When we hear about the “work-life balance” problem, we don’t think about a group of men sitting in a circle brainstorming ways they can succeed at work while having fulfilling personal relationships. Yet, the issue has been explored, rejected, re-framed and revived time and again in the context of women’s career choices. Granted, there are known obstacles to women achieving gender equality across professions. But do we also contribute to our own problem by not knowing how and when to stand our ground?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with highly effective partners, both male and female; I’ve also drawn the short end of the stick on more than one occasion and have been thrown under the bus by both male and female superiors. But I’ve observed a key difference between male and female leadership styles. The male partners and senior associates I’ve worked with command respect from more junior colleagues by standing their ground. They have no qualms about giving associates a project due by 9 am the next day at 10 pm. They leave the office at 7 pm to make a dinner appointment while their associates work on turning around an urgent assignment. They announce that they have family plans on Saturday afternoon and will need to review your draft by no later than 10 am.
The women, on the other hand, have had to earn respect by going out of their way to show how smart, dedicated and hardworking they are. In other words, whereas males come as they are, females strive to prove themselves to those above and below them, and often, to their peers. Thus, female partners roll up their sleeves and pull all-nighters with their associates. They apologize for emergency projects and ask if their associates have time to help them. They don’t think twice about canceling dinner plans and insist that they would not be where they are if it were not for their willingness to make sacrifices. They work through family vacations, marking up briefs in an amusement park, all for the sake of being able to say that they can do it all (and making the client happy, of course).
Whose expectations are women trying to meet when they bend over backwards at the expense of their personal lives? Have males in the profession held women to a higher standard? Or, could it be, that women have created this impossible standard for themselves?
I was one of those junior associates that jumped every time my Blackberry lit up. I’ve left the table at Sunday brunch with my family to get on a conference call in the car. I’ve cancelled countless dinners and trips for work. I’ve missed many birthdays, bridal showers and weddings. I even volunteered to work the day of my own bridal shower. Why? Because that’s the example I’ve seen from my female mentors.
And maybe that’s really what it took for them to get to where they are. But I wonder, what would happen if they, like their male counterparts, just stood their ground? What if they just handed out an assignment and said that they need to leave the office to have dinner with their husbands and will review when they get home? What if they simply stated that they have a spa appointment on Saturday that they don’t want to miss? What if, instead of waiting at their desks for a draft that was coming at 4 am, they went home and reviewed from bed? Would we think less of their abilities as attorneys? Would we respect them less as leaders?
More importantly, what would our views say about us?
Do we excuse and accept male behaviors in the workplace too easily? When a male senior associate declares that he cannot work all weekend because his wife is out of town, we laugh it off as typical helpless male behavior. We suck it up and cover for him. But if a female senior associate were to say the same thing (and she would not), we would take her less seriously, wouldn’t we? We would assume that she is not as committed to her career as the rest of us. Or is that just her irrational fear?
I, too, readily accepted this double standard until a recent interaction with a male junior on my case. One Friday afternoon, I called him to announce that we had an emergency project and that he needed to get me a draft by that night so I could revise and meet our Saturday afternoon deadline. “I’m on my way to catch a train to Philly,” he replied. “I can work on it on the train, but might not get it to you until tomorrow morning. I also cannot work on it after noon tomorrow because I am visiting friends.” And that was that.
He got me a draft that was polished and needed little editing by the following morning as promised. Did I think he was less competent? No. Did I think he was lazy? No, he just had commitments. Did I lose respect for him? No–in fact, I respected him more after this episode.
So, many years and countless missed dinners, birthdays, weddings and vacations later, I, too, decided to stand my ground. I say no to assignments when I don’t have time. I announce (not ask for permission) when I can’t work late nights or weekends. I leave the office early when I really have nothing to do. I don’t know if this takes me off the track toward achieving great heights in my career, but this is my way of breaking barriers (and keeping myself sane).