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Eight Steps to a Better Work-Life Balance for Women

10/17/2013 07:53 EDT | Updated 12/17/2013 05:12 EST

"Don't think about making women fit the world -- think about making the world fit women."

― Gloria Steinem, Feb. 1, 2010, Yale University

When I was growing up, stay-at-home moms were the norm. However, my mother had the foresight that things would change and placed a significant emphasis on my education. In doing so, her goal was to help me find a secure job with great benefits and plenty of time off, like many of the teachers she knew. As a mother of two young children, it is only now that I truly understand that what she wanted was to steer me towards a career that would allow me to comfortably balance my work and home lives once I had children.

In just a few short decades, the workplace has radically changed. Today, women constitute nearly half of the workforce. There have never been so many women in leadership positions around the world. And there has never been so much talk about being a woman in business. In fact, there has never been a better time in history to be a woman.

Yet, many working women must still think about their other reality -- managing their family's life at home, And whether we like it or not, most women still manage the bulk of the work associated with raising kids and managing a home. So whether they're working, caring for aging or sick loved ones, or furthering their education while they work, establishing the appropriate work/life balance has become a significant challenge and a reality for most women across the country and around the globe.

A recent LinkedIn survey entitled "What Women Want @ Work" revealed that women are more motivated by finding the right balance between personal and work life than they are by a high salary. Sixty-five per cent indicated that a flexible working arrangement would better allow them to manage career and family. A 2013 Pew Research Centre poll on modern parenthood found that half of mothers would prefer to work part-time and 11 per cent would prefer not to work. The higher the socio-economic status, the more likely the woman did not want to work full-time: one-quarter (25 per cent) of women with annual family incomes of $50,000 or higher selected full-time work as their ideal, compared to 75 per cent of fathers.

As a result, it's not surprising that many employees are starting to embrace the philosophy that work is something you do, not somewhere you go. These employees see the increase in flexible work environments and virtual teams as a welcome alternative to the traditional one, and they're losing interest in demanding jobs that require long hours, extensive face time and travel.

Employers are recognizing this too, and are realizing the importance of meeting employees' lifestyle demands. After all, attracting and retaining top talent is a critical factor in determining a company's success, and employers know that flexible work arrangements make them more attractive to a wider range of professionals. These options may not work for every employer or in every industry, but they indicate the early stages of an exciting and significant workplace trend. This is a modern workplace issue, and it's a good place to start discussing ways to "make the world fit women," as Gloria Steinem said in 2010 at a Yale University speech on the history of gender relations and equal rights.

As I was launching my Toronto-based public relations agency in 2008, many senior women were walking away from their careers (and in many cases high salaries) at large public relations agencies because their employers were unwilling or unable to provide them with the flexibility they needed to balance their work and family lives. I knew I would not be able to retain valuable talent if I adopted this same billable-hour model that required practitioners to spend long hours in the office every day often working more than 50-60 hours a week. I also knew I needed to create a new and flexible work arrangement to accommodate my lifestyle (I was about to have my first child) and the senior level practitioners I wanted to hire who required more choice in terms of how, when, and where they worked. This is why I created Broad Reach as a virtual PR agency. And my associates and I have never looked back.

Although finding a truly flexible work arrangement can take time, and will work best in certain jobs and industries, these important steps are a good place to start:

#1. Define your version of work/life balance: If you're a student or just starting your career, think about where you plan to be in five or 10 years. Will you focus exclusively on your career, or do you plan to have a family at some point? If you're in a relationship, talk to your partner about how you want to define your lives together. Do you plan to have kids? Do you have an aging parent who will soon need care? Does one of you plan to go back to school to further your career? How will you manage those demands on your time if you both work full-time, particularly if you both have challenging careers? If you're married, many of the same questions will apply. Will one of you focus on your career while the other focuses on family demands? Or will you both continue to work and share the workload at home? You may find that you and your partner have drastically different answers to these types of questions -- or you might be on exactly the same page. But you won't know until you have this important conversation.

#2. Find a mentor who can help: Research shows that women who have strong mentors advance more quickly in their careers and report high levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction. Mentors can provide importance guidance on what has (and hasn't) worked for them over the course of their careers. They can introduce you to other influential women in your industry. And they can act as a valuable sounding board when you need someone to discuss your ideas and aspirations with.

#3. Talk to your current employer: If you're already working at a job you love, but you feel challenged by the lack of work/life balance, speak to your manager or human resources. Flexible work arrangements often aren't communicated well by employers, but if you dig into your workplace policies, you may find that options do exist. And you'd be surprised at how willing companies are to be flexible when they want to retain talented employees. Be prepared with a few solutions, including a commitment to maintaining the same quality of work and achieving the same results. Propose a three-month trial period that will give you both the option to revoke the agreement if it isn't working.

#4. Do your research: An Internet search will uncover extensive content about women and work/life balance, as well as information on fields, industries and companies that offer flexible work arrangements. You'll also find telling research on careers that place the highest time demands on employees and are now seeing women leave in droves. The legal profession comes to mind: instead of moving toward partnerships, women are leaving law firms to become in-house counsel at corporations or government agencies, non-profits or educational institutions, where the focus typically isn't on face time or billable hours. As a result, women account for less than 20 per cent of partners in North American law firms.

#5. Build and leverage your network: Use LinkedIn to your advantage to connect with women in a field or at a company that you're aspiring to join. Traditionally, men have advanced in their careers by building strong networks and leveraging the relationships they've built. There's some truth to the expression, "It's not just what you know, but who you know." Women could advance more quickly in their careers by doing the same, so start honing, building and nurturing a strong network today.

#6. Request informational interviews: Arrange informational interviews with employers at companies you're interested in. Ask questions about flexible work arrangements and try to uncover the realities of the demands at work. If they don't already have flexible work arrangements, find out why. If they do, find out how successful they've been. This is a good way to get a handle on what's happening in your industry and to compare one employer with another.

#7. Don't settle if you don't succeed at first: Once you find an arrangement you think will work for you, try it out. If it doesn't work as well as you had hoped, make some changes and try again. For example, you may enter into a traditional "flex time" arrangement with your employer, and find it far less flexible than you had hoped. The traditional approach to flex time often means working four out of five days at a reduced annual salary, and it sometimes means cramming five days' worth of work in four. If there are red flags, trust your intuition and look elsewhere for opportunities that might offer more flexibility. Remember, the ultimate goal is to have an enjoyable career, bring financial prosperity to your family, and enjoy the ride with your loved ones along the way.

#8. Once you make it, lend a helping hand to others: The traditional workforce is slowly being redefined by social change, with the help of advocates who are already enjoying the benefits of truly flexible work arrangements. If you've achieved balance, support your friends and colleagues who are seeking the same. Become someone's mentor, so they can learn from your successes and from what didn't work along the way. Spend time shaping your children's - especially your daughters' - beliefs about what it means to "create their all." Teach them what to ask for and how to ask for it, and make sure they know they have the power to drive this kind of social change.

In 2011, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and founder of Leanin.org, was profiled by The New Yorker, and famously said, "The No. 1 impediment of women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home." That's fine for those who want to place a significant emphasis on their careers. But many women believe that work isn't everything. For them, it's important to invest time and energy into both work and family. Don't allow yourself to be judged by someone else's definition of success. Be honest with yourself and define success on your own terms. And remember that success is all about the journey, which is defined by the quality of your life along the way.

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