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Work-life balance for women leaders: Why is it different?


It is easy to get cynical and ask does work-life balance exist for working women? Why is work life balance for working women very different? Let’s unpack.

In this article we explored What the heck is Work-Life balance? Is it even Important? This is a perspective for everyone, not just women leaders. 

However work-life balance is particularly important for women as research shows that

  1. women value the quality of their work-life far more than monetary and positional perks in their job. (This does not mean men do not value quality of life. This also does not mean that ALL women value quality of life equally!)
  2. Women have more challenges than men for managing their work-life balance.

So how is work-life balance different for men and women leaders?

The one word answer is – Patriarchy. 

The two word answer is – Patriarchy and Capitalism. 

First, let’s get men out of the way

Work-Life balance for women leaders can be a sensitive topic because patriarchy expects women to be only in certain ways. Men do not have (as many) restrictions. (Gendered Stereotypes!) (Do you think this does not happen with you? Take this test to see how Gender biased you are?!)

Patriarchy hurts both man and woman. Albeit very differently. If you are a man, you are expected to earn more, be strong by suppressing emotions, protect your family, be competitive etc. 

Men also have challenges with their wellbeing however they are in the realm of family-life. Men find it more difficult to be vulnerable and share their feelings. More men suffer from loneliness, depression and suicide than women.  

(Read more : How Patriarchy Impacts Men’s Well-Being  here) However, unfortunately at work, capitalism rewards masculine ways more than the feminine ways. So men are at advantage and privilege

Career women are significantly more burned out

young working mother cuddling baby and using laptop at home

Coming back to the topic, if you are a woman, based on your culture, you are expected to cook, reproduce, take care of kids and elderly, dress in a specific way, not speak up in front of elders, sacrifice your needs for others etc. etc. 

If women want to work they are required to do it all. They are expected to not abandon their ‘family duties’. Source : The state of burnout for women in the workplace

Thus, career women are significantly more burned out—and increasingly more so than men. No, this is not a gross generalization. This is what multiple survey results, anecdotes and search engine patterns reveal. 

But Why?

No Generic Challenges

No two women leaders will have exactly the same challenges. Each woman is also an individual. We need to see the individuality and the larger systemic patterns both simultaneously. 

The nuanced nature of these challenges will also depend on many other factors like – your relationship status (single woman, married woman etc. ), if you are a mother or a care-giver to elders, your age group, education level, social class, type of job, policies of company and so many other factors. 

However the broader themes are the same. Surprisingly, the underlying needs are exactly the same. 

Let’s unpack 

Ambitious women leaders fight three broad devils in their quest for work-life balance

  1. Biases and Double binds from patriarchal conditioning 
  2. Lack of support from husband (and other interpersonal relationships)
  3. Discouraged to develop certain individual skills

These challenges are unique only to women. Men do not face them as the tide is in their favor.

Let’s dive deep in each one of them

A) Biases and Double binds from patriarchal conditioning

boy and girl cutout decals

Patriarchy is like the invisible air surrounding us. The water in which the fish swims. Fish do not notice the water. It just takes it for granted. Patriarchy is that water in which most societies are currently swimming. 

(It was largely unquestioned before the women’s movement. It still remains unquestioned for most of the folks. Read more arguments : Do you doubt that patriarchy does not exist and it is just a fad? )

How does this manifest at work? Biases and Double Binds

It is expected for a man to be strong, to be assertive, to be caring. It is expected for a woman to be caring and nurturing, to be soft and polite etc. Thus we stereotype these expectations. When women do not behave in these expected manner, we develop bias and double binds towards them. 

How do these biases and double binds manifest? Most of the time they are so deep that they manifest in unconscious decision making, microaggressions, double binds, hate speech and even violence. As a woman leader you have to navigate this minefield at work-environment. (Read in detail : Biases and double binds women face at work)   

Briefly, biases like women are most likely to be evaluated based on their past performance and contributions, while men are most likely to be evaluated based on their potential—a vague criteria that can result in a less qualified man getting the job.

What women say is often heard differently, or not at all—a phenomenon popularly known as “speaking while female.” and mansplaining, The way women define success is also different from popular (men) culture. These are all patriarchal conditioning. 

Double binds are : stereotyping can also play a role in shaping the feedback women receive, leading to various “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenarios. You speak too much or not enough. You are too aggressive or you fail to assert yourself. You smile all the time or you’re always frowning.

Men are privileged (both in terms of number as well as power) in this situation at work. So this problem is unique to women.

(What is the genesis of patriarchy? Why is it still so pervasive? There is not a single theory on which multiple sociologists agree. However the fact remains that as a society we value competition more than collaboration, aggression more than compassion. Masculine is valued more than feminine. (Find the difference between masculine and feminine here) )

Impact on work-life balance : Women leaders have to stretch and bend to fit into the male centered organizations. Definitely this will take a toll on their spirit.

B) Lack of support from husband (and other interpersonal relationships)

an elderly man and woman doing yoga

Yes, it takes a woman to carry a baby however it does not take a woman to change diapers! Thus women end up carrying more responsibilities. 

The role of women has drastically changed, the society is also changing however the role of men has largely remained the same. 

Men want their spouses to earn and support in having a good lifestyle however they don’t want to support as much in caregiving and household activities. A lot of work that women do is not accounted for in GDP. It is called Unpaid Labor : Read more: Redistribute unpaid work

Many women make it difficult for themselves to get support because patriarchy is deep inside them as well. It is not just men who are to blame for patriarchy!

Let’s see how

  1. Women do not learn to manage finance – Just as men do not learn caregiving. Many earning women are comfortable not taking this responsibility. They are happy being dependent on their spouses. This dependency creates a power imbalance in decision making and women end up making sacrifices. (5 steps women can take to get over fear of managing money)
  1. Anecdotal evidence suggests women want to be in a relationship with men who are taller, better educated, higher earning, more powerful than they are. As opposed to men who are equal, kinder and supportive. (Maybe this is biological and psychological at some level and can be understood. There are growing signs that this is changing in many societies now). 
  1. While in the relationship women do not discuss WHY work is also their priority. They don’t negotiate how they would continue to work together after being in relationships etc. They think (because they are taught) their work is just a ‘side income’ or ‘side gig’. The main breadwinner has to be the men! (Well, If you do not take yourself seriously, why would others take your work/income seriously? And then how can you expect them to support you?)
  1. On the other hand many ambitious women leaders do not make any relationship choice at all – In the words of one senior manager, the typical high-achieving woman childless at midlife has not made a choice but a “creeping non choice” to scrape by life. Source: Executive women and the myth of having it all

Unfortunately men are not faced with these choices. Power imbalance is in their favor. They find it easy to be with women who are less ambitious. According to the same source above, 83% of men leaders are married as opposed to 60  % of female leaders.

  1. Women elders (read mothers) are not willing to support the younger women (daughters and daughter in laws) in their quest for independence. (See how women propagates patriarchy)

There are endless cases where a mother-in-law also encourages her son’s violence towards his wife. Or a mother advising her daughter to “tolerate” rather than to speak up or negotiate for her work-life. 

“My mother said a home is more important. Her mother taught her that home is more important,”. From women, or more specifically, mothers. It seems that this culture of suffering in silence is being handed down through generations, only to keep things in order and easy to keep propagating patriarchy. From somewhere floats in the wise voice of Dr. Jung: “Still suffering silently?” 

  1. Women regularly fight shame in their work relationships (especially from other women). A man who works hard for a living and centers his life around his career while neglecting his family is considered a hero. A woman who works late hours and leaves her children with a babysitter for a night or two must face questions (even from colleagues) regarding her irresponsibility towards her family

Impact on work-life balance for women leaders: The unequal load of physical work and emotional labor that women employees often carry in their interpersonal relationships makes it impossible for them to have anything left for themselves. Many ambitious women leaders live a life of sacrifices filled with resentment or loneliness far from a healthy work-family balance. 

(Read : How to get your husband to help around the house

C) Discouraged to develop skills and beliefs valued by capitalism

The upbringing of boys and girls has not changed. They are conditioned to behave in stereotypical ways

Boys are taught to ‘Be strong’ and bottle up their emotions, Aggression is justified in them.  

Growing up, girls are expected to be shy and soft spoken. They are expected to make sacrifices for their family and seek ‘happiness’ in that. Thus they are not taught to be assertive, they are not expected to negotiate. These are skills that are not rewarded by capitalism.  

Everyone has self-limiting behaviors and beliefs for the simple reason that we are all work in progress. But although men and women do share many same undermining habits, there are also many nuances. 

Women often face very different challenges as they seek to advance in their careers and operate on a bigger playing field, so it makes sense that women would adapt their behavior in different ways. And women are often rewarded differently (Read more here)

Women are more self-critical, they hesitate to take credit, they are sometimes trapped in pleasing behaviors etc. 

Some of their limiting beliefs from which their behaviors and skills emerge are 

  1. Ambition is a bad thing (for me as a woman)
  2. I need to keep everyone happy (Disappointing others is a bad thing)
  3. I should always be role model for other women Always thinking of how am I perceived by others (especially other women) 

Impact on work-life balance: Drawing boundaries for their work-life balance is difficult for them. Women find it difficult to say no and ask for raises and promotions.

What is the way forward?

It is worth reiterating that not all women would face all these challenges. Some may face almost all of them and some privileged ones might not face most of them. However our experience is that you will relate to at least a few of the above points. 

Your challenges are going to be personal and individual and thus your solutions also need to be personal and individual. You need to tap into your context and reflect on what is your way out.  

The ‘Transformation’, ‘Self-help’ and ‘Habits’ culture focuses all on changing your behaviors. However, taking ALL the responsibility for change is not responsible. 

It is also important to recognize and focus on what women have to contribute to organizations. Rather than think only how you need to change and adapt, also think how you need to educate and influence others around you. 

To do that you need to first heal yourself. If you are healing yourself, you are looking inwards and working on yourself. When you accept your flaws, you can accept others with their flaws. Thus, you not just change your behavior, you also start influencing others. You educate them about their biases. This is what brings sustainable change. 

Looking for some guidance on what is the way out? Read more 3 solutions for women executives on holistic work-life balance

Looking for someone to accompany you in your reflections and healing for better work-life balance ?      Book your free 60 min call here



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