“Having It All” Is Not a Women’s Issue

The resonance of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article is testimony to how far we’ve come since 1987, when I began talking about work and family in my Wharton School classes. Back then, many students — men and women — flat-out resented it. “We’re here to learn about business, not family,” they said. And when I started the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project a few years later, I got some strange looks, for it was odd to be a man talking about work and family at a business school known mainly for its strength in finance. “Why,” some of my colleagues wondered, “are you focusing on this women’s issue?”

But this is not a women’s issue; our increasingly shared understanding is that this a critical social issue with great economic consequences.

And if we’re going to address it, everyone needs to have an informed point of view. This holds true whether you’re just waking up to this issue because you’re a 60-year-old male CEO whose daughter is confronting severe constraints in her ability to figure out how she’s going to fit your grandchildren into her life plan, or whether you’re a 25-year-old with no children who’s managing a 45-year-old struggling to take care of aging parents.

There are a bunch of us — mostly women, but a few men too — who’ve been tilling these fields for decades, and so there’s not much new in Slaughter’s arguments and substantive recommendations. What’s significant is the article’s symbolic value and how it addresses current intergenerational differences in attitudes and experiences. Twenty years ago the Work/Life Integration Project launched a research program, one output of which was the book I wrote in 2000 with Jeff Greenhaus,Work and Family — Allies or Enemies? We detailed an action agenda — echoed now in Slaughter’s recommendations — including the need for:

  • reshaping the division of labor at home
  • changing society’s gender ideology through education and socialization
  • helping young people choose careers that fit their values
  • teaching employees how to generate support from others
  • investing in what employees do outside of work
  • creating work environments that value employees as whole people
  • training managers to take a new look at work processes
  • demonstrating the economic value of investing in family-friendliness
  • authorizing employees to think and act like entrepreneurs
  • expanding childcare options, including through public-private partnerships.

Out of this evolved three simple principles that form the foundation for best practices, for individuals, teams, organizations, and society:

  • act with authenticity by clarifying what’s important
  • act with integrity by respecting the whole person
  • act with creativity by continually experimenting with how goals are achieved.

When I was head of leadership development for Ford Motor Company (from 1999 to 2001), we successfully implemented a program, called Total Leadership, that built on these basic principles. Its series of exercises culminates in the implementation of practical experiments designed to produce “four-way wins” — improved performance at work, at home, in the community, and for the private self.

To make it easier for men to buy in, I don’t use the term “work/life.” My teaching focuses instead on “performance,” “results,” and “leadership.” This has been an effective strategy; this language makes it easier for organizations to gain acceptance for using the Total Leadership approach to help men and women, at all career stages and at all levels, learn what they can do personally to create meaningful, sustainable change.

In the US Army, Target, UnitedHealth, and other organizations, we have found that when given the chance, people are eager to take up the challenging task of experimenting with new ways to fit together the pieces of their lives. And they’re able to muster the courage and support to do so because they believe that the purpose of their initiatives is to make things better not just for themselves, not just for their families and communities, but for their organizations, too.

They discover through trial and error that work and life don’t always have to be a zero-sum game. They feel a greater sense of control and less stress. And their performance at work improves even as they devote less time and attention to it and more to the other aspects of their lives. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s what we observe time and again: when people focus more of their attention on the things that matter they are more efficient, engaged, and productive. Naturally, they feel greater loyalty and commitment to their organizations as a result. And, because they are consciously practicing and getting feedback on their leadership skills, those improve, too.

Bottom line: We have evidence now, from years of working with organizations around the world, on how this model produces measurable improvements in business results and enhances important personal life outcomes. And this isn’t the only proven approach.

We already know what works. The challenge is not figuring it out, again. The challenge is execution. And yet cultural change is a slog. I encounter nearly universal skepticism about the prospects for what most people call “balance,” a term that is retrogressive because it compels you to think in terms of tradeoffs. But work and life are not different sides of a see-saw. We need both. It would help if we got rid of that slash between “work” and “life” and, instead, gave more attention to the mounting body of evidence that demonstrates how it is possible to have more of it all — not all of it, but more of it — than most people currently think they can have, by practicing leadership in all parts of their lives; taking realistic steps forward, rooted in what matters most to them and to their most important people, and enlisting the support of others.

The time has come. Just about everyone I meet — men as well as women — expresses a desire for a saner life, for themselves and for their love

One Response to ““Having It All” Is Not a Women’s Issue”

  1. You introduce two breakthroughs that open the door for execution. First, moving the discussion from “women” to “leadership” involves and includes a broader set of minds, talents and ambitions. Second, by demonstrating work performance actually improves through application of your integrated program, you make it possible for organizations to embrace it as a win, not a compromise – that’s a game changer. The benefits transcend the individual level. All three of your best practices depend on the very qualities required for innovation and sustained economic competitiveness: authenticity, integrity and creativity.

    It will require a shift for leaders to truly encourage, reward and apply those traits to communications and values both up and down the organization, and across all demographics, but the incentive is clear. This is an empowering way to capitalize on the potential of the modern workplace.