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Breaking the bias and redefining having it all

We need to discover our own approach to work life effectiveness, says Ilma Nur Chowdhury.

The first time I contemplated the phrase 'having it all' was when I heard former Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi commenting on the work life balance debate. She candidly admitted that it remains difficult for her to manage her personal and professional demands, and having it all is just an illusion that comes with painful sacrifices and trade-offs and "you just die with guilt".

Indra's experiences are reflected in research where it is found that parents are often ashamed of how they are managing the impossible balancing act between career and family.

People living with children younger than 15 have up to 14 hours per week less free time than those living alone, according to 2018 UK statistics. I focus on working women with families here, but in no way do I intend to minimize the struggles of working fathers or stay-at-home mothers and fathers.

Feelings of guilt

Shifting daily from the role of being a present mother to heading a professional team in the blink of an eye is no easy feat and feelings of inadequacy can build up along the way. Indeed, recent research suggests these feelings of guilt can negatively impact careers.

Parents who report feelings of shame also tend to be less productive in the workplace because when they feel bad about their parenting, they withdraw from the activity that they feel is the cause, also contributing less towards new initiatives.

There are of course increasing expectations for both productivity and performance, and commitment and responsibility as a parent. Society and the media continue to showcase Supermums who 'do it all' and Wonder Women who 'have it all', presenting these as goals to strive for. But as Indra puts it, "we pretend we can have it all".

Work life balance - an equal division between work and life - is arguably fiction, much like the idea of Superwoman. Catalyst, a research organisation focusing on professional women, recommends using the phrase 'work life effectiveness' and striving for a situation where work fits with the other aspects of one's life. In essence, there may never be a 50:50 balance, but rather a continual shifting of priorities as needed to fit one's requirements.

Stop the sugar-coating

It is time to stop sugar-coating the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by professional women because it normalises the inadequate support offered by governments, employers and communities, and instead places the responsibility back on women.

My research on vulnerability and transformative service design indicates that vulnerability is not an individual trait or a permanent condition. People can adopt coping mechanisms to address their vulnerabilities when given access to the right kinds of resources at the appropriate touchpoints.

Therefore, governments need to create clearer and more inclusive policies to assist professional women, and employers need to further modify job structures and environments where women can work flexibly and enhance their wellbeing.

Perhaps we can have it only 'sometimes', or 'sort of', and the imperfection - the choices, the juggling, the messiness - is an inevitable aspect of life. But I believe what is important is that we define our wins on our own terms and discover our own approach to work life effectiveness.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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