many of the pressures discusses are culturally specific to the United States: In Austria, no one works nights or weekends, and productivity is very high. Another, a pediatrician here in the U.S., reported taking only four weeks of leave after having her own children, out of concern for how she would be perceived at work. In her professional capacity, she sees women opting out of resources that might help them, because conceding that they’re not handling everything well feels shameful.

On an individual level, panelists offered recommendations for how we can ease some of the pressure. As a small business owner, Lovett works long hours, but she’s careful to schedule emails for Monday mornings, so she doesn’t establish expectations that her employees check in on weekends. Dividing work at home has allowed her to run her business. “Build in buffers,” she advised. “And if the kids are happy, let go of perfection.” For Burke, however, splitting home responsibilities 50-50 isn’t very efficient, as it necessitates constant coordination. She remains pulled between work and home. “But I do all of my shopping online!” she said. Neither Ballantine nor her husband wanted to do domestic work, so they figured out how to earn more to afford a housekeeper and other help. Her advice: Outsource. On his part, as a boss, Rodman doesn’t care about the hours his staff works, only about the work that they accomplish. He can’t make that a straightforward policy, because it’s not Harvard’s, but he tries to set that norm for his direct reports. At home, he prioritizes spending on experiences with his family over services. “But if something can be automated,” he said, “let it be. You’re not always as essential as you think you are.”

Wrapping up the discussion, Carmichael suggested small rebellions, such as setting out-of-office emails that confess to being unreachable on vacation, as a way of signaling the value we actually do place on down time. “When you do what you love, though,” she said, “it’s hard to set boundaries.”

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